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.