Night and the City (1950)


(director: Jules Dassin; screenwriters: Jo Eisinger/from the novel by Gerald Kersh; cinematographer: Max Greene; editors: Nick De Maggio/Sid Stone; cast: Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Francis L. Sullivan (Phil Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Hugh Marlowe (Adam), Mike Mazurki (Strangler), Stanislaus Zbyszko(Gregorius), Charles Farrell (Beer), Ada Reeve (Molly), James Hayter (Figler), Maureen Delaney (Anna), Ken Richmond (Nikolas); Runtime: 96; 20th Century Fox; 1950-USA/UK)

“An offbeat film noir, set in foggy post-WWII London.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An offbeat film noir, set in foggy post-WWII London, from director Jules Dassin, who was forced to leave Hollywood because of the 1950s blacklist. Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is a small-time hustler with greater ambitions; he wishes to make a respected name for himself as a wrestling promoter. He is currently working as a nightclub tout for the Silver Fox Club, a tourist clip joint where they have bar girls hustling drinks. The club is owned by the fat man, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), who is lustily attracted to his wife Helen (Googie Withers). But she despises him, only staying with him because he has money. Her ambition is to get a liquor license in order to own a club, therefore she could afford to dump her obese husband.

Harry runs through the streets of London most of the film, trying to escape from those who are after him. He has one good thing going for him, but is too blind to see that he has a girl who loves him. In the opening shot he runs through the dark London streets pursued by a man, as he safely reaches his girlfriend Mary’s (Gene Tierney) flat. She works at Phil’s club, and has saved a lump of money which he is trying to get his hands on. But she refuses to give him her money for his wild schemes.

While working a wrestling match to hook suckers to go to the Silver Club, Harry witnesses the number one wrestling promoter in England, Kristo (Lom), as he gets into a spat with his father visiting from Athens, Gregorius (Zbyszko). The father is angry with his son for promoting this phony wrestling, as Harry learns that Gregorius was a former champion and legend in Greco-Roman style. According to Gregorius, that’s clean wrestling and the only kind that is legitimate.

Harry maneuvers Gregorius to sign a contract with him as partners promoting only clean wrestling matches for his protegé Nikolas (Richmond). This angers Kristo greatly. In order to get the money to promote the matches and challenge the forceful stranglehold Kristo has on wrestling, he teams up with Helen to trick the reluctant Phil into sponsoring the competing matches. Helen sees this as an opportunity to get a club license through Harry’s underground connections. When Phil discovers this deceit, he decides to string Harry along and become his silent partner while he also forms a partnership with Kristo to get even with Harry for helping his wife leave him.

Harry deceives Helen by giving her a counterfeit license, as Harry is in the habit of hurting all those who trust him.

Phil, trying to put the squeeze on Harry before giving him more money, forces him to get a match with Kristo’s main attraction, the Strangler (Mazurki). Harry gets the Strangler so worked up that he goes to the gym where Gregorius is working out and issues a challenge, which is accepted.

Warning: spoilers in the next two paragraphs.

Things get out of hand when the Strangler and Gregorius get so worked up about each other, that they can’t wait for the promised wrestling match and fight right there in the gym. The much older Gregorius ends up beating him, but after the fight dies from exhaustion. This causes Kristo to put out a contract on Harry offering a £1,000 reward, blaming him as the killer of his father. Harry is trapped in London, as he is pursued by all those underworld figures interested in collecting the lucrative reward Kristo offered. Fearing that his life was a rotten and wasted one, he tells an old black market operator (Delaney) “How close I came to reaching the top.”

Trying to do something right and repay Mary the money he stole from her, Harry tries to get Mary to turn him in and collect the reward money from Kristo. When she doesn’t respond he tries yelling out to those coming after him that Mary turned him in. It is the only selfless gesture he ever done, but it’s too little and too late.

Harry’s demise is caused by his overriding ambition to be someone important–the best wrestling promoter in London. He chooses that instead of love, which makes him into the conventional film noir character of desperation and isolation. He’s anti-hero type that noir films like to promote because of their amoral tone and how they get trapped without any means of escaping. Harry doesn’t realize till his last run through the streets how meaningless his life is and how he wasted his brains by doing the wrong things. His neighbor Adam describes him best: as an artist without an art. Though likable, he is never seen as someone who could be liked.

Richard Widmark gives a very energetic performance, while Dassin’s direction catches the grimness of the artificial London he presents as a noir world. His dark street scenes also adds to the suspense. The photography is gripping, as it is composed of many low-angle shots and frame shots pitting the gaunt Widmark figure against all the larger obstacles he is up against. There was one gaffe, where Widmark suddenly realizes the exact amount of money Lom holds up as a reward even though no one mentioned to him that amount.