Friday, September 15, 2017

Night and the City (1950)

UK / USA, 96 minutes
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Jo Eisinger, Gerald Kersh, Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Photography: Mutz Greenbaum
Music: Franz Waxman (USA), Benjamin Frankel (UK)
Editors: Nick DeMaggio, Sidney Stone
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan, Hugh Marlowe, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko

Midcentury was approximately the full ripening of American film noir, that mystifying quasi-genre label that was first applied (obviously) by the French, to Hollywood movies in which black dominates white in the primitive color schema and badness dominates goodness in the narrative. Many noirs are low-budget B-movies, typical for the time, relying on basics of darkened soundstages and often talky two-shot dialogue to keep costs down. The problem now is that this general term "film noir" can be made to fit movies from Citizen Kane to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe the charm is the maddening vaporous attempt to pin it down. Like pornography you know it when you see it. Night and the City, one of the great noirs or certainly one of my favorites, has many of the familiar markers: jazzy soundtrack, crazy-angled shots, black shapes dominating the frames, a preoccupation with lowlifes and crime, and perhaps the key ingredient, desperation as the air the characters breathe. It's classic noir in that the story is packed full of betrayals, treacheries nested inside treacheries. Yes, it's a woman, but Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) is hardly the usual femme fatale. She ends up impaled on her own betrayals—but she's not the only or even the chief betrayer in all the great gobs of bad faith on trade here.

In other ways, Night and the City is unusual. It's set in London, which despite its famous gloom is a little too tallyho for noir, compared with the Southern California scenes of transplanted Midwesterners we're more used to. Director Jules Dassin, a Connecticut native who ended up in New York City, was a pioneer and prime mover of noir, with The Naked City and others already to his credit. But in 1950 he was blacklisted for belonging to the Communist Party in the 1930s. Night and the City was his last Hollywood film, and even at that he was pulled off after the shooting was finished. He had nothing to do with editing or postproduction. Because of requirements of the US and worldwide markets at the time, the result, weirdly, was more or less two separate movies, with separate soundtracks and numerous differences in editing. Full disclosure: I only know the US version.

I also know it's pretty great. Richard Widmark is Harry Fabian, a small-time con man with the manner of a weasel about to gnaw away his own ankle, who is perennially out for his big score—"I just want to be somebody," is how he puts it. But just as perennially he is always coming up short. He's not the brightest bulb in the makeup parlor. But he's got a woman who loves him, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), and a couple of nightlife horses, Philip Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan, standing in figuratively for Sydney Greenstreet) and his wife Helen, who use him and give him enough money so he can keep scheming and dreaming.

Here's another familiar noir element: professional fighting. But this time it's not boxing. Fabian thinks his big score is going to be classic Greco-Roman wrestling as opposed to the showboating performance style already common by then (even in London apparently). Everybody in the movie except for Fabian and one washed-up old wrestler knows he hasn't got a chance. Problem is, the washed-up old wrestler (Stanislaus Zbyszko, an actual former world heavyweight champion in the 1920s and an eerie and well used presence in this film) is also the father of London's head gangster, Kristo (owl-eyed Herbert Lom). So everyone is in a ticklish spot as Fabian keeps successfully manipulating them all against one another, cackling and having a great time all the while, setting up his big score. But this is noir, where greater badness always trumps lesser badness, just as surely as badness trumps goodness.

Fabian was born to lose, he's the protagonist, and so we know how it's going to go. We're just waiting to see how it gets there, and Night and the City is a pretty good ride (pretty nifty title too, by the way). Something about Widmark's frenetic performance rang a bell for me the last time I looked, and then I realized he reminds me a lot of Steve Buscemi, maybe as cross-bred a little with Frank Gorshin. His fits of mania reach ecstatic heights. He works well within the expressionist landscape Dassin has erected, pulling off theatrical laughter and bellowing with as much ease as the intimate and intricate cons he works on others. In many ways Widmark really carries it—he puts this stuff over.

And look, I have to say a word for the Franz Waxman (US) soundtrack too. It's one more element hitting on all cylinders here. When all else fails—this is a short movie, so it's easy to forgive—the story will set Widmark to running around up and down stairs and across plazas and between buildings and so forth, running as fast as he can, all out. In these many wonderful chase scenes it's Waxman's soundtrack pushing the movie along as hard as anything (though the many amazing shots compete as well). At one extended point the only sound is someone hitting a mostly closed high-hat cymbal at approximately the rate of a racing heart. Widmark is pretty much full-tilt all the way. The whole movie is.

Top 10 of 1950
1. Sunset Blvd.
2. Rashomon
3. Night and the City
4. The Asphalt Jungle
5. Born Yesterday
6. Wagon Master
7. Gun Crazy
8. In a Lonely Place
9. D.O.A.
10. Harvey

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