After completing his stint in America with 1949’s Thieves’ Highway, Jules Dassin headed to London for Night and the City. This 1950 film noir is based on Gerald Kersh’s novel of the same name and features a screenplay by Gilda scribe Jo Eisinger. Like Charles Vidor’s 1946 movie, Night and the City is a picture of searing complication and nightmarish possibilities.
Night and the City finds Dassin working on a wire, so to speak. The director was told to “beat it” to the United Kingdom with the threat of the House Un-American Activities Commission looming around the corner. It’s hard not to spot the parallels in the tale, with crackling threads of anxiety and anger running through the London streets.
Richard Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, an American conman living and operating in London. He’s in a relationship with Mary (Gene Tierney) and keeps insisting that he’s found the perfect way to make a name for himself. Fabian works for nightclub owner Phil (Francis L. Sullivan) and is frequently mocked by Phil’s wife Helen (Googie Withers), who has designs of her own.
Harry’s job is to drive business to Phil’s club. One night, that takes him to a wrestling match. He discovers Greco-Roman wrestler Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his son Nikolas (Ken Richmond), who have been checking out the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). Harry cooks up a deal, but he runs afoul of the city’s biggest wrestling promoter (Herbert Lom) in the process.
There are a lot of stories and a lot of relationships in Night and the City and things can get out of hand. Harry is the hurricane at the centre of it all and he’s his own worst enemy. Mary’s neighbour/special friend Adam (Hugh Marlowe) says that Fabian’s essentially an artist who hasn’t discovered his art, which certainly speaks to the frenetic nature of the protagonist.
Widmark makes no effort to craft a likable character. His Harry Fabian is a snivelling, whiny pest of a human being. Sometimes he guffaws psychotically. Sometimes he begs for his life in a way that makes you wish someone would just put a slug in his head. He doesn’t engender any real pity and can’t scrape up a quid when he begs his way through a series of fellow crooks and freaks.
That he’s landed Tierney’s Mary is a small miracle in and of itself, but Night and the City doesn’t spend a lot of time unpacking their relationship. It exists as a splinter of dysfunction and Tierney doesn’t have a lot to do after the opening sequence. She waits, instead. She makes excuses for him, festering melancholy behind those eyes.
The beefy figures of wrestling have a clash of their own, with Gregorius’s insistence on clean Greco-Roman wrestling colliding with Lom’s character’s flashy, indecent, silly spectacle. To make matters more complicated, Lom’s Kristo is Gregorius’ son. The essence of their ages-old clash is caught up in Harry’s lustfulness and there’s only one way to end the match.
Helen and Phil have their own story and once again Harry is a factor. There is a necessity between them and the husband and wife play a power game. When Harry needs money, Helen comes running and requires more than just a thank you. Phil’s job is to smell what’s coming, to understand the true nature of his wife, to know what she’s after.
London is an ideal setting for this battle royal and cinematographer Max Greene adeptly captures a nearly-claustrophobic feel. The streets abound with traps and there are no easy angles. Sometimes things just don’t look right. Sometimes things feel too close, like when the wrestlers collide in the ring or when Harry races for his very life. And sometimes things don’t feel close enough.
Dassin’s humanism has always provided captivating layers. Thieves’ Highway suggests the march of industry in the pitiless world of trucking, while The Naked City contended with the chill of procedure. And Brute Force looked for freedom in prison. But Night and the City doesn’t look for hope; it sinks fully into the gloom, leaving its moaning hero to fend for himself against the constant darkness.