Thursday, October 10, 2013

Classics: A Review of Night and the City By Lauren Ennis

This makes Dickens' London look downright jolly
Like jazz and rock and roll, film noir is considered a quintessentially American art form. The genre was most noted for its uncanny ability to capture the cynicism, paranoia, and grittiness of life in Cold War America. Like its musical counterparts, however, film noir soon found its way across the pond and into the hands of British filmmakers. These artists used their skills to add a distinctive, bleak, quality to the already grim genre, and provided viewers with Europe’s view of post-war life. One of the most interesting of these British imports was the 1950 thriller Night and the City, a film that delivers the best of both continents as it follows an international cast through an American plot set in London’s underworld.

The film begins as down and out American hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) sprints to the safety of the apartment he shares with his fellow expat girlfriend, Mary (Gene Tierney). He quickly sets to work rifling through Mary’s purse so that he can pay back a group of local thugs he owes money to. Mary returns home from work just in time to catch Harry stealing from her. Her resignation reveals that this is not the first time that Harry has found himself in financial straits, or the first time that he has stolen from her. He ignores her disappointment and explains to her that the money is all part of a plan that will help them both “make it big”.

Harry eventually finds the big idea that he’s been searching for when he attends a wrestling match run by local gangster, Kristo (Herbert Lom). He overhears Kristo’s once renowned wrestler father, Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko), lamenting that his son has sold out his family’s Greco-Roman traditions in favor of flashier, modern, wrestling. Knowing an opportunity when he sees one, Harry works his charm on Gregorious and offers to bring Greco-Roman wrestling back to its former glory if Gregorious will be his business partner. Gregorious eagerly agrees and proceeds to take Harry under his wing as a surrogate son, much to the dismay and frustration of Kristo. Kristo agrees not to interfere with his father’s affairs, but makes it clear that more than money will be at stake should this venture prove to be a failure. Harry pays no attention to Kristo’s threats and immediately seeks investment funds from his sometimes employer and owner of the club Mary sings in, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan). Phil, who has been hustled by Harry before, pretends to support this latest scheme and offers to provide Harry with the necessary four hundred quid, while actually planning to rescind the funds at the last minute. Meanwhile, Phil’s much younger wife, Helen (Googie Withers), approaches Harry with a proposition to provide him with even greater funds in exchange for the forged liquor license she needs to start her own nightclub and leave her empty marriage. This tangled web of deals and double-crosses sets events in motion that will lead to tragedy for all concerned.
An artist without an art
One of the most intriguing aspects of this film is the way in which it breathes new life into the well worn noir genre by adding its own twists and turns. For instance, while most noirs portray their heroes as ordinary men who are led astray by the forces surrounding them, Harry is far from a victim of circumstance. Unlike most noir heroes, who are often little more than pawns in the villain's greater scheme, he is consistently offered opportunities to change his life and seek a legitimate career. As a result, the only fate that Harry succumbs to is the one which he knowingly puts himself on the path to. Richard Widmark’s manic performance so thoroughly captures Harry’s desperate need to succeed that his schemes appear  to be indications of a compulsion rather than ambition. Despite the uniqueness of his character, Harry’s eventual downfall follows noir tradition by showing the dark side of the American Dream when taken to its most extreme.   

Because Harry is constantly tempted by his own delusions of greatness, there is no need for a femme fatale to enter the plot and lead him astray. The lack of the sultry genre staple leaves the film open to utilize more complex and believable female characters. For example, although Helen used her younger age and looks to win Phil years before, she is now relying on her wits and business savvy to leave her sordid past behind. While her eagerness to discard Phil calls her moral character into question, it also highlights her independence and ambition. Similarly, although Mary acts as Harry’s enabler throughout the film, she does so both knowingly and willingly. Unlike many noir heroines, who are blissfully unaware of their men’s dark sides, Mary understands and sympathizes with Harry’s misplaced dreams, which reflect her own desire to rise above life in the slums. Through these nuanced characterizations, the film creates female characters who are just as complicated as the men in their lives and mirror the reality of women’s changing roles in the post-war years.

The film excellently juxtaposes the idealized image of post-war prosperity with the reality of national recovery. Throughout the film, the characters attempt to utilize the supposed freedom of opportunity that was available after the end of the Great Depression and World War II. Despite their best efforts, however, their plans are blocked at every turn, diminishing their hopes for a better future. This conflict between dreams and reality is further emphasized through the juxtaposition of the city’s quaint tourist sights with its sleazy dives surrounded by bombed out ruins. The film’s cynical view of post-war life can be traced to it's director’s own fall from grace. After being accused of participating in communist politics at the start of the infamous Red Scare, Jules Dassin found himself shut out from Hollywood, and like Harry, exiled himself to London. Dassin’s bitter experience with Hollywood soured his view of the supposed advancements of modern life and what he viewed as a futile, never ending, rat-race. Fortunately for audiences, Dassin’s bitter experience provided him with the inspiration needed to make a truly unique addition to the film noir canon, which also serves as an honest portrayal of an often romanticized time and place.

Night and the City remains one of the least known, but best made film noirs. Its stifling vision of a society trapped by its own delusions is eerily relevant in today’s increasingly conflicted and economically limited era. The film’s performances are uniformly engaging, dynamic, and realistic. The film successfully combines ambition, greed, betrayal, and redemption in a way that creates a thrill ride that few films can match. Join Widmark, Dassin, and company for a walk on the dark side, it will be a night on the town to remember.

Skip the femme and go straight for the fatale


  1. I thought this film was a porno...oh wait that s "Hot Child in the City"...nevermind

  2. Haha like the other Exterminating Angel I almost reviewed by mistake. Either way, it beats the 92 De Niro remake.

    1. You still should review Exterminating Angel. I think it would be a great review XD

  3. Yea, I just need to remind myself to avoid clicking past Sundance after a certain hour...although the French brothel film was quite informative