Night and the City

Certificate: PG
Running time: 101 mins
Director: Jules Dassin
Starring: Richard Widmark, Googie Withers, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Gene Tierney
Genre: Noir, Crime, Sport
Country: UK/USA

Harry Fabian is a small-time American nightclub tout with dreams of breaking the mob run monopoly on wrestling.  Playing wife against husband, and father against son it is only a matter of time before the game becomes deadly and the cost of playing greater than he could have ever imagined.

Fans of Gerald Kersh’s novel of the same name will likely much prefer the Irwin Winkler version starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange, Dassin (by his own admission) didn’t bother to read the book before diving straight into the screenplay, then straight into filming before delivering the principle footage to his Studio boss Daryn Zanuck.  They took this as a slight, as did Kersh himself but in an interview years later Dassin spoke of the urgency placed on his completion of the project.  Dassin was sent to London to make this movie, one that Zanuck described as “most likely your last”, having been caught up in Joe McCarthy’s agenda driven hunt that saw so many incredible talents blacklisted for supposed communist leanings.  It’s this time restraint that explains Jo Eisinger’s script but also adds a degree of urgency, danger and thrill to every shot that the remake simply doesn’t have.  Dassin, like Fabian (Widmark), is running out of road leaving him short on time and allies of influence.

The cinematography of Night and the City captures not just Dassin’s urgency brilliantly but also the frantic, dangerous, post-war heartbeat of London.  A London that’s raw, still in large parts rubble, but also extremely brutal and individualistic and dark.  It’s a reactionary city to one that stood shoulder to shoulder against the advance of Hitler’s forces – Dassin’s lens captures this in its entirety.  The use of the camera as a point of view is exceptional.  The long take in the back of one of Kristo’s goon’s car showcases Theatreland and Leicester Square brilliantly.  It has a beauty and fluidity to it that sits alongside the opening shot of Touch of Evil (some eight years later), Al Pacino’s attempted exodus in Carlito’s Way (forty-three years later) not to mention more than responsible for one of two similar shots showcased in Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans Eleven (fifty-one years later).  I stress these films that follow Night and the City in an attempt to demonstrate how phenomenal the look of this film is, how complicated the construction of a film like this is, and when you factor in the restrictions put upon Jules Dassin with the U.S Government’s very own Witchmaster General breathing down his collar it becomes even more impossible, beautiful, visceral.

Richard Widmark (Pickup on South Street, The Alamo) gives close to a career best performance as the reasonably settled grifter Harry Fabian.  Widmark has an ability in his performance that allows you to like him at all times even though you know he’s far from always likeable.  It’s the kind of performance that you’d associate with James Cagney only without the I’m James Cagney barrage that comes along with him.  Cagney is never entirely separable from the fact that you know he’s acting, you can see his acting.  Widmark is Fabian, Fabian is Widmark, there’s a blurring of actor and character in the same way he manages to blur the lines in the spectrum of morality.  He showcases the pained journey of his director beautifully on screen.  As his options narrow forcing him down a road he fears to travel the deteriorate is visible on his face, the realisation that inevitably there is only one way the entire game can end.  Magnificent.  The supporting cast is incredible.  Googie Withers gives a strong performance as Helen, the long suffering wife of blunderbuss Philip Nosseross (played by Francis L. Sullivan) who is also amazing.  Herbert Lom gives a chilling and controlled masterclass in acting as mob boss Kristo while Gene Tierney smoulders her way through what limited screen time she has.  Tierney might seem like an odd choice for such a small, relatively redundant, supporting role but at the time she was going through quite a messy end to a relationship (is there any other kind?) and was suffering from depression.  Zanuck asked Dassin personally to cast her in order to get her out of Hollywood for a while, suddenly one exile had a travelling companion and the role was written for her.  Alongside Widmark, both on screen as business partner and as scene stealer extraordinaire, is Stanislaus Zbyszko (as Gregorius – wrestling giant and Kristo’s father).  When looking around for his powerful and commanding giant Gregorius, Dassin commented that he wanted the wrestling champion from his childhood to play him but he couldn’t remember his name or face – but he should be that kind of person.  Zbyszko was wrestling champion during Dassin’s childhood and obliged the director to play the role.  The man is wrestling.  The man is the definition of the word champion.  The man wore a thousand battles painted across his face and not only is he a powerful and commanding wrestler but a powerful and commanding actor.  In scenes alongside Widmark he matches him in all fields, in scenes alongside his on-screen son (Lom) he burns the young actor with the intensity of a thousand suns and when he fights The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) he is as mesmerising and dominant as any actor, any wrestler, any human you’re ever likely to witness.  He’s nothing short of a god, captured and immortalised so that a name (already forgotten in 1950) will never be forgotten again.

Night and the City is the quintessential film noir and all without Jules Dassin knowing much (if anything) about noir.  He knew about storytelling, about suspense, and conflict and had an acute awareness of how Fabian’s story should end and how (he thought) his own would.  Many a director would be lucky to make a film like this at any point of their career let alone at what he thought was the end of his.  Five years later he would re-blossom and give the world Rififi for which we would be eternally thankful, the second coming of an incredible director guaranteeing audiences another quarter of a century of work from this wonderful and gentle man.

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