Crawl deep into the black heart of any city and you might come close to the depravity and criminal element on display in director Jules Dassin’s Night & The City. Here stands noir of the highest order, and a film I’ve regretfully not experienced until now.
Richard Widmark’s misguided dreamer Harry Fabian cooks up the scheme of schemes: dominate London’s professional wrestling scene by pitting legendary fighter Gregorious against Kristo, the current top dog of London wrestling who just happens to be Gregorious’ estranged son. But Harry needs some upfront cash, so he turns to fellow schemer Phil Nosseross, a restaurateur with stalled dreams of his own: Phil’s wife has laughed at his desire to escape “the life” and hole up in some exotic locale. In fact, she’s partnered with Harry to trump Phil and open her own club. She even fronts Harry half the start-up money he needs for his wrestling venture, forcing Phil to make good on his promise to bankroll the other half of Harry’s enterprise.
It’s not long before Phil catches wind of his wife’s betrayal (in a deviously designed single composition, I might add) and a downward spiral unwinds, pushing Harry farther and farther away from his dream.
Not a shred of sympathy’s to be found in this underworld tragedy, and it’s precisely this lack of empathy that gives the picture such a sting. The director, Jules Dassin, had recently fled Hollywood amidst speculation of Communist ties. It’s not hard to imagine the anger and resentment he must have felt, particularly since the film simmers with hatred.
Several moments in the film had me jonesing at the eyes, particularly a midnight footchase through a ghostly construction site. Shapes and light and angles and shadows converge into a frenetic nightmare, but cinematographer Max Greene captures the unsightly locations so magnificently you’ll want to call up your travel agent and arrange for a visit.
As I wrote in my introductory piece, I often attribute the desperation found in so many films noir to the fundamental idea of survival. The concept’s certainly at work in Night & The City, both literally – as Harry is most certainly running for his life at one point – and figuratively, as Harry ultimately betrays the person closest him to keep his scheme alive. And while Harry’s hustle hugs the bottom of the dream ladder, it is most certainly that – a dream – and his alone, for a man who’s lost his dream is nothing more than a dead man walking.
A few parting notes:
— Researching the picture, I discovered that there’s a UK version that features both a different ending and a different score!
— Writer Christa Faust recently viewed a third cut of the film. Read about it here, but I strongly suggest seeing the movie before you do.
— Also at Criterion, writer Dennis Lehane lists Night & The City in his Top 10.
— Night & The City was remade in 1992 by Irwin Winkler with Robert DeNiro and Jessica Lange. I haven’t seen it. Anyone?
— You can also find Night & The City at Netflix, where it’s currently available through instant watching.