Jules Dassin, 1950
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom
An egomaniacal, ambitious American hustler living in London, Harry Fabian, is convinced that he will strike it rich with his latest scheme – Greco-Roman wrestling matches. He has the support of Gregorius, a veteran wrestler, but Gregorius’ son Kristo is determined to go into business with it himself. Fabian presses on and gets financial help from Phil, a nightclub owner, and his discontented wife Helen. She promises that she’ll help Fabian if he secretly goes to business with her – opening her own nightclub. But Fabian betrays her and Phil soon withdrawals and promises to ruin Fabian, because Kristo is an old friend. But Fabian pushes Gregorius and another notorious wrestler known as the Strangler into a fight, after which Gregorius dies. Fabian flees, but an enraged Kristo declares a bounty of £1000 for whoever brings back Fabian’s corpse. He’s forced to go on the run, but it seems that London’s entire underworld is against him.
Though this is technically a British film – shot there after director Jules Dassin was forced to flee the U.S. due to his refusal to testify to H.U.A.C. and his subsequent blacklisting – it is one of the finest films noir ever made. Filmed around Soho, this is one of few noir efforts that depict war-torn England or Europe in place of the typical noir setting – New York or San Francisco – and it’s in such excellent company as The Third Man and Burt Lancaster-vehicle Kiss the Blood off My Hands. With its bombed out building and weighty sense of despair, post-war London is anything but a typical noir set, which enhances the nightmarish quality of the plot. The claustrophobic, chiaroscuro cinematography from Max Greene is one of the film’s finest elements, and Night and City is certainly far more stylized than Dassin’s previous The Naked City or Thieves’ Highway.
Night and the City is understandably nasty, due to Dassin’s recent experiences, and the cast of characters are all crooked, predatory, cold-hearted, or so desperate that it’s impossible to pity them. There is not a likable character in the bunch, with the possible exception of Gene Tierney’s Mary, who is a broken woman, deeply in love with Fabian and unable to cast him aside even though he’s no good for her. Tierney was allegedly cast in the film because producer Darryl Zanuck was afraid for her mental health, something she struggled with for years. Including Mary, Night and the City represents a post-war inferno – or at best a purgatory – populated with the damned, the criminal, and the corrupt.
Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death) is perfectly as Fabian, a completely self-centered scoundrel, but one you can’t help rooting for in comparison to the surrounding characters. With a third act that takes Hitchcock’s “wrong man” trope to the next level, Fabian is chased through the bowels of London by some of the most ruthless members of the underworld. He’s betrayed and abandoned by everyone he knows, except Mary, who he bravely tries to save in the end. The conclusion of Night and the City is foreshadowed by both Dassin’s Brute Force and The Naked City. This is where Dassin perfects the terrifying image of a protagonist – not a villain as in the aforementioned films – thrown from a bridge to his death.
There are some good side performances – keep an eye out for a very young Herbert Lom as Kristo, and Francis L. Sullivan as the Hitchcockian Phil and Googie Withers as Helen, his unfaithful wife. His suicide is one of the film’s most chilling, desolate moments. Dassin also evokes a little of sweaty-soaked, grimy filth of Brute Force with a lengthy, brutal fight scene between Gregorius (real-life wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the aptly named The Strangler (noir-regular and former boxer Mike Mazurki).
Available on DVD from Criterion, it is difficult to say whether Night and the City is Dassin’s masterpiece, or if that honor should go to Brute Force. Either way, it comes with the highest possible recommendation and is certainly one of the best noir works ever made. It’s a true picture of post-war loathing when Europe was war-torn, America was in the grip of communist paranoia, and the Cold War loomed on the horizon. This allegory for Dassin’s blacklisting and subsequent flight from America is certainly his most hopeless film, which leaves behind a veneer of human filth and corruption. If you’re less interested in noir plotting, Max Greene’s cinematography is spellbinding and Franz Waxman’s doom-laden score is perhaps the best of his staggeringly impressive career, which includes Sunset Boulevard, Rebecca, Bride of Frankenstein, Mr. Roberts, Rear Window, The Philadelphia Story, and more.