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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Night and the City: The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Night and the City: The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // August 4, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 3, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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The Film:

Some people understand what they're supposed to do with their lives -- with their smarts and talents -- at an early age, while other take a good while to figure out what they're meant to do, bouncing between professions in the meantime. Then, there are those who never really figure out what they're built for, resulting either in folks stuck in unsatisfying jobs or futilely chasing entrepreneurial opportunities until their number's up. Jules Dassin's spirited film noir Night and the City revolves around much more than that, naturally, spinning a dangerous web of scheming and backstabbing through the wrestling racket in post-WWII London, yet there's a timeless bittersweet tone lying within the pursuits of American hustler Harry Fabian that elevates the film through this life crisis. He's a man who never discovers a legit means of providing for he and his lady, despite his many skills that could be put to use in any number of other ways, which makes the mesmerizing hole he digs for himself both saddening and infuriating to behold.

Played by Richard Widmark in the prime of his antiheroic film noir popularity, Harry Fabian scurries about the darkened alleyways and smoky nightclubs of London trying to pull any con that might be worthwhile to him, often tied back to the club owned by seedy businessman Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) and his crafty and detached wife, Helen (Googie Withers). While caught up in a botched job at a wrestling match nearby, Fabian witnesses a scuffle between a legendary wrestler, Gregorious (Stanislaus Zybyszko), and his son, bout organizer and local "entrepreneur" Kristo (Herbert Lom), that gets the gears moving in his head when their conversation turns to the purity of the sport. To make his scheme work, he needs capital, the kind of money he can't borrow from his innocent squeeze Mary (Gene Tierney). Thus begins Fabian's journey to get the coin required to become a player in London's wrestling circuit, a potential avenue for legitimate and lucrative income after he gets over this hump ... and he's willing to do just about anything to make that happen: lying, double-crossing, forging, even outright stealing.

Corruption permeates the lively streets of London in this take on Gerald Kersh's eponymous novel, creating a grimy and unpredictable setting in Night and the City that's hinged on a tentative "honor amongst thieves", where waiters and flower merchants on the streets are all in on the game. They're also the eyes and ears of those who have the coin to spend on whatever information they glean about those who partake in their services, tossing allegiances aside when push comes to shove. Director Dassin doesn't make that element of the criminal underbelly one of malevolence, though, reserving that for the rigors of competing business and family conflict that drive the bigwigs studded throughout the town. Instead, this neutrality builds an environment where Fabian's scheming is both kept under wraps from the regular population (and law enforcement) and remains common knowledge among the larger players, granting him the freedom to maneuver under their skeptical observation.

The writing within the film noir genre commonly exaggerates the pulpy and on-the-nose style of it all, as if perpetually embroiled in a competition to one-up another entry, but Night and the City tailors the dialogue and twists so that they feel like natural extensions of this coarse, opportunistic atmosphere. Plenty of memorably stylistic lines are to be relished throughout the film -- such as a clever reworking of the "give enough rope" idiom using the sharpness of a blade -- but many of them often fly under the radar since they feel so integrated into the situations. The same can be said for the shrewd, subtle reveals of pertinent information and tactics at Fabian's disposal: many faces appear in his vigorous sprints between locations that could simply accentuate the atmosphere, but the script makes clever (re)use of them in the layers of his plotting, whether they're planned or spontaneous fixes to problems. That natural progression and usage of details, often revealing information by deduction that doesn't hold the audience's hand, makes Dassin's well-paced cinematic style breeze by even quicker.

Barring a few conveniences for the sake of the story, from people staying put in places for lengthy periods of time to the opportune smudging of ink from condensation, Night and the City generates shrewdly-written and uncompromising suspense that's always a few steps ahead of expectations. Unlikable swindlers and shady businessmen (and women) each have their own sympathetic qualities that make it tough to completely despise them amid their machinations, whether it's unreturned love from spouses and family to stifled ambition due to the town's dominant businessman, yielding a degree of unpredictability to the lines they're willing to cross to keep the upper hand. What's great about Night and the City comes in how quickly, and logically, the burly moving pieces of an industry built on stout backs and larger-than-life personalities can muscle out of their control. A stunning-photographed and poetic brawl near the end defies expectations of what the film's setting up, one whose stakes subvert the value of cash and contracts for the sake of family, honor, and the art of battle.

Coupled with absorbing, charismatic performances from all the rogues involved, Jules Dassin expertly structures Night and the City so that it's unclear whether we're supposed be pulling for Fabian and his wrestling endeavors to succeed or fail, which ties into the aforementioned idea of people whose potential is never properly realized. The story puts the audience in a neutral position there, cutting off most of the heroic or villainous bias so those watching can relish the twists and turns of his plan without being swayed. In that, against the rhythmic clanks and foggy depths of London through director Dassin's immersive viewpoint, there's something truly bittersweet about seeing this capable, honest-faced conman who thinks on his feet surrender to the moral demands of this scenario, elevated by Widmark's frantic personification of misguided ambition and fickle allegiances. It'd be easy to see Fabian's talents caught up in navigating boardrooms, pulling political strings, and persuading judges and juries instead of grifting between the city's dark corners, but whether we'd want him there is, of course, something else altogether, a true testament to the film's nuanced handling of genre characterization.


