“I just want to be somebody.”
Harry Fabian is an American hustler, a petty con man always looking for the angle that might make him, at least in his own eyes, a big shot. In London, perhaps Greco-Roman wrestling promotion will be his ticket to a life of ease for himself and his loyal, long-suffering girlfriend, Mary. Perhaps not. The venture goes horribly awry, pitting him against the underworld figure who heretofore “owned” the wrestling game in London: Kristo, whose father, a wrestler, dies as a result of one of Fabian’s events. Now Fabian is a hunted man, from many quarters, throughout the city.
Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, from a novel by Gerald Kersh, is a film noir in which the femme fatale is the American Dream. For Harry, it is the lure of self-importance, self-determination and independence. Like John Ford’s great Stagecoach (1939), where the outlaw couple must go south of the border to find their peace and freedom, their America, Harry must find what he is after, his America, outside of the States, across the Atlantic. Likely, he has stepped on too many toes, burned too many bridges, in the States. It is also likely that the American Dream was always a chimera, a tantalizing illusion bereft of substantive reality. Having perceived this at home, now Harry hopes to find what he is after elsewhere, even amidst evidence of London’s own exhaustion—endlessly depressed and desperate lives; rubble from the London blitz. Dassin’s film is an antidote to brimming American optimism. Despite the postwar boom, America remains America, its problems, its barriers, intact. The irony is doubled by the fact that Harry pursues his version of the American Dream in the country from which his own country once gained independence.
The film opens with an angled overhead shot of Fabian, at night, on the run. The shot makes it appear that Fabian is crossing a sound stage. Is this directorial incompetence, or did Dassin wish to emphasize the artifice for thematic purposes, to suggest from the outset Harry’s delusional mindset? Combining patches of Hitchcockian and Wellesian aura (had Dassin already seen Carol Reed’s Wellesian The Third Man, a 1949 British film that was released in the States in 1950?), and with something of John Ford’s The Informer, 1935, also floating about,* Dassin and his striking black-and-white cinematographer, Max Greene (that is, Mutz Greenbaum), conjure a teeming near-Dickensian atmosphere, with ominous long shots punctuated by gargoylish closeups in the clip joint where Mary works and Harry hangs out, picking up commissions from the fat, obscene owner whose predatory wife plots against her spouse and manipulates Harry. The visual style of the film is keyed to Harry’s delirium and delusion; by contrast, scenes without Harry, such as between Mary and a neighbor who is sweet on her, are deliberately flat and objective. The clip joint brings together, in fact, a host of characters surviving, at least for a while, amidst the wreckage of their hopes and dreams.
In a recent piece on his film Crossfire (1947), I noted director Edward Dmytryk’s sorry history with the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. The one member of the valiant Hollywood Ten to capitulate to Committee demands in order to resume his Hollywood career once he was released from prison for contempt of Congress, Dmytryk gave up, in his accusative litany, Dassin’s name. Dassin would have a whole new career in Europe—indeed, one more celebrated than what he had in the States (Du rififi chez les hommes, 1955; He Who Must Die, 1956); but at the time Night and the City was made, this lay in the future. However, sensing imminent risk to Dassin, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of the studio behind this film, sent him to London to make it in order to give him a leg-up on exile. This background perfectly suited the film’s theme of exhausted dreams.
Richard Widmark, diminutive though wide-eyed and feverish, is electrifying as Harry Fabian. A character in the film describes Fabian as an artist without an art to practice. Widmark has never been better than in this film.
In Irwin Winkler’s lousy 1992 remake, Fabian is a lawyer who turns boxing promoter.
* – Dassin himself remade The Informer, transferred from 1922 Dublin to a present-day U.S. urban black ghetto, as Up Tight! (1968)
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