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Night and the City

Night and the City(1950)

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In this last American film for director Jules Dassin before he escaped the trumped-up Red Scare and helmed classics like Rififi in France, scheming huckster Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) scours the streets of London looking for a ticket to the big time. Able to deceive even his girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney with a matronly coiffure and a largely disposable role), he concocts an elaborate scheme to conquer the shady world of boxing after discovering an immigrant wrestler, Gregorious the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko), whom he uses as a wedge to muscle in on the sports action controlled by ruthless gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom). For financing he turns to bar owner Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), whose wife (Dead of Night's Googie Withers) he also manipulates for financial gain. Unfortunately fate deals a nasty hand that exposes Harry's trickery, and soon he's on the run for his life.

Much critical ink has covered the parallels between Harry's plight and the similar trials of Dassin, who was hiding out working for Fox's London branch as the watchful eyes of HUAC closed in. That theory is largely supported by Criterion's elaborate and wholly justified special edition, though the film also functions as much more than that. Widmark is exceptional in what amounts to an extended chase film (alternating between intellectual and physical pursuit), with the Sword of Damocles hovering overhead in classic noir style. However, the film breaks with traditional noir on several levels as the protagonist digs his own grave in a world even more paranoid and exaggerated than what one expected from 1940s thrillers; made in 1950, Night and the City could be considered the first "second wave" noir (followed by the likes of Fritz Lang's The Big Heat) in which definitions of heroism became completely useless and sadism was the order of the day. This trend arguably reached its apex even later with The Girl Hunters and Darker than Amber, but Dassin's film remains the cream of the crop. His portrayal of a dark, gangster-controlled London operating as an inescapable caste system has been copied many times since, but his filmmaking finesse keeps the environment fresh and invigorating; often characters are framed through windows or from forced perspectives that give the entire film a sense of imbalance only righted when the whole shebang comes crashing down at the end.

In one particularly fascinating extra on the DVD, Night and the City is revealed to exist in two completely different versions: Dassin's authorized American cut with music by Franz Waxman (presented as the main feature) and an alternate, longer British version with inferior music by Benjamin Frankel. Most of the extra British footage focuses on Tierney and potential love interest Hugh Marlowe, with a few more sympathetic flourishes offered to Widmark. The heightened emphasis on Tierney is especially strange here as this one-time noir muse from Laura and Leave Her to Heaven seems even more out of joint with the rest of the proceedings; narrator Christopher Husted does a solid job of guiding the 23-minute featurette through the alternate footage without making any value judgments, but it's quite clear which version ultimately comes out on top. That said, the British version does include a few tantalizing visual touches and easily counts as essential viewing for fans of the film.

Along with the feature itself, reviewer and film scholar Glenn Erickson presents a very thorough and lively audio commentary in which he dissects the film from virtually every angle imaginable. Rarely scene specific, the discussion instead focuses on the film's remarkable back story and placement in the noir pantheon. Dassin turns up for two featurettes, a new 17-minute interview in which he talks about his relationship with Fox's Darryl Zanuck and the actors on the film (as well as confessing he never read the source novel before writing the script) and a 1972 French TV interview from Ciné-Parade in which he discusses the star system, the subordinate role of directors in Golden Age Hollywood, and the painful betrayal by Elia Kazan. Also included are the theatrical trailer and an 8-page insert including an essay by film professor Paul Arthur.

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by Nathaniel Thompson