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Happily, Night and the City has risen from obscurity to top-of-the-heap noir status in the last twenty years. Just about everybody recognizes its top roost among expressionist noirs using visuals to communicate extreme alienation and anxiety. The film is a key subject for both the noir style and the blacklist period, and also a nice piece of connective tissue between American films set in the underworld of crime and their British counterparts about spivs and other thugs in the years of black market rationing. Made in a great hurry to conceal its director from the Fox board of directors, it ended up being completed in two versions. Even though I wrote a chapter on the film for the first Film Noir Reader in 1996, I was originally unaware that a different English cut existed. Excerpts from that version were included on the first Night and the City DVD in 2004. Criterion has this time given us the whole alternate cut and mix for comparison.
Restored from the original cut nitrate element 'rediscovered' by Fox in one of its own vaults in 1999, Night and the City looks better than ever before. It's a mesmerizing tale of misplaced ambition, cutthroat business practices and expressionist doom sans redemption. As such, it's a key loser noir. Through it we feel not only the jaded cynicism of its source author Gerald Kersh but also the frenzied anxiety of its director Jules Dassin, who was hounded out of Hollywood and America by the HUAC witch hunt.
Gerald Kersh's slimy English pimp has been transformed into the American expatriate Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), who goes beyond his job as a club tout to formulate sleazy get rich quick plans. His latest, most outrageous scheme requires him to cheat, deceive or swindle everyone he knows in the East End underworld, including his girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney), a disillusioned nightclub entertainer. Harry's employer and sometime backer is nightclub owner Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan). Harry deals straight with Phil, but he also makes a secret partner of Phil's ambitious wife Helen (Googie Withers), a move that Nosseross understandably mistakes for a romantic betrayal. But that's nothing compared to Harry's overall scam: he's angling to gain a foothold in the London wrestling racket controlled by the murderous gangster kingpin Kristo (Herbert Lom). Harry's ace in the hole is Gregorious the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko), a legendary Greco-Roman wrestler that he befriends for the sole purpose of keeping Kristo at bay ... Gregorious is the gangster's father.
Night and the City has more textbook noir attributes than any picture this side of the baroque visions of Orson Welles. Yet it is easily distinguished from movies that affect a romantic twist on the style. The Third Man makes Vienna look like a bizarre funhouse at midnight, with zither music creating an attractive mood amid all the decaying bomb ruins. Jules Dassin's London is forbidding and hostile. It is the labyrinth described by essayist Paul Arthur, an externalized reflection of Harry Fabian's tortuous quest. Harry won't be happy until he can "live the life of ease and plenty" without working for it. He's a cousin to The Prowler's villainous cop Webb Garwood, whose ignoble ambition in life is, "to make money while I sleep."
Harry's ambition is easily understood by those hungering for the good life we see all around us. But his plan is to take a shortcut to what he wants even if it means alienating his friends and associates, including the only people who care whether he lives or dies. The movie (especially in the American cut) expresses an attitude not found in Gerald Kersh's excellent novel of the sordid Cockney East End of London. The book was written in the late 1930s. Its Harry is a despicable louse and con man, a deceiver who deceives himself most of all. He doesn't realize that everyone knows he's a ponce living off the earnings of a streetwalker. At the end he's preparing to sell his 'girlfriend' to a white slaver. There's no defending the book's Harry on any grounds. If society is sick, it's because people like Harry Fabian are in it.
The movie is different. It shares the anti-capitalist sentiments of late-'40s 'radical' noirs like Try and Get Me!, Force of Evil and Body and Soul. The ugly message is that something is seriously wrong with a system that overburdens honest working people and rewards cheap thugs and sharp businessmen. When push comes to shove, kingpins like Kristo are immune from the law, insulated from prosecution by smart attorneys and armies of toadying underlings. The near-subhuman The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) is willing to commit murder just to regain Kristo's good graces. The final image in this picture is of a rich man walking calmly away from a murder he has commissioned.
Harry is a blight on the notion of free enterprise, a malignant Horatio Alger. He "just wants to be somebody," 1 and believes that his fortune can be made by a single master stroke of bluff and deception. Hugh Marlowe's Adam Dunne is wrong when he calls him "an artist without an art" (another pithy phrase), for Harry is a consummate con artist.
If Harry were capable of being faithful to a key associate or two he might have gotten somewhere. Instead of building a career from relationships, as most of us decide is the way to go, Fabian turns his entire life into a giant con game. He muscles in on the racket of the most powerful gangster in the city, using the gangster's father as a shield. For operating money he steals from his own business partner and his trusting girlfriend. But just as con men always think they're fooling people, Harry is blind to the effects of his own deceptions. He doesn't realize that his partner thinks he's two-timing him with his wife instead of just leading her on. And he's too frantic trying to hold together the loose ends of his scheme, to keep unforeseen events from bringing the whole thing down on his head. Harry's slick 'deal' ends up with those who trust him dead, outraged or heartbroken. The worst is reserved for our master of overreaching ambition. In a terrifying turn of events, the entire underworld is mobilized to kill Harry before dawn.
Night and the City is beautifully directed and acted, a necessity with a screenplay and characters wrapped up in complicated, tawdry intrigues. Richard Widmark's best performance is here. Beginning in a state of barely disguised hysteria, the actor never loses control no matter how unstable Harry becomes. We get the feeling that the range of characters Widmark was given in films was far below his capabilities. He's matched by English actors Francis L. Sullivan (Joan of Arc) and Googie Withers (Dead of Night) as a diabolically dysfunctional husband and wife. They negotiate marital relations over a silver fox fur coat, a scene that speaks volumes about marriage in a material society.
