Director: Jules Dassin
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Screenwriter: Jo Esinger
Cinematographer: Max Greene
Music: Franz Waxman
Studio: 20th Century Fox 1950
Main Acting: Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney
Night and the City was filmed in London by an American director and three principle American actors. It was produced by 20th Century Fox and moved out of the country to better protect Jules Dassin from the impending blacklist he would face in the very near future. Darryl Zanuck was key in getting the film made and allowing the foreign setting to materialize. The U.S. version was also truer to Dassin’s overall intention, as it kept the bleak ending and was scored by the filmmaker’s choice of Franz Waxman instead of Benjamin Frankel. Still, in many ways, this 1950 film noir is as much an English production as it is a Hollywood one. A menacing London is the heart of all of the action and the rest of the cast and crew was composed of local talent. Chock full of more shadowy, sinister backdrops than any New York or Los Angeles location, the world inhabited by Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is one infused with peril and continuously broken ambitions. As the most clear-cut “fusion noir” ever created, Night And The City can rightly contend as not only the greatest American noir, but the most effective British one as well. Here is the picture that I personally would recommend a film-noir newbie watch to understand the classic movement. It can’t possibly get any better than this…
Jules Dassin and Max Greene really put together a technical marvel with this film. A rich, baroque, stylized mise-en-scene that is as busy and wonderful to look at as any directed by Welles or Siodmak. The chiaroscuro lighting and dark cloud of misery that hovers over our protagonist is one of the bleakest ever managed. It would not be much of a stretch to say that Dassin was not in the best of moods during this harrowing period. He was already, for all intents and purposes, exiled from his homeland without any sort of reassurance he would ever direct again. Night And The City looks like a film being made by a creative artist who knows his time in the spotlight is almost up, and has decided to reach for the celluloid summit or put every last ounce of expertise into his last effort. The movie refuses to pander or allow any sort of sentimentality. This is a long and draining ride through an existential nightmare that is far more authentic than merely filming a great script. This is the hopelessness that a great cinematic talent knows he will soon endure and trying to fight away that encroaching pestilence with sweat and tears. Film noir agony and pathos bathed in real-life hardships that make every image ring with a ragged desperate synergy.
“Harry is an artist without an art.”
These are telling words coming from Adam Dunne (played by Hugh Marlowe) as Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) asks to borrow three pounds to give to her lover, Harry. They get at the root cause of Fabian’s dilemma. He is a bright guy who can’t seem to succeed in life. It has nothing to do with smarts or ambition, but more to do with his erratic temperament and forever restless nature. He is a man that has not found the proper conduit to funnel all of his boundless energy into. Instead, Fabian is lost in the shadows, forever cooking up a new grift or hustle to make the big time. Unfortunately, the easy road has been closed off to him. Deep down, he is an unhappy soul who, like most noir characters, can’t find a worthwhile connection to his environment and fellow man. Every scheme is subconsciously torpedoed due to his inability to truly believe his own self-worth. Bad choice after bad choice serve only to administer another bout of misery that further deepens his alienation. Deserted by everyone but Mary at the end, his one good act of sacrificing his life for her monetary welfare, is a final moment of goodness and a cry for eternal peace. As Mazurki throws his body into the Thames, I’m reminded of Laird Cregar’s mention of how still water runs dark and deep in The Lodger. Maybe once and for all, Harry Fabian can finally let go of the unrequited search for his life’s calling.
“I don’t want any help. I just want to sit down and rest. I can’t run anymore.”
Night And The City is far from a feel-good movie. Its central theme of failed ambition and wavering bonds, both romantic and familial, are rendered for maximum effects. We see many groups of people facing betrayals and double crosses, most committed out of self-preservation and a selfish desire to protect one’s own interests over another. Very similar indeed, to the blacklisted testimonials from artists who wanted to keep their own careers intact by sacrificing the well-being of others. It should also be noted that the role of fate plays a big part in Harry Fabian’s life. The colossal failure of his wrestling enterprise was for once, not entirely his own fault. An ugly twist of circumstance leads to his well-conceived plan slowly unraveling and backfiring. All these noir touchstones are diced up and included in Jo Eisinger’s powerful script. The fatalistic journey adheres to many noir conventions and augment them to uncompromising levels. Everything is amped up to the nth degree, from visuals right down to the pessimistic and dour core of Dassin’s interests in this gloomy stretch of city, a nightmare world that takes noir to the farthest reaches of expressionism. It’s a great adaptation of Gerald Kersh’s book even though the filmmaker never even bother to read it.
Like most classic film noir, Night And The City was remade in a inferior version in 1992 that everyone has gladly forgotten about. Nostalgia for a different time makes us think that older audiences had more sophisticated and refined tastes than we do today. In truth though Dassin’s film (like many great noirs) bombed at the box office and did very poorly. Audiences stayed home or most likely went to see something more upbeat. Dassin would need to wait five more years before making his third masterpiece, Rififi. It was a long and torturous hiatus that watched him slowly go broke. How he must have related to Harry Fabian and empathized with his harrowing plight. Making matters worse, the director actually held dominion over an art form, but was unable to command it over lousy politics.
Night And The City….. a staggering masterpiece.
I thank everyone who followed this countdown and contributed their comments.