Night and the City (1950) Jules Dassin

Harry Fabian is on the run and so was director Jules Dassin. “Night and the City” is dark unsympathetic masterpiece, uncompromising right down to its bleak ending. Even the film’s title is one of the most noirish, containing two essential elements of film noir.

“Night and the City” is one of a string of wonderfully directed film noirs Dassin made in the late 1940′s and into the early 1950′s. “Brute Force”, “The Naked City”, “Thieves Highway”, “Riffi” and this Richard Widmark marathon run. Dassin’s first European film, caps an unbelievable string of cinematic home runs that remain tough to beat. With his career in the United States over due to the McCarthy witch hunts, Dassin in exile, made his way to England, with the backing of 20th Century Fox, jumping into production on this dark morose tale of a small time scam artist who spent his life looking for his one big break.  Dassin’ s post war London is cold, wet, Dickensian with remnants of the war torn city still clearly visible. From the opening scenes at St. Paul’s Cathedral where we first see Fabian running in the night to the final scenes at the Hammersmith Bridge where Fabian’s journey ends, London is portrayed as an inhospitable gloomy place. This is all achieved with  Dassin’s use of his camera; the angles, the strategic placement of the lens all accomplished with the talented assistance of cinematographer Mel Greene.

Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian gives us his most definitive role. Dressed in flashy plaid sports jackets, tellingly saying to the world his is a sharpie while in truth, Fabian is a scam artist, an ugly American, a nobody who wants to be somebody out for his own big score and unconcerned about the bodies left behind. Even Mary (Gene Tierney), the girl who loves him is a victim to Fabian’s hucksterism. In the end there is no victory, no escape, no redemption for Fabian, he tried to take on the London underworld and lost.

Widmark once said in an interview, what he remembers most about this film is that he did a lot of running. He does. According to Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon in the book, The Rough Guide to Film Noir, for Fabian’s final run near the Hammersmith Bridge, Dassin and cinematographer Max Greene with only about a half hour of light left used six cameras and “completed a staggering twenty two shots in eighteen minutes.”

At the time of its release the film was not well received. The late Bosley Crowther, the premiere film critic at the New York Times for 27 years,  said after first praising Jules Dassin’s recent work on “The Naked City” and “Thieves Highway” called “Night and the City “a pointless, trashy yarn, and the best he (Dassin) has to accomplish is a turgid pictorial grotesque.”  As usually is the case Mr. Crowther has delivered a pompous bizarre review. Later on in his review he downplays Widmark’s performance, now considered one of his finest. Crowther seemed let his prejudices, dictate his criticism; his dislike of violence in film or display of political beliefs (right or left) always seemed to color his reviews. Today, “Night and the City” is considered a noir essential, a wicked masterpiece of dark cinema and Widmark’s performance is one of his finest.

Based on a novel by Gerald Kersh, “Night and the City” was remade in 1992 with Robert DeNiro as Harry Fabian, now a scheming lawyer and Jessica Lange. London was replaced with New York, a good choice, but the film remains ordinary and inferior to the original.

*****

 

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17 comments on “Night and the City (1950) Jules Dassin

  1. Great encapsulation of one hell of a terrific noir. As you rightly observed, the title contains the two most vital parameters that defined noirs – night & city. Wow, that’s some observation!!!

    Night & the City was a relentlessly dark movie laden with distrust, paranoia, corruption & human fallibility, and was highly indicative of the state of mind in which Dassin made the movie and the kind of situation he was in. And yes, Widmark was really amazing in the role of the weak & slimy anti-hero.

    • John Greco says:

      Shubhajit,

      Thanks very much, I agree this is one “dark movie laden with distrust, paranoia, corruption & human fallibility.” Well said.

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    Well John, you know I will drool here, and in a big way. This may be my favorite film noir of all-time, and you have penned another superlative consideration of one of the most vital of all noirs, and Dassin’s masterpiece in my view. Your historical account here is enriching as well. Shubhajit’s comment here is great too.
    Much of the filming on NIGHT AND THE CITY was during the night, after midnight in fact, shooting in a London still shattered and skeletal from wartime bombings. Dassin envisioned London as an urban nightmare with actual night shooting at a time when it was still difficult to generate sufficient light for extended night scenes, especially those filmed in long shot. Dassin, however, was fortuitous in receiving the full co-operation of a number of city businesses who left their lights on to assist the filming. The end result showcases NIGHT AND THE CITY as one of the supreme examples of cinematic expressionism, which displays London as an urban hell, a place of dark shadows, desperate individuals and decrepit structures. Various tourist landmarks, such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, as well as the city at large, were transformed into a dark, threatening world permeated by betrayal, fall guys and moral corruption.

