Thursday, December 11, 2008

Target #38: Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin)

Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Gerald Kersh (novel), Jo Eisinger (screenplay), Austin Dempster (uncredited), William E. Watts (uncredited)
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan, Herbert Lom, Hugh Marlowe, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki, Charles Farrell, Ken Richmond

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details follow!!!

“You did it, and now you can get rich. You’ve got Kristo stopped, you’ve got the Strangler, and Gregorius is on your side. It’s a wonderful situation, because you’ve got it all. But you can’t put the fight on because you don’t have the money, and there isn’t a man in all of London who’ll let you have a shilling. You’ve got it all, but you’re a dead man, Harry Fabian.”

Life is futile. Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) has lived his whole life in the gutter, wasting his meagre savings on creative money-making schemes that always fall through, dreaming of a life of "ease and plenty," and dragging life-long sweetheart Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) down into the black abyss with him. Eking out a modest existence through hard work and perseverance is no option for him. No, Harry Fabian dreams big. He reaches for the stars, and, when he falls short, inevitably and painfully comes crashing back to earth. This is film noir, and film noir doesn't look too kindly upon those who dream bigger than is good for them. Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) was filmed in the squalid streets of London, and so appropriately represents the flip-side of the American Dream. Films like Sylvester Stallone's Rocky (1976) gained popularity precisely because they showed that dedication and self-belief can make a hero of even the most humble of men. The British don't offer the optimism of their trans-Atlantic cousins – here, success is reserved only for the corrupt.

During the film, Fabian is described as "an artist without an art." He certainly possesses the determination to strike it big, but he wields his passion indiscriminately, stepping on the wrong people's toes and so sealing his demise. One gets the sense that he wants to make an honest living, but is nonetheless prepared to take dishonest shortcuts in order to fast-track his success. Yet even among the most powerful underground figures, success is no guarantee of happiness: bulging night-club owner Philip Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) loses his discontented wife, whose own impatience to break free from her husband's ownership inadvertently sacrifices her financial stability. The sour wrestling promoter Kristo (Herbert Lom) loses the respect of his father, who is noble at heart but living hopelessly in the past. Only in the sad, betrayed eyes of Gene Tierney – regrettably underused in this film – does Dassin appear to find virtue, and so he offers her an alternative to the damned Fabian. Mary fittingly ends the film in the arms of an ordinary but dependable artist (Hugh Marlowe).

Filmed on-location in London by cinematographer Max Greene, Night and the City has an incredibly gritty, realistic immediacy. Too often, in American noir, it's only too clear that the characters are tramping through a studio-built set, in which one doesn't expect there to be any unpleasant surprises. Conversely, Dassin's decision to film in the shadowy city streets recreates that uncertain sense of dread one feels when trudging alone through an unfamiliar urban locale, exposed to the elements and whoever might happen to cross your path. The film was shot while Dassin was facing being blacklisted from Hollywood for his alleged affiliations with the Communist Party (he was betrayed to the HUAC by fellow noir directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle), leading a nervous Darryl F. Zanuck to urge "shoot the expensive scenes first." The American likely took some stylistic inspiration from Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949) – both of which concern wanted men who are betrayed by those they thought close to them. Reed, in turn, probably took wrestling inspiration for his own A Kid for Two Farthings (1955).

Jules Dassin passed away on March 31, 2008, having re-established his directing career in Europe with the stellar heist movie, Rififi (1955). Just one week earlier, star Richard Widmark also checked out, having lived a substantially fuller life than his on-screen persona. Widmark's manic performance is an interesting and multi-faceted one. Perfectly in tune with the character of Harry Fabian, nothing Widmark says sounds entirely convincing. There's always the slightest trace that he's bluffing – feigning toughness or otherwise stalling for time. He really is like a kid with ADHD, bouncing about with too much energy to spare and no worthwhile endeavour in which to invest it. Fabian's doom is never in any doubt. The spectre of death hovers above him for most of the film, but he stubbornly refuses to relent from his final grab at "being a somebody." Like a dead man walking, he goes through the motions, still trying to convince himself that this time he can win. He doesn't deserve, and doesn't receive, any sense of nobility… even in death.

Currently my #1 film of 1950:
1) Night and the City (Jules Dassin) *
2) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder) *
3) Harvey (Henry Koster)
4) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray) *
5) Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)
6) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
7) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston) *
8) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
9) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)


Anonymous said...

This film recently played at a local theater during a film noir fest. I really wanted to see it because I've heard such great things about it and I absolutely love Richard Widmark in everything he's in. Unfortunately the timing didn't work out.

ackatsis said...

This would have been wonderful on the big screen; too bad you didn't manage to make it!

I see that you recently watched "The Naked City." I haven't seen it yet, but after this and "Rififi," I really want to explore more of Jules Dassin's work.

Speaking of Widmark, he's excellent in Elia Kazan's "Panic in the Streets (1950)," which I watched last night. That'll be the next review I post up here.