Saturday, March 27, 2010

#29: Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)

Released: April 1950 (United Kingdom)

Director: Jules Dassin; Screenplay: Jo Eisinger based on the novel by Gerald Kersch; Cinematography: Max Greene; Music: Franz Waxman (United States) and Benjamin Frankel (United Kingdom); Producer: Samuel G. Engel; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Hugh Marlowe (Adam Dunne), Frank L. Sullivan (Phil Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Gregorious the Great), Mike Mazurki (The Strangler), Ada Reeve (Molly), Charles Farrell (Mickey Beer), Ken Richmond (Nikolas of Athens), Edward Chapman (Hoskins)

- "You don't know what you're getting into..."

With subpoenas ready to be unsealed and personalities throughout Hollywood on the verge of being called before the now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions regarding their political persuasions, suspected leftist sympathizer Jules Dassin scrambled to make it out of the country before the authorities tracked him down. Hightailing it to London, well out of reach of any potential subpoena servers, Dassin next had to quickly find a script and begin work before studio bosses yielded to pressure to blackball him. It is amazing to consider that in the face of such pressure, and with the mad dash that took place to find a suitable story and screenplay, that Dassin produced what many consider to be the finest film of his career. Mirroring the struggle that his professional and personal life had become, Night and the City is without question the bleakest vision that Dassin ever expressed in cinema. This one is dark, without any real winners, remaining as bleak and pessimistic as any film of the entire era.

Richard Widmark is one of the most celebrated of leading noir actors, but his turn as Harry Fabian may be the best role of his career. If it is not quite as bombastic as his blistering Tommy Udo, it is only because Fabian is nowhere near as sadistic as the murderous Udo. But Fabian makes up for this deficiency with his unbridled ambition and scheming. Fabian is a smalltime hoodlum, a tout for a local nightclub that makes his money by steering customers to his employer’s establishment. At the same time, he is constantly on the lookout for potential new scores. As a result of his scams and thefts, Harry is constantly being pursued by past victims and creditors. To escape such pursuers, Harry often hides out in the apartment of his naïve girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney), who also occasionally serves as the bankroll for his harebrained plans. All of his past plans have failed, but he soon believes that he has hit the jackpot. He plots to take over the professional wrestling industry in London, teaming with famed wrestler Gregorious the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko). But the plan is harder than it sounds, as Gregorious’ son Kristo (Herbert Lom), a powerful racketeer, currently runs the business and has no plans of relinquishing control. Playing father against son, partner against partner – really anybody against everybody but himself – Harry’s only goal is to cash in personally.

There are no forced happy endings in Night and the City. Things feel irrevocably doomed from the start and that mood never lets up. What makes it so distinctive is that the doom of it all almost feels correct. Touring the underworld of London, there are few characters presented that are in the least bit sympathetic. Fabian, who I suppose is the nominal hero, is far from likable. His boss and partners Phil Nosseros (Francis L. Sullivan) Helen Nosseros (Googie Withers) are only slightly less ambitious and ruthless than Harry. Kristo is identified as a leading hoodlum and racketeer. Even though he is being pitted against his father, it’s hard to feel sorry for an unrepentant hood. Mary, I suppose garners some sympathy, as she seems to want nothing but peace for her completely opposite boyfriend. Sill, Gregorious remains the only one that I see as a true victim. All of this means that while the nihilistic nature of everything remains jarring, in some weird way it is fitting. And perhaps that is what makes it so disturbing.

Never did a Jules Dassin film look better than Night and the City. The photography of the streets of London is the perfect look for a film noir, filmed to as ominous and dark as anything set in New York or Los Angeles. The night clubs and streets of London are shot in such a way to make them feel unbearably claustrophobic, reinforcing the fact that while London may be a big city, eventually Fabian is going to run out of places to hide from his problems. The contrast between light and dark is as stark here as anywhere else in noir.

The rating here may be a bit low, but personal preference is an even greater factor in trying to separate these final thirty. There is no denying the power of this film and what an incredible achievement it is in the career of the great Jules Dassin.


  1. An excellent choice, Dave. It's between this and Pickup on South Street for my favorite Widmark performance, and I always dig Herbert Lom. I also like to use occasions like these to put in a good word for the remake, because it seems to be an underrated effort.

  2. Great choice, Dave! One of my favorite noirs and a really extraordinary film. Fantastic post.

  3. I just loved Night & the City - what a claustrophobic, nightmarish, bleak & paranoia-laden film this is. As you aptly pointed out, the darkness of the movie is highly indicative of the kind of situation Jules Dassin was when he made it.

    And what a terrific writeup this is! I especially loved the line, "...while London may be a big city, eventually Fabian is going to run out of places to hide from his problems". Brilliant!

    By the way, though most feel The Third Man as the greatest Brit noir, in my opinion this one takes the trophy just ahead of the Carol Reed classic.

  4. A very dark film with a hopeless ending... I was really pissed at Gene Tierney's character. That stupid &^*%$ never helped poor Harry, and is very ready to move on just seconds after his demise. Yes, I sympathized with the poor old champion, but I also sympathized with Richard Widmark's character (maybe 'coz I like Richard Widmark, lol).

  5. This may well be my favorite noir of all time. It's certainly in the top three. And what with two big screen viewings within five months last year at both the Jersey City Loews for the noir festival, and at Manhattan's Film Forum, my sentiments were increased ten-fold. I'll spare you all the aesthetic repetition that I penned in an individual review at my own place, and in follow-up comments, but I want to state here that your own examination is masterful, and by this point I well understand the difficulty of numerical placement.

  6. I agree with Shubhajit that this film is slightly better than The Third Man and both would make my top ten. The impending doom that hangs over Fabian is palpable throughout. Clearly the bleakness portrayed in the movie was a reflection on what Dassin must of been feeling personally. The stories of him having to direct with the pall of being blacklisted parallel Fabian's own inevitable demise. I have always considered this Dassin's best film. The movie is perfect and it is both well acted and visually stunning. A perfect introduction to anyone that wants to begin exploring the greatness of film noir.....M.Roca

  7. This is wonderful Dave, and I'm sure we'll be seeing Dassin again. It may just be me, but it seems like despite the fact that a few of his films are considered classics, Dassin as a filmmaker isn't as talked about as a great director as Tourneur or Preminger or Lang. I'm not sure why, I think he's certainly deserving of their company.

  8. Samuel - I actually haven't seen the remake, but I'll give it a shot... obviously I won't expect it to reach this level, but glad to hear that it's not as bad as most remakes.

    Jeffrey - Thanks, it's definitely a must-see!

    Shubhajit - This and The Third Man are neck and neck in my book. It's not revealing any great secret to say that The Third Man is going to finish ahead of it in this countdown, but they are definitely on the same level.

    Quirky Character - "Hopeless" is the perfect way to describe this one.

    Sam - Yes, I remember your passion for this film, which is also infectious. This one certainly could be a bit higher, but anything in the Top 30 of this countdown is among what I consider the finest films that I have seen.

    M.Roca - Very true, this is one that should be seen very early in anyone's exploration of noir.

    Doniphon - Yes, Dassin will be heard from again. And I agree with you, he isn't as routinely brought up as those other directors that you mention, but when you compare them film for film he more than matches up with any of them.

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  10. The night clubs and streets of London are shot in such a way to make them feel unbearably claustrophobic, reinforcing the fact that while London may be a big city, eventually Fabian is going to run out of places to hide from his problems. The contrast between light and dark is as stark here as anywhere else in noir.

  11. What a cast I didn't remind this movie, I remember I watched it with my father some years ago at home and it was perfect since that time I love classics.