Written by Joe Eisinger
Directed by Jules Dassin
United Kingdom, 1950
In the heart of the London night Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) runs wild in the streets and alleyways of this most famous of English cities. Harry, a con artist, owes someone a hefty sum and his only recourse is to plead his lover Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) to lend him some pounds to call off the hounds. Such is the life the protagonist has led for some years now, much to Mary’s consternation and chagrin. What once was a happy companionship has turned more more strenuous. A get rich scheme here, another there but always the same result: Harry gets nowhere fast. His latest attempt to make it big arrives in form of an aging wrestler, Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko) whom he encounters by happenstance at a wrestling event a few nights later. The schemer believes his big shot has come through which he shall take over all wrestling promotions in London. He’ll need the help of a lot of people, such as Phil (Francis L. Sullivan), owner of the Silver Fox Club and the latter’s wife Helen (Googie Withers), who has eyes for Harry. It’s a world in which everybody wants something from somebody. Will Harry finally succumb to the risks involved with his lifestyle?
Made 5 years prior to his seminal picture Rififi, Night and the City sees iconic director and American ex-pat Jules Dassin take his talents and that of some notable American actors overseas to the great city of London, England. Over the years film scholars with a keen interest in noir have begun to identify a subcategory of noir referred to as British noir, with Night and the City being one of the earliest incarnations, notwithstanding the fact that much of the talent that is front and center for the picture is in fact from the United States. In a poignant directorial move, Dassin omits to show off the most commonly recognized landscapes and neighborhoods the metropolis is famous for, save for the briefest of moments as the opening credits roll. This version of London fits all too comfortably into the noir scheme. It is a ruthless town, awash in shadow, streets wet and glistening and, as the title suggests, presented almost entirely under the guise of the night. London is evocative of fear, of mistrust and of tension in ways that were rarely communicated as effectively before and since.
Illustrating the seedy, duplicitous identity this depiction of London seems to sport proudly are the cast of characters who, with the exception of Mary, are either villains themselves or prone to falling into the traps set by said villains as victims of their own selfishness. Even Mary herself does not come across as being a beacon of light for her Achilles is her ludicrous attachment to Harry, a man who has come close to betraying her trust and most certainly betrayed the love they once had. When even the most decent person in a film is handicapped by such a flagrant flaw, it speaks quite ill of the remaining players. The film’s protagonist, Harry Fabian, is an execrable stain on humanity. He is a money sucking, unscrupulous charlatan boasting bustling energy which keeps him hopping from one plan to the plan…or running away from those out to get their money and his neck. That energy is arguably the most important aspect to Widmark’s performance. Some viewers may recall that the actor played the part of anti-hero in Pickup on South Street, his part in Night and the City only reaffirming his frightening ability to play absolute jerks. Harry is always frantically walking and talking, living like a man whose life depends on the next decision he or those around him may take. At any moment Harry just might explode. It is hard to take one’s eyes away from Widmark, exquisitely gifted at bringing scum like Harry to life. The performance is so good that when Harry plays people for the fool it is actually compelling to believe that he may very well be telling the truth.
Googie Withers is nearly up to par with Widmark as Helen Nosseross, a frustrated wife to club owner Phil. She wants nothing more than to leave her bean counting, rotund partner and start off her very own nightclub. The yearning for independence is incredibly strong in her, a cry exteriorized not only through her tumultuous interactions with Phil but the occasional forcefulness with which she convinces Harry to help her obtain a permit to start her dream. The conman needs money and knows that Helen is one of the few who might be able to bail him out at the risk enraging Phil. The desperate wife knows that Harry is one of the few who can (illegally if need be) pull the necessary strings to help her get her hands on a contract. Their tenuous partnership is unfortunately not given enough scenes (both characters spend most of the film apart) but proves rich and engrossing if mostly for how desperation can make for strange bedfellows.
Most crucial to the entire story is how so many of the characters, be they leading or supporting, have a bad bone in them. In some cases the weakness is pride, such as with Gregorius and his up and coming wrestler son who agree to partner with Harry for the sake of preserving and showcasing what they perceive as true wrestling, unlike the antics advertised by their nemesis The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). In other cases, as with Harry and Phil, actions are taken strictly for selfish or downright vile means. One of the main criticisms against the film when it opened in 1950 was that there really isn’t a single character deserving of the viewer’s empathy. There is no one with whom an audience member can comfortably align him or herself with, unless they have some serious issues to work out. This is very true and ends up being one of the more morbidly fascinating aspects of Dassin’s picture. One character convinces another to perform action X, action X is executed which puts said character in hot water rather than the individual who persuaded them to do thy bidding. It becomes a game of scheme and counter scheme, culminating in a terribly brutal ending, even by film noir standards.
Night and the City’s qualities extend beyond story and acting however. Although London looks more foreign than its usual self, there is no mistaking the sharp, moody cinematography that envelops each and every doomed pawn. There are some decidedly adventurous camera tricks, at least by 1950 standards, vaunting indicate the impressive skill set director Dassin and cinematographer Max Greene possess. A chase in a construction site involving Harry and two hoodlums tasked with liquidating him features some curious Dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting that brilliantly imbue the sequence with palpable tension. Oddly enough, the American and British versions of the film feature entirely different scores. The one viewed for the purposes of the present column is the American one, equipped with a pulse pounding, luscious score from renowned composer Franz Waxman. The music finds a unorthodox balance between the of big band-esque jazz and horror tinged strings depending on the emotions driving a given scene. Waxman was one of the great musical artists involved in movies throughout his career and his work on the American version of Night and the City is as inventive as it is awe inspiring.
If it wasn’t obvious enough already for the reader, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is a stunning example of film noir done right. It is possessed by a nasty bite that drives most of the action and is quite often absolutely ruthless in its execution. Here is a film that pulls no punches, that features too much bleakness for their to be any light to find for refuge.