Richard Widmark is hungry. There’s no better way to describe it. As Night and the City opens, he’s scampering, lean and lithe, through darkened London, avoiding a barely-seen pursuer like a cat trying to make it home with dinner jammed between its jaws. I’m not sure anyone in movie history runs as well as Widmark runs in this film, pulling Donald O’Connor-esque twists and turns that send his limbs flailing about in silhouette, and then ducking around a corner and pressing himself flat against the wall, as though wishing he could disappear into the bricks themselves. He’s got beady eyes that suggest venality and a face that stretches taut over high cheekbones, light and shadow throwing the contours of his skull into sharp relief. As Harry Fabian, an overconfident con artist with a small-time hustle who’s always imagining angles on a big score, Widmark is worse than a loser–he’s a dead man walking. You’d be a fool to trust a man like that, and yet someone always does.
In Night and the City, director Jules Dassin’s cynical meditation on the ruthlessness of capital and the hierarchy of scoundrels, Fabian is a guppy among sharks, aiming to turn his gig as a club tout into a position commanding power and respect. Ambition is no sin, even in film noir, but Fabian is rotten to the core. For one thing, he’s squandering the only real currency in film noir: the love of a good woman (Gene Tierney), whose attention he barely returns and from whom he steals petty cash. (“I just wanna be somebody,” he whines.) For another, he has no honour. When he hatches his plan to become a big-time wrestling promoter, he makes it happen by flat-out betraying everyone who agrees to help him. Eventually, of course, the jig is up, yet Widmark’s shameless series of double-crosses keeps him going long enough that it almost feels like he’s going to get away with it all. Instead, his world comes crashing down. “You’re a dead man,” his old club boss (Francis L. Sullivan) growls at him, with conviction, in the film’s most satisfyingly sinister moment.
Sullivan, who brings Silver Fox owner Philip Nosseross to life as a worldly Kasper Gutman type, is just one of a slate of supporting players to give Night and the City so much flavor. There are also outstanding turns by beefy Stanislaus Zbyszko as the proud old-school wrestler Gregorius, Mike Mazurki as his new-style rival The Strangler, and, maybe best of all, Herbert Lom as Kristo, the gangster who radiates an aura of untouchable ruthlessness. Lom is every bit as calm and magnetic in his unsavoury role as Widmark is desperate and ultimately repellent in his. (As a matter of fact, Fabian’s shenanigans make Kristo’s initial show of restraint in leaving him to his own devices seem all the more impressive as an expression of the character and maturity that Fabian lacks.) The grunting, bruising wrestling sequence that marks the second-act turning point–just Gregorius and The Strangler pushing and pulling at each other for more than four long minutes in a brawl they were hoodwinked into starting–is as effective a metaphor as any for the grappling that goes on among men trying to make money outside the law. As The Strangler’s deliciously-monikered manager, Micky Beer, puts it: “The only way to stop ’em now is to shoot ’em like mad bulls.”
And then there’s the city of London itself. Dassin is sometimes thought of as European thanks in large part to his famous French-language heist picture Rififi, but in reality he’s an American through and through — born in Connecticut and raised in Harlem and the Bronx — who ended up working in France after being blacklisted in his homeland. In fact, Night and the City was born from the blacklist; Dassin says the book was pressed into his hands by Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who hustled him off to shoot the film with a warning that it would likely be the last one he would be allowed to make for a studio. Dassin directed his heart out, imbuing the piece with a heady sense of time and place — The New York Times reported during production that 10 out of 12 weeks of shooting took place on location. The result is a handsome but desolate portrait of a city at ground level, from the crowds of Trafalgar Square to the rubble left over from attacks by German bombs. As Fabian runs, distinct London skylines tower above him, and the city takes on dismal, labyrinthine qualities that convey loneliness, corruption, and a certain rot in the soul.
