Noir is a harder genre to define than most, but as a member of the Supreme Court once said, I know it when I see it. For me, the cynical fatalism of noir is most effectively captured by Out of the Past, a film that so fully embodies the spirit of the genre that you can point to nearly any scene and say, “that is film noir!” That's Exhibit A, but let's go ahead and makes Jules Dassin's Night and the City – with its doomed protagonist, tangled web of plotting, shadowy black-and-white cinematography, labyrinthine back alleys, tragic beauty, moral ambiguity, perfectly evocative title, cigarettes and fedoras – Exhibit B.
Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark, The Alamo) is an American hustler trying to make a name for himself in London. Fabian's the sort of guy who's always looking for a new way to stick his hand in somebody else's back pocket, smiling, laughing and dispensing empty flattery as a distraction. He has an on-and-off romance of sorts with Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney, Laura), a nightclub owner who disapproves of Harry's scheming tendencies.
One day, Harry discovers what he believes to be a golden opportunity. He witnesses an argument between legendary wrestler Gregorius the Great (wrestling legend Stanislaus Zbyszko) and Gregorius' son Kristo (Herbert Lom, The Ladykillers) which reveals that Gregorius is unhappy with his son's methods of wrestling promotion. Kristo essentially runs the whole wrestling industry in London, and anyone who attempts to take a piece of that market is asking for trouble. However, Harry becomes convinced that he can get away with it if he manages to secure Gregorius' support. His scheme works, and soon Harry is busy organizing wrestling events for Nikolas of Athens (wrestler Kenneth Richmond), a talented young athlete who also happens to be Gregorius' protege. Now, he needs to focus on securing investors, which will quickly prove to be an incredibly complicated process.
Indeed “complicated” is the name of the game here, but confusion isn't. There are a host of new characters, new twists and new motivations that turn up over the course of Night and the City, but rather than attempting to spend another five paragraphs detailing them for you, I'll just say that Dassin does an impressive job of juggling his assorted plot elements and keeping everything coherent. This is a movie with enough plot to fill two or three films (despite the lean 95-minute running time, the screenplay was a whopping 170 pages), but the film's direction is so assured and purposeful that we rarely feel lost or bewildered.
The film was made under unusual circumstances, as Dassin was blacklisted in Hollywood at the time of production. He still had a relationship with Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck, however, and was able to make a movie for the studio as long as he wasn't working in America. Dassin's decision to make a movie set in London was made out of necessity, but one imagines that he might have felt at least some connection to the story of an American trying to make a living overseas. Of course, Dassin was an artist of great integrity, while Harry... well, Harry definitely isn't.
Richard Widmark is an actor that too many people have forgotten, and Night and the City is arguably the finest showcase of his talents. He had made a huge impression a few years earlier in the noir classic Kiss of Death, in which his giddy laugh and a scene of iconic violence turned him into an unconventional star. That laugh appears frequently in Night and the City, too, but this time it suggests hollow charm rather than savagery. No other actor could have captured Harry Fabian's combination of confidence and desperation with such sleazy conviction. Widmark's journey from cackling con man to strung-out target (with a lot of pendulum swings along the way) is consistently riveting; his wide grin slowly transforming into a grim death mask. Harry is an irredeemable scumbag, but we feel for the guy because Widmark makes him so human.
The supporting cast is filled with memorable performances, too, particularly Zybysko's wonderful turn as Gregorius. Zybysko wasn't a professional actor – aside from an appearance as himself in the 1932 sports drama Madison Sq. Garden, Night and the City was the only film he acted in – but he has such a weathered nobility in his scenes that we feel the role is being played by a great character actor. Similarly impressive is old pro Mike Mazurki (so great as the dim-witted Moose Malloy in Murder, My Sweet), who plays Gregorius' chief rival. There's a no-holds barred fighting match between the two characters late in the film, and it's startlingly brutal by the standards of the era, perhaps only matched by the ferocious boxing match in The Set-Up. It's a tremendously well-crafted (and remarkably tense) fight scene, but it's also a fine showcase for the film's best faces: Zybysko projects righteous anger, Mazurki offers sneering sadism and Widmark demonstrates wide-eyed panic.
There are two different versions of Night and the City, and most immediately noticeable difference between the 101-minute British cut and the 95-minute American cut is that the movies have different original scores: The American version features music by Franz Waxman, while the British version offers a Benjamin Frankel score. The Waxman score is easily the superior effort, offering a sharp energy and emotional directness that Frankel's moody score lacks. Another key difference is that the British version of the film fleshes out the Gene Tierney character a bit more, but in all honesty, the character is relatively insignificant to the film as a whole and the additional scenes don't add much of value. The most significant difference between the two versions is the ending, which is grim and downbeat in the American version and romantically uplifting in the British version.
Unsurprisingly, Dassin claimed that he preferred the American cut of the film – a leaner, harder, colder cut of a lean, hard, cold movie. The film's closing scenes play like Greek tragedy: less a series of dramatic developments than the fulfillment of the inevitable. Harry can fight and scheme and plot all he wants, but this is a city that will not be conquered. It's a film with rich, well-drawn characters and a unique plot, but in a lot of ways, it feels like every noir tale ever told. If you're a fan of the genre, Night and the City is essential viewing.
Night and the City
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 1950