    Most Londoners were angry when the film was screened as the film’s unflattering and oppressive description of the city as dark, vacant, impersonal and a place of lurking criminal activity was seen as insulting. Yet the vivid textures, nocturnal alleys and rough stone exteriors contributed mightily to the very fabric and essence of this brooding atmospheric film.one’s appreciation of this landmark film. As Tony d’Ambra eloquently stated in his Films/Noir.net review from April of last year – “Dassin crafted a mesmerising study of thwarted ambition and tawdry betrayal into a dark existential journey of the human soul, played out in the dives and nightclubs of postwar London fashioned as the quintessential noir city. This is not a B-Movie, the production values are high, and Dassin has total command of the mise-en-scene.”
    And Dave Hicks just penned (as you well know) a tremendous review at Good Fellas. It’s great to see all the noir fans on the same page here.

  3. John Greco says:

    “displays London as an urban hell, a place of dark shadows, desperate individuals and decrepit structures. Various tourist landmarks, such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, as well as the city at large, were transformed into a dark, threatening world permeated by betrayal, fall guys and moral corruption.”

    Sam, wonderfully put, I wish I had that in my review, ha! This may well be Dassin’s greatest film. I had read that Londoner’s were not happen with the film, in fact, which I am sure you are aware there was a different ending as well as a entirely different score for the English version of the film.

  4. [...] Dave Hicks, who have also written great pieces.  As usual John examines the film from many angles: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/night-and-the-city-1950-jules-dassin/   Troy Olson, who soon will be embarking on a trip he’ll never forget to China, has [...]

  5. Maurizio Roca says:

    Bosley Crowther really knew a great film when he saw one. The guy was a giant of film criticism. Obviously I’m being sarcastic. I would love to see a list of favorite movies by the man. I equate it to when people were praising Juno over Zodiac, No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James, etc in 2007. Where are all the Diablo Cody fans now. Some people will always favor the flavor of the month over more difficult works that clearly have a better chance of standing the test of time. Home skillet indeed.

    • John Greco says:

      I hate beating up on Crowther’s but he just seems to have been wrong so,so much and out of touch.

      Maurizio, thank you for your comments. Pleas stop by again,

  6. Dave says:

    We’re on the same page on this one, John, as our two reviews show. Yours here is outstanding and I love the historical perspective that you include in all of your pieces. We might quibble a bit over ranking it (I guess you would place it a bit higher than me), but we both right acknowledge its classic status.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Dave, I think I would place this in my top 10, but as we know, you Sam and I are all grrat admirers of this film.

  7. great writeup of one of my favorite films.

  8. DorianTB says:

    John, having enjoyed many Jules Dassin films (for the record, my favorites are NAKED CITY, RIFIFI, and TOPKAPI), I watched Jules Dassin’s NIGHT IN THE CITY when it was on TCM last night, with the magic of TiVo’s time-shifting. :-) Your absorbing post was a fascinating read, as always. Great performances all around (especially Herbert Lom, Googie Withers, and , with Richard Widmark’s iconic portrayal of manic hustler Harry Fabian, the human pinball who finds out too late he’s not as smart as he thinks he is, but does plenty of damage all the same. I was exhausted just watching him run all over London like a nut. The characters in PULP FICTION (another favorite of mine) look like lovable Boy Scouts compared to the London underworld types Harry so desperately tries to bamboozle! (SPOILER ALERT: Frankly, I was glad Gene Tierney ended up with Hugh Marlowe; that poor girl deserved a happy ending!) Terrific post!

    • John Greco says:

      Dorian, thanks as always! I am a big fan of NAKED CITY and RIFIFI (Have not seen TOPKAPI!) and I will add THEIVES HIGHWAY along this NIGHT AND THE CITY as two more favorites of his. BRUTE FORCE is good but I really need to watch it again to make a firmer decision. Widmark is top notch, one of the great actors of noir.

  9. John Greco says:

    TOPKAPI is one of those films that keeps popping up on TCM and I mean to watch it and never do! I will have to remedy that. I actually read your review earlier this year and swore at the time I was going to catch this film. Obviously, I have failed in that department. Here’s wishing you and the entire Team B a great and Happy New Year.

    • DorianTB says:

      Good news, my friend: just in time for TCM’s 31 DAYS OF OSCAR, TOPKAPI will air on Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 10:15 p.m. EST! Furthermore, that date also would have also been my dear mom’s 87th birthday, and she loved TOPKAPI and other Jules Dassin films, too, so I think it’s a fitting salute to Mom, along with anyone else who loves Dassin and any cool caper film! Set your DVRs! :-)

  10. John Greco says:

    Sounds great! Thanks for the info!!! Wil be on the lookout for it!

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