“Harry is an artist without an art.”
Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is a fine example of classic film noir. Filmed in smoky black and white mostly at nighttime on location in London, Dassin takes us slumming through the seedy underworld of nightlife, wrestling, and organized crime.
Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is a hard-bitten, ambitious, streetwise American con artist living in London. Always on the lookout for a quick buck, he can’t seem to catch a break. Ever. Literally running for his life in the opening scene, his latest career endeavor has failed, and his girl, Mary (Gene Tierney), is losing faith in him—stealing from her will do that.
Things brighten one night after a failed hustle at a wrestling match: Harry crosses paths with famous retired Greek wrestler Gregorius the Great (real life professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his prodigy, Nikolas of Athens (Ken Richmond), who both walk out of the arena in a huff. Gregorius is furious with his son, Kristo (Herbert Lom), who organized the fight, a low-end sort of WWE-like affair that he finds tacky.
Harry schmoozes Gregorius and learns that Kristo is a mobster who controls wrestling in all of London. He devises a plan to create a promotion startup, aligning himself with Gregorius to get around Kristo. He secures funding by double dealing with Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), the owner of the Silver Fox Club where Mary works, and Phil’s wife, Helen (Googie Withers). She has plans of her own she doesn’t want Phil to know about.
The whole thing looks like it’s actually going to work despite Kristo’s threats, a plot to murder Harry, and Phil pulling his backing from the project. Harry gets so far as setting up a real fight between Nikolas and the Strangler (Mike Mazurki, also a real life professional wrestler). A miscalculation unravels everything—not just for him but everyone involved.
Jo Eisinger’s screenplay, based on Gerald Kersh’s novel Night and the City with contributions from Austin Dempster and William E. Watts, involves morally bankrupt lowlife characters who lack any redeeming qualities. All of them are scamming for one thing or another, and none of them—except maybe Mary—evokes any sympathy. This plays out nicely with the motifs of money, masculinity, and blind ambition that give this story its dark and bitter hue. It’s suspenseful. Ultimately, evil prevails in this dirty little story, which had to be revolutionary if jarring when this came out.
The backstory here is as interesting as the plot: during the production of Night and the City, Dassin was blacklisted for being a Communist. Pushed into exile, he infuses a strong sense of betrayal and fear into this film (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jules_Dassin).
Night and the City is desperate, chilly, and magnificently bleak—and it looks it thanks to Mutz Greenbaum’s shadowy and dramatic cinematography. Of the nitrate prints that screened this year, this was a standout. According to the festival program, this pre-release print is ten minutes longer than the UK version and 15 minutes longer than the US version.
With Hugh Marlowe, Ada Reeve, Charles Farrell, Edward Chapman, Betty Shale
Production: 20th Century Fox
Distribution: 20th Century Fox, Criterion
111 minutes (pre-release print)
(Dryden Theatre) B
Nitrate Picture Show