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Night and the City (1950) is an excellent title for a film noir - nighttime scenes and cityscapes are two of noir's iconic elements, after all. It also describes Hollywood during the years of commie-hunting and blacklisting that began in the late 1940s and persisted for more than a decade, wrapping the entertainment industry in dark clouds of suspicion. Jules Dassin was directing Night and the City on location in London when he found that he'd been placed on the infamous blacklist, and the excellence of the 1950 production is a testament to his capacity for doing superb work under pressure. By any standard, Night and the City ranks with the best noirs ever made.
Richard Widmark plays Harry Fabian, an American hustler living in London, where he regularly hits up his girlfriend, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), for cash to pay off loan sharks and invest in unpromising schemes. He also practices minor-league scams on behalf of a nightclub called the Silver Fox, where Mary is a singer employed by the joint's owners, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) and his wife, Helen (Googie Withers). A chance encounter links Harry up with an aging Greek man named Gregorius, who was once a champion wrestler in the classic Greco-Roman mode. Gregorius's son, Kristo, is a leading promoter of new-style professional wrestling, which his father hates because it's all show biz and fakery. Talking with Gregorius gives Harry his latest get-rich-quick idea. With the old Greek as his partner, he'll fill a gap in the sporting scene by producing Greco-Roman wrestling matches in London.
Needing funds to get the enterprise going, Harry approaches Phil, who laughs him out of the room. Others also refuse, either because they don't take Harry seriously or because they're afraid of competing with Kristo, who's ruthless and deadly. In a sudden surprise, Helen tricks Phil into promising half of the money Harry needs if Harry can put up a matching amount, and she herself slips Harry the rest. In return for this favor, she wants Harry to wrangle her a license that will let her leave Phil and open a pub. Harry agrees, even though he knows he can't deliver, and then leaps enthusiastically into his new profession of wrestling promoter. But the odds are totally against him. Kristo will kill him if he hurts his old Greek father. Phil suspects that Harry is having an affair with Helen - he is, of course - and secretly plots to destroy him. To accomplish this, Phil hoodwinks Harry into arranging a match between Gregorius's protg, a Greco-Roman wrestler called Nikolas of Athens, and the Strangler, a well-known attraction on the new-style wrestling circuit. Catastrophe follows.
Film noir always involves deceit, treachery, and betrayal, but Night and the City stands out for the sheer magnitude of those bad behaviors. Everyone has it in for everyone, except innocent Mary and her protective neighbor, Adam Dunn, and those two are minor characters. It's a riveting story, and its ubiquitous hypocrisy and backstabbing make it a grimly appropriate metaphor for what the Hollywood industry was going through when it was made. Dassin didn't go on the blacklist until 1950, but he and Twentieth Century Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck saw the handwriting on the wall. Zanuck reacted by assigning Dassin to direct Night and the City, which was slated for shooting in London because certain studio funds had to be used in Britain or forfeited. Zanuck also hoped Dassin would duplicate the success of his earlier noir The Naked City, which had scored a smash hit for Universal in 1948.
Night and the City originated as a novel by Gerald Kersh, which producer Charles K. Feldman purchased in 1946, expecting Jacques Tourneur to direct the adaptation. Fox bought the rights from Feldman in 1949 and hired Jo Eisinger to polish the script that he and several others had drafted. Dassin was so anxious about the ticking clock that he didn't take time to read the novel; when he did eventually get around to it, he said later, he found the story quite different from what he expected. Shooting took place on fifty-four outdoor locations and only fourteen studio sets, a strategy that pays off handsomely in local color and atmosphere. The crowning achievement of cinematographer Max Greene is the frantic climax, which required outdoor light that was available for only an hour each morning. Dassin felt the scene's intensity would suffer if he stretched the shooting over several days, so he and Greene arranged to film it in one or two sessions with no fewer than six cameras. The result is a tour de force of high-energy cinema.
When the picture was in the can, Dassin discovered that he was now blacklisted and forbidden to set foot in the studio. This prevented him from supervising the editing (which is terrific anyway) and overseeing the music for the film. Benjamin Frankel composed the original score, but Fox replaced it with music by the great Franz Waxman for the United States release. The picture was also shortened by a few minutes for American audiences.
The casting couldn't be better. This was Widmark's seventh picture and his fourth noir, and he pours himself into the role of hapless Harry with amazing force, gloating like mad in his triumphant moments and exploding with desperation when things don't go his way. In her memoir, Self-Portrait, costar Tierney recalled the most memorable scene in Widmark's first movie, Kiss of Death, a sensational noir directed by Henry Hathaway in 1947. In it, Tierney wrote, Widmark "pushed Mildred Natwick, an invalid in a wheelchair, down a flight of stairs, as he laughed fiendishly. The laugh was not in the script." He brings an equal measure of inspired creepiness to Night and the City. Tierney also does well as Mary, although her role is small. Zanuck pushed her into the production, according to Dassin, because of fear that a romantic breakup had made her depressed and suicidal. She looks quite chipper on the screen, and you hardly notice that she isn't wearing makeup, following a policy she'd adopted five years earlier when she decided she looked better without it.
When he was casting the role of Gregorius, the aging Greek wrestler, Dassin wanted someone who resembled an old-time champion named Stanislaus Zbyszko, whose picture Dassin remembered seeing as a boy. He was delighted to learn that Zbyszko was alive and well and living in New Jersey, where Fox recruited him to appear in the movie. Scowling, portly Francis L. Sullivan is perfect as Phil, and Googie Withers is just right as his longsuffering wife. As the sinister, smoldering Kristo, character actor Herbert Lom turns in the film's most subtly frightening performance, and former wrestler Mike Mazurki plays the Strangler as a walking volcano just itching to erupt. Hugh Marlowe is his usual mild self as Mary's good-natured neighbor.
A 1992 remake of Night and the City was directed by Irwin Winkler, a prolific Hollywood producer with a particular interest in the blacklist years. The solid cast includes Robert De Niro as Harry and Jessica Lange as Helen, expertly supported by Cliff Gorman and Alan King as the Grossman brothers, who serve the same function here as the father and son (Gregorius and Kristo) in the original picture. Richard Price wrote the screenplay, which replaces wrestling with boxing and gives Harry a tacked-on happy ending. It's a pretty good picture, but the 1950 original pins it to the floorboards. Dassin's career continued in Europe, where he made such important pictures as the comic Never on Sunday (1960) and the crime dramas Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964), but he never made a finer film than Night and the City.
Director: Jules Dassin
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Screenplay: Jo Eisinger; based on the novel by Gerald Kersh
Cinematographer: Max Greene
Film Editing: Nick De Maggio, Sidney Stone
Art Direction: C.P. Norman
Music: Franz Waxman
With: Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Hugh Marlowe (Adam Dunn), Francis L. Sullivan (Philip Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Gregorius), Mike Mazurki (the Strangler), Charles Farrell (Mickey Beer), Ada Reeve (Molly the Flower Lady), Ken. Richmond (Nikolas of Athens)
by David Sterritt