What’s lacking, noir-wise, is a femme fatale. The girlfriend character, Mary (Tierney), is pretty hapless through and through, and Fabian’s sketchy business relationship with Nosseross’s wife, Helen (Googie Withers), is not just utterly sexless but thoroughly depraved, too–he hangs her out to dry without missing a beat. That’s what Widmark’s performance gets so right about the doomed man at the centre of the film. He lacks reflection and self-awareness. He has no sense of shame. He just keeps pushing forward, beat by beat, scheme after scheme, without stopping to take a deep breath or a word of advice, or consider the downward spiral he’s slipping into. Only when he realizes that he is well and truly wrecked is he allowed a moment of redemption, angling to let Mary collect the bounty on his head. The keepers of the Production Code must have been pleased. But Fabian’s comeuppance is a departure from the noir norm. Law enforcement doesn’t catch up with him, nor is he betrayed by the low morals of a lustful woman. Rather, he is executed, by men who are likely even worse than he, but with more power, cooler heads, and a better sense of style. Fabian is brought down not through his personal failings, numerous and significant though they may be, but by his status. He is, for all his effort, at the bottom of the food chain. Dassin understood quite well that in any pecking order, on either side of the law, the small fry is the one that gets screwed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion updates its already impressive and feature-rich 2005 DVD for Blu-ray with a new 4K transfer created (per the liner notes) from a wet-gate scan of the camera negative. The 1.33:1, 1080p image is pretty fantastic, with very fine film grain and a silvery quality that is more suggestive of those first-generation elements than previous, higher-contrast releases, which more closely resembled dupey prints. Though DP Max Greene isn’t well-known these days as a noir cinematographer, his pedigree dated to the German silent era and his work here encompasses generally low-key lighting with occasional strong highlights and expressive chiaroscuro (which is what most people talk about when they talk about noir). Criterion has ably captured his work for further study. The soundtrack, presented as uncompressed PCM mono, is robust for its age and boasts impressive dynamic range. There’s a surprising amount of bass in the mix, and Franz Waxman’s musical score roars over the top in full-throated Hollywood fashion.
Speaking of Waxman, this edition includes a real rarity: a contemporaneously-edited British version of Night and the City that runs five minutes longer than the U.S. one and features a completely different score, by Benjamin Frankel. By the time the film went into post, Dassin had been well and fully blacklisted and was unable to supervise the edit, though he later endorsed the U.S. release. The English version is inessential but fascinating as a glimpse into how a film’s payload can be substantially altered by a few different decisions in the cutting room. Specifically, this alternate cut presents Fabian as a somewhat more sympathetic character, finds time to further develop Mary and her friendly neighbour, Adam (Hugh Marlowe), and finally softens the harshness of the bleak ending. As well, Frankel’s score is considerably more sedate than Waxman’s bombastic orchestrations, making the film play more as a low-key crime drama than as the expressionistic nightmare movie buffs have come to know and love. The British variant’s image quality is lower, with thicker film grain and more visible damage, and Criterion has wisely opted to throw more bits at the U.S. version of the film, which gets an average video bitrate of 27.8 Mbps compared to 18.2 Mbps for the UK cut. Mind you, it still looks pretty good–it merely suffers in comparison.
Extras ported over from the earlier DVD include audio commentary provided by Glenn Erickson, known to readers of his DVDtalk.com column as DVD Savant. Erickson brings a wealth of research to bear on the subject — he refers to the original screenplay, the source novel, additional material from the English version, and reviews from the time of the film’s release — and drops in some of his own notes on the performances, direction, and cinematography. Also retained is Christopher Husted’s 24-minute comparison of the two musical scores, rendered somewhat redundant this time around (since both scores are available on the disc for anyone who cares to audit them), though it does offer additional context for interested listeners. The video has been upscaled to 1080i. Dassin speaks for himself in two supplements. The first is a 25-minute excerpt from a French television interview for “L’invité du dimanche” (in black and white, with a herringbone interference pattern, and upscaled to 1080i) in which the director (speaking in fluent, subtitled French) genially discusses the studio system, working with actors, shooting The Naked City on location in New York, and — as the room seems to get a little chilly — Elia Kazan and “the disease” of Hollywood McCarthyism. In an 18-minute interview conducted by Criterion in 2005 (also upscaled to 1080i), he talks a little bit more about the blacklist era, admitting that he was in such a hurry to get Night and the City underway in London that he never even read the source novel by Gerald Kersh — which was quite different from Jo Eisinger’s screenplay — until long after completing the film. He remembers the unfriendly reception the picture got in the British press, Zanuck’s intervention to have Tierney’s part written into the script at the last minute, and his feeling that Widmark would have been capable of playing Hamlet, given the opportunity. On the film’s status as a key work of noir, he seems both pleased and amused. “I didn’t know there was a ‘film noir’ until I learned the term in France,” he says. It’s a fine and timely piece of work on Criterion’s part, given Dassin’s death a few years later in 2008.
A pleasantly gimmicky movie trailer (presented in 1080p) closes out the video-based bonus material with the promise of “an intimate and intense picture of a city and the intruders in the night who live and love and hate under cover of its darkness,” while a printed essay by the late critic Paul Arthur puts the cherry on top, exhaustively cataloguing the film’s metaphorical and symbolic payloads. The insert unfolds to a poster with a painting depicting Harry Fabian, forever on the run, in London after dark.