“I’ll show everybody!”
The world of noir is populated with morally ambiguous anti-heroes heading 1,000 miles per hour down a dead end street. Out of all of em, I might hold the self-destructive hustler Harry Fabian closest to my heart. A lot of that sentiment has to do with actor Richard Widmark, who delivers a manically spirited and heartbreaking performance. Night and the City – whose title itself evokes noir – was directed by Jules Dassin after he fled to England to dodge HUAC’s late 1940s anticommunist witch hunt. If he stayed in the States, Dassin would’ve most certainly been forced to testify, which would’ve inevitably led to him being blacklisted. The project was already waiting for him when he touched down in England and it’s easy to interpret Night and the City as an allegory for the paranoia and backstabbing he resented in post-war Hollywood at the time.
It’s a strongly unsympathetic film brimming with anger and pathos, known for accurately depicting the racketeering underworld and infamously punishing its protagonist in a most heinous manner. It’s also been rightly noted as a choice example of noir’s staple style and themes. And like many great noirs, Night and the City presents no hope, just a string of bummers.
Harry Fabian is a two-bit nightclub tout bursting with good ol’ fashioned entrepreneurial spirit. He longs for a life of comfort and ease, and there’s only one way to do it: get rich, quick. He doesn’t have any friends, but his on-and-off girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) keeps the door open for him. She begrudgingly loans him money, despite his ongoing series of lies about bullshit investment opportunities. She knows he needs dough to pay off debts, she ain’t stupid, but she’s got a soft spot for the mug. Tierney and Widmark share only three or four scenes in the film, and they provide the most touching moments in an otherwise bleak and cynical narrative.
Fabian works for Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), richly obese owner of the Silver Fox Club, roping in wealthy out-of-towners and unsuspecting businessmen. He’s good at luring in suckers for Phil, but Fabian’s ready to break out on his own. He feels like the (under)world owes him something. After checking out a wrestling match, Fabian develops a plan to take over the promotion game in London. At the wrestling match, we first see how goddamn quick on his toes Fabian is. He can come up with a clever plan or scam at the drop of a dime. Then he’ll pocket the dime and dust before ya can figure out what the hell just happened.
After managing to trick retired wrestling icon Gregorius (played by Polish champ Stanislaus Zbyszko) into being his hype man, Fabian opens up his own gym complete with massive “Fabian Promotions” sign hovering over the sidewalk. Opening his own joint completely transforms Fabian’s demeanor. He becomes even more cocky (somehow) and seems fearless in the face of underworld honcho Kristo (played by prolific Czech actor Herbert Lom). Pardon my hyperbole, but Widmark is one of the greatest actors of all time, and his astounding range in Night and the City is exhibit A. It’s a devastating performance that knocked me on my ass the first time I watched it.
Thematically, the film possesses what I consider to be the underlying, bold-typed message of noir: You Can’t Win. All of the great noir anti-heroes are doomed from the start – knowing this makes Fabian’s happiness bittersweet. His newfound promotions career doesn’t last long. He gets Gregorius’ rival The Strangler drunk, which leads to a pickup wrestling match. Two men enter the ring, one man leaves. Now Fabian has to run like a scared rodent through the shadowy maze of London. The final 20 minutes of the film are a cinematic panic attack.
Fabian’s ultimately a pathetic character, but ya can’t help root for the tragic hustler. He pulls down everyone around him to the point where even the lowest level of underworld players don’t want anything to do with him. In the end, he comes up with one last scam, albeit one that can redeem him. During the final seconds of his life, he does what is probably the first selfless act of his life.
In later interviews, Dassin disregarded Night and the City as basically an artistic shrug. Cat must’ve been wicked modest because this one’s a paradigm of noir – both visually and thematically. In his essay “Existential Doom in Night and the City,” writer Glenn Erickson states “I can think of no other title that better satisfies the formal criteria of the noir movement…” Right on, Glenn.
Dassin utilizes the bombed-out sections of London ruined by the war to visually express Fabian’s destruction. Stylistically, the lighting and cinematography entrap Fabian in London’s web of doom. He’s constantly running in the film – as Glenn says, “running to his own oblivion.” Noir protagonists have a habit of doing that. The film opens with him making a mad dash through the shady streets of London to the safety of Mary’s flat, and ends with him running to the city’s dock – its fatal dead end. Inevitably, he has to pay the piper.
This is one noir I’d suggest to anyone who’s unfamiliar with the genre’s style and themes. Fabian will show ya the way. Just check your pockets afterwards.
* Night and the City was remade in 1992, with De Niro and Jessica Lange starring. Both films are based on the novel by Gerald Kersh. I’m not sure which adaptation is more loyal, but in the ’92 version Fabian is a lawyer, which rubs me the wrong way. I’ll have to check out the book & remake this year to feel complete.