Night and the City [DVD]
Director : Jules Dassin
Screenplay : Jo Eisinger (based on the novel by Gerald Kersch)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1950
Stars : Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Hugh Marlowe (Adam Dunne), Francis L. Sullivan (Phil Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Gregorius the Great), Mike Mazurki (The Strangler), Charles Farrell (Mickey Beer), Ada Reeve (Molly the Flower Lady), Kenneth Richmond (Nikolas)
At the beginning of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is on the run, and at the end of the film, he is on the run. Harry is the kind of man who is always running from someone and into something else. He’s a schemer, a hustler of easily malleable morals, constantly trying to find that fabled shortcut to “a life of ease and plenty,” as he puts it, but always finding himself short on cash and being pursued by those he owes. He’s simultaneously pathetic and sympathetic, infuriating and strangely endearing. He’s the kind of character you hate to sympathize with because his doom is spelled out from the film’s opening frames, but somehow you can’t quite help it.
Night and the City is one of the quintessential film noir, not only because its inky chiaroscuro visuals, but because of its gripping downward spiral of a narrative that keeps the protagonist in its clutches until the bitter end. The heavy hand of fate weighs over every scene, reducing Harry’s impassioned attempts to secure the ultimate score to the death throes of a condemned man. Harry is played by Richard Widmark, whose youthful, almost boyish face and signature cackle-laugh make Harry seem like a kid playing in a man’s world, which in many ways he is.
We don’t know much of Harry’s backstory, but we do know that he’s currently living in London and that he’s spent too much time gambling and losing on get-rich-quick schemes involving football and greyhound races. He’s constantly hitting his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) up for cash, and she obliges out of a confused brew of love and pity. Harry’s chief source of income is hustling customers to the Fox Club, run by the corpulent Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) and his bitter and scheming wife Helen (Googie Withers), with whom Harry has a past.
Harry’s grand idea is to break into the world of professional wrestling by promoting the protégé of a former champion, a heavyset Greek named Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko). The only problem is that Gregorius’ son, Kristo (Herbert Lom), controls the professional wrestling circuit and doesn’t want Harry budding in on his territory. Harry’s ace is that Gregorius and Kristo are estranged due to the father’s disgust with his son’s manipulation of the sport into the realm of spectacle and cheap shots, embodied in the current champion, who is nicknamed “The Strangler” (Mike Mazurki). Gregorius wants wrestling to return to its Greco-Roman roots, a form of noble, legitimate sport that has been cast aside in favor of rampant profiteering and audience bloodlust.
There is much more, of course, as Harry has to entice people on both sides of the divide in order to raise the cash to start his business, which means lying, deceiving, and hustling -- the things he does best. Unfortunately, all his efforts are really little more than tying his own noose and then tightening it around his neck, and the film’s gut-wrenching effectiveness comes from the constant suggestion that he might just get away with it conflicting with the clearly fated nature of the story. Harry is a dead man from the beginning, yet Dassin and screenwriter Jo Eisinger (working from a much-regarded novel by Gerald Kersch) string the story on the hope that there might be some kind of redemption. After all, if a man as shallow, driven, and short-sighted as Harry Fabian can find redemption, anyone can.
Alas, film noir is not a genre of redemption, and Night and the City is one of its most stunning anti-mythical contributions. The arc of the story is constantly downward, but it’s spiked with moments of small triumph in which Harry manages to wriggle out of a tight spot. Unfortunately, these little moments only make the inevitability of his demise, given the forces aligned against him, that much more unsettling.
However, even the forces against him, powerful as they are, have their weaknesses. For example, despite putting on a tough show and trying to bully Harry out of the business, Kristo cannot cross his father; thus, he is emasculated and forced to allow Harry to take a piece of the pie right out from under his nose. Similarly, the physically intimidating and wealthy Phil controls his own night club and plots both with Harry and against him, but he kowtows to Helen, who is constantly plotting her escape from their joke of a marriage. One of the film’s saddest scenes is when Helen finally leaves him, and after the door has slammed, Phil quietly admits to himself that he will take her back when she inevitably returns. In a different vein, Gregorius is the only character who displays any sense values and a willingness to stick by them, but he is a man at the end of life, and he stands primarily as a symbol of the old world, associated with honor and dignity, being subsumed by a new world of flash and compromise.
Night and the City is a powerful film, one that uses the broad structure of a thriller to paint an indelible portrait of the foibles of human ambition in a violent world. Harry Fabian may be set up as a pinnacle of the small-time loser getting crushed in the big leagues, but it’s impossible not to feel for him because we can all recognize a bit of ourselves in his simple desire to lead a better life by any means necessary -- to “be somebody.”
|Night and the City Criterion Collection Director-Approved DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 1, 2005|
|Night and the City has been beautifully transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored using the MTI Digital Restoration System. A brief paragraph in the insert booklet notes that an original nitrate negative was discovered in 1999 and restored by 20th Century-Fox, which undoubtedly helped in making the image look as good as it does. The transfer is consistently sharp throughout, with excellent contrast that gives sumptuous depth and detail to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.|
|The monaural soundtrack, transferred from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored, also sounds very good.|
|Glenn Erickson, undoubtedly well-known to online readers as the DVD Savant, provides an informative screen-specific audio commentary. Erickson wrote a chapter on Night and the City for The Film Noir Reader, and he has clearly spent a good deal of time studying the film and its production history. More about the film can be gained from the new video interview with director Jules Dassin, in which he discusses the difficult circumstances of making the film and how he was so rushed that he never had a chance to read the source novel until after the film was completed (he also tells of how Gene Tierney was near-suicidal during the production). Dassin again appears in a couple of substantial excerpts from a 1972 interview from French television, in which he tells a couple of funny anecdotes about working with Joan Crawford and MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer, but saves his most incisive remarks for fellow director Elia Kazan in a rather painful discussion of McCarthyism and the effect it had on Dassin’s career. “2 Scores, 2 Films” is an intriguing 25-minute featurette that compares the American and British versions of Night and the City. Although Criterion didn’t include the entirety of the British version (likely because Dassin prefers the American cut, even though he didn’t have a direct hand in editing either), this featurette includes several additional scenes from that version, as well as a few direct comparisons of the two musical scores and how they affect the film’s meaning.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and 20th Century-Fox