There are many things to admire about “Dark Streets,” a film noir set against a 1930s backdrop of jazz, blues, and booze. Unfortunately, the story isn’t one of them. It’s your basic “Chinatown”-inspired tale of double crosses and femmes fatales, with dialogue that has the form of the classics but not the content. Take this exchange, for example, between a nightclub owner and the singer who has been displaced in his affections by a new girl:
HIM: You’re a great belter, but we’ve got a real chanteuse now.
HER: She can chanteuse my ass!
Yeah. Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame you ain’t.
But plot and dialogue aside (and sometimes those elements really are secondary), “Dark Streets” effectively creates its world in other ways. Sharone Meir’s sumptuous cinematography and smooth, fluid camera movements bring the nightclub performance scenes to life, while the rest of the film plays with light, shadows, and colors. Director Rachel Samuels, in her third feature, shows a singularity of vision that will serve her well later, when she gets a better script to work with. (This one is by Wallace King, based on a play by Glenn Stewart.)
The nightclub at the center of the story is called the Tower, and it’s owned by Chaz Davenport (Gabriel Mann), the pencil-mustached scion of a wealthy industrialist family. His father, CEO of Consolidated Power Company, recently committed suicide; worse, he left Chaz out of the will. Now Chaz’s uncle Nathaniel (Michael Fairman) runs the company while Chaz tries to stay ahead of the mobsters he owes money to. Adding irony to Chaz’s misfortunes are the frequent blackouts that plunge the city into darkness. You’d think the son of the guy who owned the power company could keep the lights on.
Chaz’s quais-girlfriend is his top singer, Crystal (Bijou Phillips), but she is yesterday’s news the moment he meets Madelaine (Izabella Miko). She’s a friend of a police lieutenant (Elias Koteas) who keeps an eye on Chaz’s place, and he auditions her as a favor.
But Chaz’s life becomes even more complicated when he discovers a note sent by his father to a female acquaintance, intended to be delivered after his death. Digging around, Chaz starts to question the facts surrounding Dad’s death and the dealings of Consolidated Power in general. More than once I was reminded of the Enron affair, albeit with slightly more murder and corruption. I assume those parallels are intentional, making this a modern noir set in the 1930s but with 21st-century applications. Neat!
That doesn’t make it original, though, and the film’s reworking of familiar noir elements seems like exactly that: a reworking. Gabriel Mann, a bit player in several films heretofore, cuts a bland figure as the nightclub-owner-turned-investigator. He never convinces us that he’s anything close to hard-boiled, or even interesting. Bijou Phillips and Izabella Miko, meanwhile, are terrific in the club’s production numbers, just passable in the other scenes — the perfect embodiment of the movie’s superficial successes covering its deeper flaws.
The soundtrack, with a mixture of period numbers and new material by some of today’s blues greats, might be the film’s best feature. Aided by the camerawork and costumes, it sets the mood better than any of the dialogue does. So while I can’t heartily recommend “Dark Streets,” it does have enough going for it to be worth a look if you get a chance.
B- (1 hr., 26 min.; )