When Jules Dassin's career as a Hollywood director was on the verge of destruction due to the McCarthy blacklist, he left America to shoot his next film in London. He knew it could turn out to be his last film (he didn't work again for six years), so he put his all into it.
Appreciation for film noir didn't arise in America until the style & form was long past. In the 1970s critics & fans began to realize the downbeat cynicism of old black & white "B" pictures of a certain stripe not only rose far above their budgets, but had an almost secret language of lighting that often the directors didn't even recognize when it was happening.
The lighting crews of many of these films (& for Night & the City the cinematographer as well) were Jews who had to get out of Germany fast, & their previous work had been lighting films of the German expressionist school. The language of lighting was very well codified among these technicians; they lit to enhance mood & the psychological traits of characters. They did their work quickly, expertly, before ever a director yelled "Action!" A lot of the genius of these films was the doing of unheralded technicians, & Dassin readily admitted he did not know about anything that might've been regarded as "film noir" while he was making his films.
Dassin was the perfect director for these lighting technicians to showcase their finest symbolist lighting tricks. He had social awareness sufficient to get him in deep caca from McCarthy's unamerican activities, & he had every reason to be personally cynical. The novel by Gerald Kersh, Night & the City (1946), was even darker than the movie, & the central anti-hero Harry Fabian was even more void of human decency than he was as portrayed with such shocking intensity by Richard Widmark.
There are hardly more than touchstones between the novel & the movie, causing Kersh considerable unhappiness. He said the $40,000 dollars he got for the rights was $10,000 per word, since all that was saved was the title. But there is an appalling mood to the novel's portrait of the criminal underworld of London that certainly does inform the film script.
Harry (Widmark) is a dreamer & schemer. If he would apply his energy & imagination to something honest & sensible, he might've been a success, but he has misguided sense of propriety, a juvenile delight & personal conviction about every scheme he dreams up, & habitually fails at every crooked deal he attempts. He's a legend in his own mind, but to his fellow outcasts he's a friendly laughingstock.
Herbert Lom plays the racketeer Kristo, who controls all wresting exhibitions city wide. Kristo's father, Gregorious, is played by the actual wrestling champ Stanislaus Zbyszko, who came out of retirement to fullfill Dassin's explicit desire that he play Gregorious. It's Zbyszko's only film performance, but he was a natural; he steals the film, & Dassin was certainly correct in his belief that the aging wrestler was the perfect man to play a retired exponent of classical GraecoRoman wrestling. Zbyszko conveys profound dignity to a role that required profound dignity.
Gregorious is horrified by the style of wrestling promoted by his son (a precursor to today's athletic circus). Harry figures out that if he wins the heart of Gregorious, he'll be impervious to racketeers shutting him down for promoting his own wrestling exhibitions starring Gregorio's classical trainee. Harry's machninations are clever enough & it momentarily seems certain that for the first time in his life one of his hairbrained schemes is going to turn out brilliant. We also so admire the naively trusting & beautiful Gregorio, that even if a viewer believes slimy Harry deserves anything he gets, we are rooting for it working out somehow for Gregorio.
Unfortunately Harry is hated not only by Kristo but also by nightclup owner Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan, a very Sydney Greenstreet type villain, but creating a depth of complexity Greenstreet never got to play). Harry has had become rather too close to Nosseross's wife (Googie Withers as one of the most complex & intriguing femme fatales ever committed to film noir). If Harry's machinations seem pretty darned clever for such a loser to have orchestrated, those of Kristo & Nosseross are purely machievellian, & Harry frankly is just not sufficiently evil to match them move for move.
Right from the opening scene Harry is shown running (from a man to whom he owes a mere three pounds). In just about every scene to follow he rarely sits down, he never retires to an apartment of his own (he seemingly lives nowhere), he is always just running scared trying to get loans, trying to set up scams, working his guts out for the big score then running like hell from the repurcussions. When his greatest plan to date falls apart & Kristo puts a price on his head, the climax shows him running for his life from one slum dock to the next, until he can run no longer, & meets his fate in a horrific summary manner that has got to be one of the most simply brutal & appallingly dark endings of any film noir, ever.
