Night and the City (1950)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Jo Eisinger (based on Night and the City by Gerald Kersh)
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom
Director Jules Dassin fits perfectly into many of the themes our Noirvember marathon has seen so far. Many of the filmmakers covered have been those who sought asylum in Hollywood before or during the rise of Nazism in mid-1930’s Europe. Many of these men came to America in order to hone their craft and continue working under the freedoms they had once enjoyed in their native lands. Dassin’s story is the complete opposite of those other filmmakers. Jules was an American born director who would seek asylum in Europe shortly before the release of his famous film noir Night and the City. His reason for fleeing a country that many considered to be the freest in the world? The infamous Hollywood blacklist – which accused Dassin of being a Communist sympathizer. From there, Jules Dassin would end up in France, and would go on to direct one of the greatest films ever made, Rififi. Night and the City, along with his film The Naked City, would establish Dassin as one of the great film noir and crime directors of the time, and would help to establish his legacy as one of the great filmmakers of his time. The film stars the extremely prolific Richard Widmark, as well as Gene Tierney (who also starred in Noirvember feature #1, Laura) one of the best actresses of the time. Night and the City has been criticized since its release for having no real moral characters for the audience to get behind, and for being hopelessly bleak – even for a film noir.
Night and the City is the dark and sleazy story about an almost unredeemable man named Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark). Fabian is a hustler out to con anybody he can, and he isn’t particularly good at it. Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) is Fabian’s main squeeze, with whom he maintains a somewhat unstable relationship. After seeing proverbial dollar signs in his eyes during a wrestling match, Fabian goes into business with famous former professional wrestler Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his protege Nikolas (Ken Richmond). Having put his famous sleazy charm on the two famous pro wrestlers, Fabian attempts to gain financing for his new sports enterprise. Gregorius has just had a falling out with his son Kristo (Herbert Lom), and is eagerly looking to go into business with a new partner in order to undercut his son. After being denied financing from an assortment of characters, Fabian finally settles with acquaintances Phil (Francis L. Sullivan) and Helen (Googie Withers) in exchange for a forged nightclub license. Soon enough, our main character is approached by associates of the now alienated Kristo, who attempt to dissuade the silver-tongued Fabian from entering the wrestling promoter business. What follows for nearly our entire cast of less than perfect characters is a complicated web of double crosses, senseless murders, and misfired conning. Will the charismatic Harry Fabian succeed in the wrestling world, or will the forces working to eliminate his presence win out? Find out in Jules Dassin’s excellent Night and the City.
The criticisms about Night and the City having no likable characters for the audience to rally behind may be true in theory, but that’s exactly what I admired most about Dassin’s last American production. The entire film is filled to the brim with some of the sleaziest, most dour characters I’ve seen in film noir up to this point, and every single moment of it is riveting. The professional wrestling backdrop works in my favour as a fan of the sport, and serves well because of the amount of real life slime balls in the wrestling business, past and present. The character of Harry Fabian is incredibly captivating because it keeps the audience wondering how and when he’s going to screw over another of his associates or colleagues. He digs himself into a hole so deep than not even the most talented minds could lift themselves out of, and every minute of it is glorious. Richard Widmark’s performance as Fabian is the standout in the film, and Widmark absolutely brings the character to life in a realistic and dramatic way. The supporting cast is terrific as well, all performers bringing a level of sleaze to the picture that goes unmatched by other film noir’s. The wrestling world backdrop and the slimy cast of characters makes me an incredibly easy watch, and even helps viewers forget about the sometimes overly complex plot unfolding on screen. Things that happen in Night and the City don’t always make complete sense, but the story still ends up in the right places, and manages to still keep the viewer hooked and knowing the intentions of each and every character. The highlight of the entire film is a long, intense, and brutal wrestling scene between Gregorius and a rival wrestler under the tutelage of Kristo, The Strangler. The two men battle until they both collapse from sheer exhaustion, putting on an absolute wrestling clinic in the meantime. The scene works well to shift the story into its final tragic act, and is an absolute sight to behold.
I can’t say much more about Night and the City without spoiling many of the twists and turns that take place during the short run-time, but I can say without a doubt that most reading this will enjoy some aspect of the film. The dark, moody atmosphere, the seedy cast of characters, the complicated, the almost mob-like underworld of wrestling, and the terrific performances and direction by Jules Dassin makes Night and the City an absolute must-see for all viewers. Much like many film noir’s I’ve covered, it may not always make sense – but even in it’s overly complicated story it’s a terrifically fun and compelling watch. I can say without a doubt that Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is highly recommended.