Sunday, August 23, 2015

NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)

Twentieth Century-Fox Productions, 95m 50s (British version: 100m 46s)


Not many actors could match the film noir pedigree of Richard Widmark. After he created the template for the unbalanced noir psychopath in his feature debut KISS OF DEATH (1947), he quickly followed up with THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948) and ROAD HOUSE (1948), all worthwhile film noirs. He proved he could play the straight guy in PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), but he was at his best playing petty crooks and cheap con men, i.e. NO WAY OUT (1950) and PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953). Probably his most fondly remembered film noir, all of which were produced by Twentieth Century Fox, is the essential NIGHT AND THE CITY, recently made available in an eminently collectible Blu-ray edition via The Criterion Collection. Widmark offers a bravura performance bursting with nervous energy and boundless enthusiasm for life-changing money, complete with his occasional trademark chuckle that suggests some cognitive issues. Always on the run, his American protagonist is like a laboratory mouse in the noir maze of London's back alleys, sleazy night clubs and crowded arenas.

The narrative begins as it ends, with chiseler Harry Fabian (Widmark) desperately trying to maintain some distance from those in close pursuit of him. His money-making schemes continuously land him in trouble; apparently any lessons learned are forgotten quickly. After he enters the apartment of his significant other Mary Bristol (the always radiant Gene Tierney), he is about to steal from her purse before she busts him. It is obvious Mary has gotten accustomed to this predictable routine of covert behavior. In what has become another overly familiar exercise, Harry talks with confidence of an exciting income opportunity, but naturally lacks the start-up funds. Mary just wants to live a simple life with Harry, but that is not his aim. He wants to "be somebody" and cannot concentrate on anything other than “a life of ease and plenty.”

With forever an open eye for the next mark, Harry blends into London's underbelly like a human chameleon, though his schemes are wearing thin. He dreams he is on his way to the big time when he meets Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), an aging but proud Greco-Roman wrestler, and Nikolas (Ken Richmond), his young and sturdy protégé. Gregorius despises the entertainment-oriented wrestling his shady son Kristo (Herbert Lom) promotes. Harry attentively notices the dynamics of the father-son relationship, and sees a golden opportunity to compete with Kristo's circus-style wresting shows. Gregorius believes Harry truly admires the skill and dignity of competitive wrestling, but of course all Harry really cares about is financial freedom. Harry's materialistic drive is shown to be destructive to himself and everyone who crosses paths with him. In his own way, Harry is ambitious and hard-working, but lacks the resources and alliances necessary to succeed on the very competitive playing field he has chosen. He is reprehensible alright, but not a totally unlikable guy.




NIGHT AND THE CITY supports Marxist concerns about the dark side of capitalism, especially in the context of the urban jungle's thriving night life and sprawling city streets connected by cab rides, stairways, docks and the Hammersmith Bridge. It is an unforgiving milieu where you do not dare attempt to escape your existing position in society. The mere thought of such an endeavor is laughable. In one of the film's greatest sequences, potential backer Philip Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan steals every scene in which he appears) laughs uncontrollably when Harry describes his plan to become a successful professional wrestling promoter. Thanks to an especially strong performance from Widmark, Harry earns our sympathy during this awkward exchange. Despite his best efforts, however, Harry proves himself completely outmatched in the insiders business world dominated by ruthless creeps like Philip and Kristo. Another serious problem is Harry is the wrong match for the honorable man Gregorius, an anachronism in a dishonest world of moral decay and forgotten values. It is with disgust Gregorius sees that his own son thrives in this environment of fakery and corruption; a place where the drunken goon wrestler The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) takes center stage amid appreciative cheers.




One of the film's central locations of corrupt capitalism is the wrestling arena, where diametrically-opposed wrestling styles represent a war that pits art (morality) vs. business (immorality). In an impromptu bout, Gregorius defeats The Strangler, but so outdated are the values embodied by the elder wrestler that he expires shortly after the contest. His only consolation is the brief moral victory in a rigged system that will continue long after his final gasp. His passing serves as a death sentence for Harry, who hardly would have succeeded as a promoter of wrestling in the first place. As so often happens within the boundaries of the film noir, fate brings people together to devastating effect. Like Gregorius, Harry overlooks the simple truth that times have changed, and in fact there is no mainstream audience for the tradition of Greco-Roman wrestling. Harry proves even more a fossil than Gregorius when the only way he can provide for Mary as he always wanted is to sacrifice himself. How fitting his only successful scheme would be his last.



