Of all the luckless losers to inhabit the dark, morally corrupt world of film noir, few have been less likable than Harry Fabian, the antihero of director Jules Dassin's classic Night and the City. Richard Widmark stars as Harry, a two-bit American hustler living in post World War II London. Harry has a mind that races a mile a minute, always thinking of the next get-rich-quick scheme. But the problem is that Harry's imagination far exceeds his resources or his intelligence. As one character describes Harry, he is "an artist without an art," an all-too-true indictment on a con artist with no real con to call his own. But then Harry hatches a plan that involves Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbysko), a former wrestler disgusted by the fact that his son is promoting sideshow professional wrestling, as opposed the classic grappling that relies on athleticism over flamboyant theatrics. The problem is that Harry has only thought about the end result of his scam – the part where he gets rich – without every really thinking about all the things that could go wrong. And wrong they go, leaving Harry in a position where he must flee for his life.
Night and the City is an interesting entry in the film noir genre in that the central character has no redeeming qualities. Other noir anti-heroes, no matter how morally off-center they may be, always have some shred of redeemable attributes. But such qualities never really surface in Harry, who comes across as a hyperactive, spoiled child prone to fits of pouting. Widmark's portrayal of Harry as someone you can't stand makes for an interesting cinematic experience, as you begin to sympathize with those out to get him, and want to see him fail. When Harry is set up by his employer (Francis L. Sullivan), a sadistic nightclub owner jealous that his wife (Googie Withers) is carrying on with Fabian, there's no denying the feeling that he's got what's coming to him.
Based on Gerald Kersh's novel, with a beautifully written script by Jo Eisinger, Night and the City is a tightly woven tale of deception and betrayal. Directed by Dassin after he was blacklisted and left America during Hollywood's notorious "red scare," the film has a metaphorical tone, as Harry grows increasingly desperate while trying to survive in a world out to destroy him. Whether or not is was Dassin's intention to make a noir thriller that offered a veiled examination of McCarthyism is uncertain, but time has added that to the film's milieu.