The Blu-ray:




Ladies and gentlemen! Coming to the ring is The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray reissue of Night and the City, presented in the boutique label's traditional clear-case, single-disc design. Colorful, newly-commissioned artwork replicates one of the pivotal conversations early in the film, adding a pulp-novel flavor to the overall package that differs from the tan-and-black minimalism from the previous release. That design idea continues over into the foldout sheet included with the Blu-ray, a new idea that's been tested by Criterion over the standard booklets: a full-body depiction of Harry Fabian from late in the film adorns one side, while a newspaper aesthetic covers the other in presenting the film and Blu-ray/transfer credits. Also included in this newspaper is Paul Arthur's essay, "In the Labyrinth", while stills from the film add to the overall ambience created here. The novelty works well as an alternative to a booklet, considering the limited essay information included.


Video and Audio:

Releases like The Third Man and The Last Year at Marienbad were instrumental in cementing my fondness for classic films on Blu-ray early in the high-definition format, setting high benchmarks and potential for any following presentations. Offerings from The Criterion Collection since then have improved on that reputation, for the most part, reaching new heights with 4K restorations and refined dirt/grain presentation. Their 1.33:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer for Night and the City, scanned on an Oxberry wet-gate film scanner from the 35mm original negative and restored by the folks at Cineric, is yet another stunning benchmark for the format and a notable upgrade over the DVD. Details are absolutely meticulous; check out Harry's grid jacket and the ties/suits work throughout the film. Contrast remains well-balanced from start to finish, rich and natural without intruding on details. Film grain appears just right, organic and visible yet entirely respectful to the elegant details underneath. Very little print imperfection can be spotted throughout the presentation, either, and the 24p movement is entirely organic. Can't ask for more.

Night and the City isn't as impressive sound-wise, but frankly that'd be a difficult feat to pull off anyway. Derived from the original monaural track at 24-bit, the remastered LPCM audio sustains a clean, clear presence from start to finish while still preserving the charm of its vintage. Some sound effects like the sizzling of food in a pot and the smack of flesh during a fight are a tad thin, while moments of dialogue run a bit metallic in texture. These are fleeting critiques in what's otherwise a delightful, immersive sonic presentation: the thud of bodies on the wrestling mat are hearty, the sounds of shoes on wood steps and knocks on doors are full and buoyant, and dialogue retains fine discernment throughout. Quieter sequences are pleasantly devoid of hiss or distortion as well, while the soundtrack commands a well-balanced, nuanced presence against the other sound elements. Optional English subtitles are available.


Special Features:

The longevity of the extras here is impressive. The Criterion Collection managed to squeeze a second cut of Night and the City onto this disc, the cut and alternately-scored British Version (1:40:46, 16x9 HD), which is no slouch in and of itself: the restoration quality obviously isn't of the same caliber as the preferred cut of the film, but it's still admirably clean, hits higher bitrate levels than many other Blu-ray discs, and sports a tolerably stable and discernible Dolby Digital monaural track. A dry twenty-minute featurette, Two Versions, Two Scores (23:55, 4x3), compliments the added cut of the film by exploring the differences in tone and characters between the two, while also giving some backstory on the reasons behind these two cuts. Having both available here makes for a cool, scholarly exploration of the intentions of music in film.

Along with the featurette on the two cuts, The Criterion Collection have also carried over the rest of the supplements from the 2005 DVD release. An interview with Jules Dassin (17:52, 4x3), recorded in 2004 for the release, further paints a picture of the conditions surrounding his direction of the film: the amount of frankness and honesty in the first three minutes of that piece, where he chats about blacklisting and his experience with the source material, is invigorating, and it continues in bursts throughout. Also included is the informative Audio Commentary with Film Scholar Glenn Erickson that explores the history, the production, and the themes built around the film, as well as an Interview Excerpt with Jules Dassin (25:26, 4x3) from a '70s French television show, complete with subtitles. Finally, a vintage Theatrical Trailer (2:22, 4x3 HD) rounds out the rest of the extras.


Final Thoughts:

A quintessential entry in the film noir genre, the story of Harry Fabian's winding and ill-fated journey into the crooked world of wrestling promotion in post-war London, gets a quintessential Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection. The restoration is gorgeous, the addition of the British Version of the film will satisfy devotees, and the slate of repurposed extras will cover the rest. DVDTalk Collector's Series.



Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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