Director Jules Dassin (“Thieve’s Highway”) is experiencing a bit of a renaissance due to the recent release of some of his films on DVD. Working within the studio system, he created a number of very fine examples of Film Noir, which are flawed by the same problem. His career was cut short by the Blacklist of the 50s. Named as a communist, he found that he was unable to work in the U.S.. Daryl Zanuck, one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, sensed what was about to happen and handed him a book called “Night and The City.” Zanuck urged him to write the script quickly and begin shooting the most expensive scenes first, on location in London, to prevent Twentieth Century - Fox from pulling the plug. “Night and the City” would be his last studio film. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, we can watch some of his films in pristine, beautiful prints.
Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) roams the streets of London looking for his next get rich quick scheme. To earn a living, he makes a commission from each of the “marks” he sends to a ‘private club’, the Silver Fox. The club is populated with women who are always thirsty for another glass of champagne and waiters who are always at the gentleman’s elbow ready to pour another glass. His girlfriend, Mary (Gene Tierney, “Leave Her To Heaven”), a hostess at the club, is tired of bailing Harry out of one fix after another. But she still loves him. Following a mark into a wrestling match, he overhears Kristo (Herbert Lom, Inspector Dreyfuss in “The Pink Panther” films) having a fight with his father, Gregorius The Great, a real wrestler from Greece, who is upset with his son for running fixed wrestling matches. Harry befriends Gregorius and convinces the wrestler he will promote a fair wrestling match. The only catch is that Harry doesn’t have the 400 pounds he needs to set up his new venture.
“Night and the City” is a great example of Film Noir. Shot on location in London, the film depicts a darker side of the city than we are used to. There is a great shot, late in the film; one of Kristo’s henchmen has been told to spread the word that there is a 1000 pound bounty on Harry’s head. He jumps into his car and speeds around a busy intersection, stopping every few yards to talk to a newspaper hawker, a shoe shine boy, a beggar, etc. No dialogue is necessary or used as he drives through what appears to be Piccadilly Circus.
The film, shot in black and white, takes place predominately at night. All of the interiors are dusty, smoke filled clubs and flats. When the characters venture outside, streetlights glow, barely penetrating the darkness. The look is extremely convincing and effective, adding to the mood of impending danger for Harry.
Of the cast, the supporting actors fair better than the two leads. Richard Widmark, never one of my favorites, is good as Harry. As he runs from one contact to the next, begging them to help him raise the money for his newest venture, we feel his desperation. But his performance is marred by a couple of instances of outbreaks. Begging one of his contacts for money, he suddenly begins shouting at their denial. I understand that he is frustrated, I get that, but his actions are too theatrical. This is also the complaint I had with “Thieve’s Highway”, another Dassin film recently released on DVD. Harry’s desperation and need are almost palpable until he breaks down into hysterics. Gene Tierney, an actress due for a revival of interest in her work, is good as Mary, Harry’s long suffering girlfriend, but the role is small, really more of a supporting role. Even though she is a “hostess” at the Silver Fox, she manages to convince us that she is good. We also get why she continues to love Harry. Despite his flaws, she wants to love him and overlook his problems. I just wish her role had been more integral to the overall story.
The supporting cast is truly memorable. Francis Sullivan plays Phil, the owner of the Silver Fox and Googie Withers plays Helen, his wife and former “hostess”. Their relationship is wicked, twisted and almost Shakespearean in scope. Phil buys her a Silver Fox stole, to entice her to kiss him, but Helen won’t have it. Phil angrily takes the stole back. Herbert Lom is also quite good as the quiet, menacing Kristo, a man determined to retain his hold on the piece of London he controls.
“Night and the City” is a near perfect example of Film Noir. A dark story with believable characters from the underside of life, set in a surprising environment.
And that ending! Memorable and surprising. I didn’t see it coming.
Dassin would follow this film with “Riffifi”, a French Noir, which is easily one of the best examples ever made of the genre.