This is a great showcase role for the underappreciated Herbert Lom, who brings great depth to the menacing Kristo. For once we believe that a mobster is a devoted son who loves his father -- Harry is insane to get involved with the old man Gregorious. Plenty of people make movies about crooked plans that go awry, but the awful series of events in the gym, with the old man going up against The Strangler, raise the tension to an intolerable level. The wrestling combat is a fight between two giant, monstrous dinosaurs. Harry's scheme requires that he get people fighting mad -- and he's a fool to think that he can continue to control them. One gesture from the inconsolable Kristo, and the entire city mobilizes to find and kill one man.
Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe were jammed into the story at the last minute as a favor to Darryl F. Zanuck, the sympathetic mogul who kept blacklisted Jules Dassin on the payroll by finding him work in the company's London subsidiary. Tierney received most of the abuse in the film's lukewarm critical reception. But almost every reviewer remarked on the great performance by Stanislaus Zbyszko, perhaps not realizing that he was a famous ex-champion wrestler in retirement. A couple of the 'greats' mentioned in the dialogue were Zbyszko's competitors and contemporaries.
Night and the City's ending rivals those of the bleakest films noirs: Brute Force, Hollow Triumph, Detour. It tends to be received differently depending on who's watching. My father-in-law was a hardworking insurance agent. He thought it was a satisfying ending, and that Harry Fabian got exactly what he deserved. We are all dismayed by Harry's lack of ethics. But some of us remember the anxiety of being young and undecided about how to get what we want out of life, and having to decide against things we knew to be dishonest. We also know people that live by their wits and take advantage of others to get by. The tendency is to feel guilty just for being ambitious. The miserable story of Harry Fabian is almost a psychic punishment for sins not committed.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Night and the City looks as good as the original prints we had back at UCLA when the film archive was new. The DVD release looked great but this Blu-ray is an improvement, with less grain and a wider grayscale that reaches deep into all of those night-for-night cityscapes of ruin and decay. Cinematographer Max Greene shot many scenes at the 'twilight hour' just before dawn, when the sky is just beginning to lighten but the streets need artificial lighting. Many of these night-for-night twilight hour shots have a fantastic quality, as if the bombed-out city were 'La Zone' of Jean Cocteau's Orpheus.
The Blu-ray format also permits more extras. Director Dassin is featured in two interviews, one made by Criterion and a 1972 French interview where the director gets down-and-dirty in his stories about Hollywood. He tells the famous horse-castrating story about mogul Louis B. Mayer; he also says exactly why Elia Kazan was never forgiven by the actors, writers and directors he betrayed.
The old DVD offered clips from the alternate longer British cut of the movie, but this new Blu-ray includes the Brit cut full length. This allows us to compare the versions -- I personally see only a couple of things in the Brit version that the American cut (Dassin's preferred cut) lacks. Besides letting us hear Benjamin Frankel's rather limp music score, the English version shows several key scenes that do not appear in the standard cut. It retains more of the Gene Tierney subplots that were shoehorned into the film. The alternate opening scene lets her try out a half-hearted English accent. It also introduces Harry Fabian as a much softer character. Darryl F. Zanuck's rewrite improves this part of the film greatly by sticking to basics -- Harry has come to Mary's apartment only to steal from her, and their relationship is already threatened by his cheap con games. This really changes the Harry Fabian character -- he's confused and sad in the English cut, and full of resentful spite in the American version. He's much better as an S.O.B..
Later on we see a British-only scene where an irate hotel manager (played by Edward Chapman of Things to Come and X-The Unknown) comes to collect 280 pounds from Harry. The necessity of paying that debt recasts Harry as more sympathetic, as he makes a sincere speech about his desperate need to succeed. In the English version he has a forger make Helen's fake liquor license to get the money for the hotel. In the American version the money is for other urgent needs. Harry cheats everyone, while admiring his new office and name plate.
The English scene that might have helped the American cut shows the morbidly jealous Phil Nosseross catching Harry and Helen kissing outside his window. Each 'lover' is conning the other for business reasons but Phil misinterprets the scene as wife- poaching and resolves to do Harry in. In the American version Phil seems a genius for figuring out Harry and Helen's conspiracy with only the evidence of the missing fur coat. Although dropping the kissing scene simplifies the story, its more adult context adds to the sordid atmosphere. If included in the American cut, it would make Night and the City seem more of a piece with earlier Brit-noir items like the vicious Brighton Rock and the seamy It Always Rains on Sunday.
Elsewhere, the American cut is cleaner and more to the point; the English version retains more material created for Hugh Marlowe and Gene Tierney. The far softer English ending presents Mary and Adam as lovers consoling each other after Harry's untimely exit. For once, the Americans got it right.
Savant did the commentary, which jams in everything I could discover about the film and the Kersh novel. I think I'm now ready to take in the East End as a tourist after reading all about the filming of this show, a favorite ever since I was invited to see it on a Steenbeck in the UCLA Film Archive's first offices back in 1971. A script of the film I bought in 1976 turned out to be a Fox file original with notes by Darryl Zanuck, rewriting the opening scene. That unique bit of research led to the chapter in the Film Noir Reader.
Paul Arthur's learned insert essay has been retained as well. It encapsulates the film's depth in just a few short paragraphs. The disc also has an original trailer in which the narrator pronounces Googie Withers' first name as "goo-jee." I cheerfully pronounced it as "goo-gee" throughout my commentary; I was relieved to find out that I was right. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
2. When I did my commentary I had also never seen the English version -- I actually did not know there was a different English version until the disc producer thought to tell me. I'm equally happy to report that all of my comments about the English scenes -- which appear in my script -- are accurate anyway.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.