Night and the City is an extremely famous film noir from 1950. I actually watched it several months ago when I was cultivating a bromance with my best friend Zach. Needless to say we were both impressed with the overall bleakness of the film, as well as the strong characterization present in the script. There are many very high quality reviews out there pertaining to this particular film noir, and so I am perplexed as to what I might add…so I’m going to stick to the stuff that I felt like they didn’t say.
First off, the film makes Americans look ridiculous (as if we needed any help). Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is an American hustler living in London whose dead-end schemes have made a mess of all of his personal relationships. He risks all that he has left on a gambit against the mob boss Kristo, who is sitting atop the world of wrestling promoting (think Vince McMahon in the 1940s). Fabian uses Kristo’s father, the retired wrestling phenom Gregorius, in an attempt to edge out the mob’s lucrative seat. Harry is reckless, quick-witted, wild, and insatiably greedy- and throughout Night and the City he goes morally as well as financially bankrupt.
The film noir’s director, Jules Dassin, had plenty of motivation for portraying Americans this way; He had just been exiled from America for alleged communist politics. Here a a snippet of a review from 1950:
“[Dassin's] evident talent has been spent upon a pointless, trashy yarn, and the best that he has accomplished is a turgid pictorial grotesque…he tried to bluff it with a very poor script—and failed…[the screenplay] is without any real dramatic virtue, reason or valid story-line…little more than a melange of maggoty episodes having to do with the devious endeavors of a cheap London night-club tout to corner the wrestling racket—an ambition in which he fails. And there is only one character in it for whom a decent, respectable person can give a hoot.” –Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
Harry’s lust for wealth and power has no limits, and in true anti-hero fashion he destroys his relationship with his fiancé Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney). At one point he even pawns her engagement ring. It seems that his character believes that redemption can only be bought by wealth and success, and not by love and forgiveness. Fabian is in a dead sprint the entire film noir to his inevitable conclusion.
Also present in the screenplay are heavy themes of masculinity vs. emasculation. In this era (and much in our own) the quality of “manliness” is inexorably tied with the ability to provide for one’s family. As Fabian repeatedly fails in his attempts to do so, he is shamefully stripped of his manhood. This theft of masculinity drives him to more and more desperate ends, and bears witness to the dark skew of societal expectations and gender roles.
This film noir’s charm is in its atmospheric setting. Night and the City is bleak, moody, and remorseless. The sharply contrasting shadows create a playground for villainous behaviors and a haven for racketeers. The entirety of the plot takes place outside the reach of “johnny-law,” and the criminal underworld rises up to devour the overreaching Fabian. The most poignant scenes occur during his mad scramble for safe harbor, when he finally concludes that he is truly friendless and devoid of hope. He is forced to cry repentance to his love Mary, but he is too late. His ending is pitiful, his death ignominious.
Adam Dunne: Harry is an artist without an art.
Mary Bristol: What does that mean?
Adam Dunne: Well, that is something that could make a man very unhappy, Mary, groping for the right level, the means with which to express himself.
Mary Bristol: Yes, he is that. Is he not? I like that, Adam. It is a very nice thought.
Adam Dunne: Yes, but it can be dangerous.
Truly an amazing piece of film noir, the genre is made more potent as a result.
In an interview appearing on The Criterion Collection DVD release, Dassin recalls that the casting of Tierney was in response to a request by Darryl Zanuck, who was concerned that personal problems had rendered the actress “suicidal,” and hoped that work would improve her state of mind.
Jules Dassin has stated that he did not read the novel “Night and the City” (which the film noir is based upon) until after the film was completed.