Night and the City
August 8, 2005
After being blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy-era witch hunts, director Jules Dassin moved to London and made the classic film noir, Night and the City (1950) for 20th Century Fox. He presents a shadowy underworld where life is cheap and money is king. Its inhabitants consist of drunks, thieves and other desperate people scrambling to eke out some kind of existence.
The film begins in a frantic mood as a man is being chased through the deserted streets of London at night. He loses his pursuer and makes it to his girlfriend’s apartment. Harry Fabian (Widmark) is a hustler always scheming and dreaming about his next big scam that will make him a lot of money and put him on easy street. He’s a two-faced liar, rummaging through his girlfriend Mary’s (Tierney) purse for money. When he’s caught, he smiles and claims to be looking for a cigarette.
Harry’s latest scam involves world famous wrestler Gregorius the Great (Zbyszko) and his son, Nicholas (also a wrestler). Harry plans to become a promoter and control all of the wrestling in the city with Nicholas and Gregorius as his meal ticket. So Harry sets up the biggest match in London between Nicholas and The Strangler (Mazurki) with the hopes of a very profitable outcome. This, of course, attracts bigger fish who threaten to spoil Harry’s plans.
The highlight of the movie is a frenetic, impromptu wrestling match between the aging Gregorius and the up-and-coming Strangler. It is a visceral struggle filled with white-knuckle tension as it looks like these guys are really pummeling each other. There is a tangible, life and death desperation that is scary and real with a devastating outcome.
Only Richard Widmark can turn on the oily charm like he does in this movie. He’s even dressed the part with a cheap, loud suit. He plays Harry as a smooth operator who knows just what to say to a poor mark that he’s hustling. Like any good con man he knows how to give his target confidence and then rope them into a scheme. He drums up money for his schemes with all the obsessiveness of junkie jonesin’ for a fix. Widmark delivers a wonderfully intense performance as a desperate schemer who lives and dies with his scams.
The bustling London night life is beautifully captured by Max Greene’s textured cinematography. He gives the dirty alleyways and dingy basements a dark, foreboding look. In one scene, he uses classic noir lighting to capture Mary singing at a night club in the shadows with a swath of light across her eyes. In another, we are presented with a shot of a darkened wrestling ring with only one light as its source, an ominous visual foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.
Harry is a classic doomed protagonist, one of the hallmarks of noir. Ultimately, he’s a tragic figure whose ambitions overshadow his reality and result in his demise. Night and the City successfully transplants the traditional American setting to London and presents one of the most unlikable protagonists in the noir genre but who is fascinating to watch because of Widmark’s hard-boiled charisma.
There is an audio commentary by none other than the DVD Savant himself, Glenn Erickson, author of The Film Noir essay on Night and the City. He describes Night and the City as “a textbook of the noir style” but “visually it’s one of the most extreme examples of the style.” He points out that there are two versions of this movie: an American one and another for the U.K. Erickson touches upon the film’s troubled production history and references the book, the film’s script and both versions, including cut scenes. This is a very knowledgeable track as Erickson covers many aspects of the movie.
In the “Jules Dassin Interview,” he talks about how the Hollywood blacklisting made his life difficult. 20th Century Fox chief, Daryl Zanuck sent him to London and told him to shoot the movie fast as it might be his last one. The British press hated it and thought that all of the locations were faked but Dassin actually used real ones. The veteran director tells some fascinating anecdotes in this substantial extra.
“2 Versions, 2 Scores” examines the musical score for the British version by Benjamin Frankel and the American one by Franz Waxman. Christopher Husted presents footage from both versions and demonstrates how they differ and how this affects a particular scene. Waxman’s score is more dynamic while Frankel’s is not as melodramatic.
“Cine-Parade Interview” is a 1972 French interview with Dassin who talks about his life and career, including an amusing anecdote about shooting a scene with Joan Crawford.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.