There’s sort of an amorphous definition for what constitutes Film Noir, the cinematic movement spanning, really, a little under 20 years that was mostly unnamed at the time. They were usually B-pictures, generally about the post-WWII malaise happening in America and elsewhere—predominantly about morally bankrupt or highly flawed people, and almost always shaped by the Hays Code which prohibited too much violence, sex, or bad people getting away with it. Because of all these factors, most Noir following the war had a sense of doom: that tragedy was going to consumed just about everyone. Of all of these kinds of stories, none is as doom-laden as Jules Dassin’s 1950 thriller, Night and the City.
American director Dassin had made ten films prior to Night and the City, including the other brilliant films noir, Brute Force and The Naked City. But thanks to the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his absurd and unconstitutional witch-hunt for Pinkos in Hollywood, Dassin was blacklisted and unable to work in this country. However, he still owed Fox’s Darryl Zanuck one more picture, so Dassin absconded to London to make what arguably the most American noir of the bunch. Based on Gerald Kersh’s novel, Night and the City is all about a man out of place and without any options, running for his life after making exponentially worse decisions before his inevitable demise. Dassin is all over each and every frame of this movie.
The film follows small-time grifter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), an American working the streets of London’s seedier districts. While trying to get his own plans off the ground, he makes a “living” as a tout for the Silver Fox club, run by the fat and super rich Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) and his greedy, Lady MacBeth-type wife Helen (Googie Withers). Harry’s only friend, it seems, is Mary (Gene Tierney), another American who works as one of Nosseross’ girls, getting wealthy travelers drunk with the insinuation of a “good time” but they just eventually pass out, having spent all their money. Harry’s always thinking he’s got the next sure thing on the horizon, but we meet him having attempted to steal money from Mary’s purse following a chase through the streets.
Owing lots of money and without a benefactor in sight, Harry sneaks into a wrestling match promoted by Kristo (Herbert Lom), the loan shark and fight promoter who is not a man to piss off. While the antics featuring top wrestler The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) are pleasing most of the crowd, a proud-looking bald behemoth of a man gets up and begins to storm out in disgust. Harry quickly learns the man is Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), Kristo’s father and a champion Greco-Roman wrestler. Gregorius has nothing but contempt for this kind of ridiculous showboating masquerading as his carefully-studied craft. Harry sees his chance. Through a fine bit of phony outrage, Harry convinces Gregorius that he’s a fan of Greco-Roman wrestling of the first order and, with the aging champion’s help, he could bring back the great sport in a big way (or to him, $$$$$$$).
Now all Harry needs is 400 pounds to open a gym of his own and he’s on easy street. He goes to plead with Nosseross about it, but the man simply laughs in his face. Helen has her husband agree that if Harry can come up with half of it, Nosseross will cover the other. This is fine, but Harry still doesn’t have the money…until later when Helen gives it to him, having stolen it from her husband. Now he’s in business! Kristo is none too pleased about Harry promoting wrestling in London and tells him to go to Montreal (or else) but Gregorius’ presence ensures safety for Harry. But nothing good lasts forever, or even very long, and disaster strikes after Harry tries to goad The Strangler into a match with Gregorius’ protege that leads to Harry on the run with a thousand-pound bounty on his head.
This is by far one of the twistiest crime stories I’ve ever seen. Dassin does an amazing job of ratcheting up the tension in every scene as we oddly hope Harry—this horrible, duplicitous ma—makes things happen. He’s nothing but awful the whole movie, yet he’s such a pitiable figure that you almost start to sympathize, even as he’s causing grievous harm to just about everyone around him. There’s a frantic runaway train quality to the action and you feel like at any moment, Harry could just go careening into the side of a cliff.
This is by far one of Richard Widmark’s best performances. He’s a live wire from start to finish. We never see Harry Fabian rest, not even once, as he’s trying to make his dreams of being a big shot a reality. Widmark revels in Harry’s few successes, coils like a spring when his future’s in doubt, and despairs grandly when defeated. He’s a character who is always on the move to the point that Widmark can’t even sit still onscreen. Unlike a lot of noir protagonists, Harry is not cool. Not in the least. He is the bringer of his own downfall and the downfall of a lot of other people, but he can’t think two moves ahead to see it coming.
The film’s centerpiece is a brutal impromptu wrestling match in Harry’s gym between The Strangler and Gregorius. Nobody can separate these two giant men and all Harry can do is watch and hope as his dreams of melding the classical and circus-like worlds of wrestling are dashed with every kidney punch and death grip attempt. It goes on for quite a while and we feel the physical exertion—can almost smell the sweat—and can see Harry hoping against hope that his man, the only man keeping him safe from Kristo, will prevail. To hang the whole film on professional wrestling in this way seems so weird to me by today’s standards, but it totally works and it’s shot as well and with as much excitement as anything in Raging Bull.
Night and the City was to be Jules Dassin’s final American production. He was unable to work in this country again thanks to the blacklist and didn’t make another feature for five years until he moved to France where he was regarded as something of a hero. His first French film was a corker, too—the 1955 heist epic Rififi.
Night and the City is out on Criterion Blu-ray August 4th. The gorgeous release features a 2005 interview with Dassin, a commentary by film scholar Glenn Erickson, the 101-minute British cut of the film, and a comparison of the American and British scores. It also has one of the most beautiful covers of the bunch, done in a colorful pulp magazine style. Highly recommend this movie and this release.