A gentleman's club of some sort, The Silver Fox is the other major focal point of organized corruption and dirty money. It is a place where you never know who your allies are, and relationships are based on selfishness and deceit, especially within the incredibly dysfunctional union of marriage as evidenced by Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) and her husband Philip. The two appear condemned to each other, with neither deriving any satisfaction. The oft-used noir motif of the framed portrait finds repeated use in NIGHT AND THE CITY, where idealized imagery contrasts with the reality of deceptive relationships void of potential.

NIGHT AND THE CITY is based on the novel of the same title by British author Gerald Kersh. Obviously the original work's title makes a terrific film noir title, since it describes the setting so typical of film noir drama. The screenplay was adapted by Jo Eisinger (GILDA [1946]). Like Widmark, director Jules Dassin is associated with some of the very finest film noir has to offer. The road to NIGHT AND THE CITY was paved with BRUTE FORCE (1947), THE NAKED CITY (1948) and THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949). Arguably Dassin's masterpiece was RIFIFI (1955), one of the all-time great heist films.



The superb compositions of cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum

This new dual-layered Blu-ray version of NIGHT AND THE CITY comes to us by way of an outstanding 4K digital restoration of the US theatrical presentation director Dassin preferred. I had always held this film in high regard, but thanks to the folks at Criterion, I now recognize NIGHT AND THE CITY as an undisputable masterpiece of film noir. Also selectable and of significant interest is the British version of the film, though it was not the object of the same careful restoration work that distinguishes the US cut. The British rendition runs approximately 5 minutes longer than the US version, but the differences between the two are not limited to additional footage; both versions feature footage absent from the other. Key scenes unique to the British cut include:

•An alternate introductory sequence with Harry and Mary.
•An attempt by Helen to steal from Philip.
•Harry and Helen embrace in view of Philip.
•Mr. Hoskins (Edward Chapman) confronts Harry about unpaid hotel accommodations.
•Kristo's legal representation Fergus Chilk (Aubrey Dexter) and goon Yosh (Russell Westwood) grill Adam (Hugh Marlowe) and Mary about Harry's whereabouts.
•A romanticized conclusion between Adam and Mary.

Some of the above additions lighten the British film's tone in comparison with the grittier US version. The entirely different scores also contribute to the slightly different viewing experience each version provides.

All remaining supplements were culled from The Criterion Collection DVD released in 2005. In "Two Versions, Two Scores" (23m 55s) film music scholar Christopher Husted compares and contrasts the approach employed by the respective composers involved in the two versions of the film. Franz Waxman handled the LA-based score composition for the US version, while Benjamin Frankel's score for the British version was conceived in London (director Dassin was blacklisted by the time the film entered post-production). The scores differ dramatically. Husted also calls attention to the various differences of the two versions of the film in terms of scenes included and not included.

Recorded in 2004, the audio commentary track features author Glenn Erickson, who obviously prepared very well for his discussion of the film, which he notes was "heavily transformed" from its source material. Erickson confirms this Hollywood production shot in London was the result of the politics and blacklisting associated with the emergence of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Dassin never forgave his contemporaries Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk for naming names. Where Erickson and I differ is his take on the "immature" Harry Fabian, who Erickson views as a character without any redeeming value. That is a fair assessment, but I see Harry as more of a tragic figure, hopelessly out of his league. If nothing else, he is no worse than those who surround him.

Other extras include an interview with director Jules Dassin (17m 52s). Filmed in 2004, Dassin recalls how Darryl Zanuck—fully aware of the politics of the time—pushed him to get the most expensive sequences filmed in London early to discourage anyone from pulling the plug on the project. Dassin talks about the era of McCarthyism and its impact in excerpts from a 1970 interview that appeared on the French television show L'INVITÉ DU DIMANCHE (25m 26s). There is also a vintage trailer (2m 22s) and a booklet with an excellent essay by critic Paul Arthur.



NIGHT AND THE CITY was remade in 1992 with Robert De Niro in the role of Harry Fabian.

No comments:

Post a Comment