Gene Tierney, best known for her starring role in Laura (1944), though not having much to do in this film, is quite good as the girlfriend who has loved Harry since before he became the slimeball he has become. She represents the life he could have chosen, but his petulance & his childish dreams & the personality disorder that leaves him incapable of assessing moral choices keeps him from grabbing hold of a better life that was always there for him.
Most film noir historians have assessed Harry as the most irredeemable heel ever created in a film noir, as the anti-heros of virtually all other films of the type have some saving grace, at least an iota of goodness or romanticism to their character, whereas Harry is endlessly sociopathic without saving graces.
I personally didn't see him that way, & Tierney's character wouldn't've loved him so much if that was all he was. He really only has one flaw: an amoral imagination. If he'd put so much creative energy toward a cure for cancer he probably would've been just as big a failure, but for a noble intent, with no actual change in his character. Instead, he's a fringe-gangster peering in at the gangster world, known by & laughed at by criminals of wealth & power. His heros are the fat Nosseross & the dandified Kirstos. He wants to be, like them, a big name in a dark world, & every scheme is aimed at this achievement. Harry is a man who can perservere in the face of failure, who never really stops wanting to try, try again.
He is a man of conviction even if for misguided purposes. By the end scarsely anyone has improved their life, up to & including the kingpin Kristo, everyone loses some part of their life that they loved. All they have in exchange for what they lost is the bleakness of continuing to live as they always before lived.
Only one person was willing to die for his dream, & Harry's last scheme required acceptance of his death. For that last scheme he recaptured his immature glee & faced his awful demise convinced this final scheme was, at long last, his one sure-fire success.
So Harry is much more than a selfish heel. If he had ever achieved Nosseross's position, he would have spread the wealth, in order to be admired no doubt, but still he would've shared, whereas grasping Nosseross counted his money in a lonely world until finally his villainy was overcome by his depression. I saw Harry not as delusional in his belief in his ignorant schemes, but in the context of his environment, he was a cripplingly warped good guy, whereas the other warped individuals in this tale are legitimately bad.
Underappreciated upon its initial release, Night & the City is now recognized as one of the greatest of all film noirs. London critics faulted it for the artificiality of the London dock slums, beileving the American director got everything wrong in his ugly portrait of their city. But in reality it was the middleclass critics who didn't know London as well as they pretended. Dassin had a location spotter of the first water, & every scene is set in the real working class London. Dassin did for London nights what he had done for New York in The Naked City (1948). It is so fortunate Dassin lived so long as to bask in the adulation of film noir fans.
The DVD includes two interviews with Dassin. The one in French is particularly revealing; his reluctant assessment of the betrayer Elia Kazan was pried out of him by the interviewer, & it's really something. In the English language interview Dassin notes that because of the hurried schedule for the film he did not have time to cast it personally. Most of the casting was done by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., a man of elegance whose firends in the London community of character actors were the creme de la creme.
Fairbanks' choices for the minor roles Dassin specifically praises, & indeed the grimy ghettoish figures that populate the corners of this film are incredible, from the least paper hawker at the side of a street, to Ada Reeve as Molly the wreck of a flower lady who gets one of the most startling pay-offs of all time for any minor player; or Maureen Delaney as Anna O'Leary the smallest of small-time black marketeers nurturing Harry at the end just before he runs one more time, toward his last bold scheme.
The commentary track for the film is by a well-prepared film noir historian, well worth the second viewing despite that he spends too much time talking about scenes from Kersh's book & scenes from the script that are not in the film; he nevertheless also has a few decent insights about the film itself. Among the things he points out is that the UK cut of the film is quite different, & with a differernt soundtrack & a few extra scenes. Dassin however preferred the American version presented on the Criterion DVD.
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