Noir-vember Day Fourteen: Night and the City (1950) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
14Nov/100

Noir-vember Day Fourteen: Night and the City (1950)

Lookit his handsome face.  So boyish and sparkling, eyes glancing about without a care in the slums.  Why, were he born just twenty years later he might have been on Leave It To Beaver, or he could have at least got a walk on with My Three Sons.  Yes he should have been wholesome, should have been a star, he shouldn't have had to clean mud off himself running from the entire underworld.  But this isn't the cheery fifties, this is the transitional hell that Night and the City walks through.

Father doesn't know best quite yet.  The streets of London are still bombed out and are barely repaired.  Walls are crumbling into the streets to the point where it's unclear where you should walk and where you should rest.  The criminals basically have their run of things, setting up camp in any number of the abandoned buildings or renting an old club for cheap.  This is just the kind of place where a dumb American thinks that he can just stroll in and take over the joint - just the kind of place for someone like Harry Fabian.

Night and the City is Jules Dassin's most grotesque noir.  A damp, decaying city plays home to a number of restless caricatures that are willing to give you what you need so long as you're capable of scratching the right itch.  Central to the film is Harry (Richard Widmark), a two-bit hustler the loses and swindles more than he ever wins.  He and his lover Helen (Googie Withers) made their way to Britain from America some time back, and things haven't looked up since.  She works at a club run by Philip (Francis L. Sullivan) and his wife Mary (Gene Tierny), two weasels that seem to have their hands in everything.

Neither Harry nor Philip is ever fully one up over the other, they rearrange who is playing who quite a bit.

After yet another failed scheme, Harry thinks that he's struck it big with another foolproof plan.  He's going to arrange a fight between the stalwart of old Greco-Roman wrestling, Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko), and the flashy and "fake" The Strangler (Mike Mazurki).  Bit of family tension there as well, because The Strangler is managed by Gregorious' son Kristo (Herbert Lom), who doesn't take too kindly to Harry's meddling.

Sound convoluted?  You bet, but don't fret about it.  This isn't a film noir of tightly wound plot details (though it is), or nuanced character study (accidentally happens though), it's an excuse for Dassin and company to exhibit no restraint in portraying the London underground.  Dassin wastes no time in establishing the mood and predicament of the plot.  After a brief voiceover we see Harry being chased through the alleyways, barely ducking around a barely seen pursuer, as he loses him through the shadows and fog of the night.  It's one hell of an opening, and sets a pace that the rest of the film matches.

It's strange the film moves so swiftly.  Most noirs, despite all sharing a common running time of about an hour and a half, feel like they move at a more leisurely pace.  Night and the City doesn't even bother.  It's all about the sweat, the angles, the shady deals, set forward in as rapid fire a pace as Dassin can hurl at us without becoming OCD.  Scorsese's After Hours and Bringing Out the Dead owe a lot to the tone and style that Dassin develops here.  It gleefully revels in the dirt, finding new ways to shine a light on a dark corner, only to find an equal way of snuffing it out.

The performances are in a class unto themselves.  Peter Lorre, in his slimiest days, couldn't approach the rat like desperation that Richard Widmark brings to Harry.  He's a conniver of the top degree, knows all the ins and outs of the streets but was never good at figuring out how to manipulate them.  In a different sense, and resembling a different kind of animal, Francis Sullivan oozes contemptible menace as the club operator Philip.  He toys with Harry like a cat with a dying mouse, batting Harry and leading him on just enough to let in some hope.

The entire film looks absolutely spectacular from the start to amazing moments like this from the final twenty minutes.

Everyone is top notch, but what gives these characters weight is the little moments of poignancy that they bring to their roles.  Film noir, almost as much as it's about despair, is about the corruption of something that was once considered fundamentally good about each character.  Harry and his girlfriend used to have hopes for the future, Philip and his wife used to share real love, and Gregorious and his son used to bond over wrestling.  The film is as much about projecting a nightmare version of their surrounding as it is letting us know that they were all human once.

All of this is all well and good, but the film also deserves special mention for being so damned entertaining.  It's not Rififi, but it's an entirely different kind of film, one that has every bit of depth and density of style without lingering over every little detail.  Dassin understood the material, gave it as much of a nightmare twist as he could, then let the whole thing unfurl and explode on-screen.  Art can be pretty bloody entertaining sometimes, and Night and the City deserves that title without going into somber moments.

Well...except for one amazing scene, but I'll leave that for you to discover.  Night and the City is the quintessential film noir, one of favorite films of all time, and a perfect excuse to watch some amazing old fashioned wrestling.  You're making the world a worse place by not watching this film - and really, if you're a fan of noir or just quality cinema, do you want that?  Surely not.

Next Sunday I'll be giving a quick glance to the last Dassin film I'll be analyzing, the quiet and calculated Rififi.

Night and the City (1950)
Directed by Jules Dassin.
Written by Jo Eisenger.
Starring an ensemble cast led by Richard Widmark.

Posted by Andrew

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