Thursday, December 7, 2017

Night and the City (1950)

Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950) Frenetic film noir directed by Jules Dassin two steps ahead of the HUAC that was trying to get him to name names. Dassin fled to London under the auspices of Darryl F. Zanuck to direct this turgid Film-Noir-in-London about a Charlie Hustle tout, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), exploiting people's passions trying to make a big score any way he can, this time through wrestling tournaments, encroaching on the turf of Kristo (Herbert Lom), who'll do anything to stop him. Everything that is, except cross his father, who just happens to be Fabian's new business partner.

The first time we see Fabian, he's running. He spends a lot of time running in the film, trying to out-pace his creditors, or the next guy who wants to kill him, or dashing after The Next Big Thing, but the line between him running to something or from is a bit blurred now. And there's not much difference between the patter he spins his long-suffering girlfriend (
Gene Tierney, whose small role belies her second billing placement) or any of the marks he's trying to hustle. Fabian's sincerity is veneer-thick, just enough to make you think he's on somebody's side besides his own. When he stands helplessly on the sidelines while his meal-ticket fights for his life (a brutal sequence amazingly staged by Dassin and the two wrestlers involved), you get the sense that he's distraught because his future could go up in smoke.

The thing is, Fabian's a rat in a trap, which is visually communicated by Dassin's many shots of him stuck in place, or running the maze-like side-streets and ruins of London, as well as the cages that substitute for offices in the sleazy back-world the denizens inhabit. Despite the squalor, the film is beautiful to look at, with Dassin and his cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum bending the shadows into Gothic patterns that rival those of Citizen Kane.

Night and the City is a fascinating film, with an animated (perhaps too animated) Widmark performance-probably to make his character a bit more sympathetic; the British actors have their emotions checked in reserve and come off best, while Tierney's performance is all Fox-ingenue. And the desperate, frentic sense feels like it was made by a man on the run. Dassin stayed in Europe, continuing his career, which hit an international career-peak with Never On Sunday in 1960. He died March 31st this year in his adopted home of Greece.

Night and the City was remade in 1992, starring Robert DeNiro and Jessica Lange. It was not improved on.

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