Saturday, November 21, 2015

Night and the City (1950)

***** out of 5

"Night and the city.  The night is tonight, tomorrow, or any night.  The city is London."

The opening narration sets the tone for everything to follow, but only hints a the depths of richness to follow.  Nobody wins in this city.  and yet for all their cruelty and greed, you find youtself caring for these lowlifes and sorry for them in their inescapable, pathetic misery.

Jules Dassin directed this film, the last one he made for Hollywood before leaving to work in Europe in the wake of the McCarthy era blacklisting period. Despite his inability to exercise editorial control over the final fim because of that blacklisting, he left an indelible image that is one of the absolute best noir masterpieces I've seen yet.

The film has two different scores (and two different edits) - one American version and one English.  I watch the american version, for which Franz Waxman provided a score that is alternately haunting, heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, and electrifying. Jo Eisinger, who previously adapted Gilda for the screen, provides the screenplay here, working from a Gerald Kersh novel. Dassin claimed that he never read it until much later, and was surprised how different they were. Kersh also reportedly hated how his book was handled. Time and the collective response of cinema-goers has shown any criticism on that front to be a moot point.

The story was set and shot in London.  It stars Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian, a small-time grifter - a loser on the make, desperate to "be somebody." He has a long string of failed money making schemes leading up to this point in his life.  Th fatal scheme he seizes on finally involved working every possible angle against a whole spectrum of unsavory character in a bid to become successful as a wrestling promoter.

Gene Tierney plays his loyal girl, Mary Bristol a club singer girl who wants to marry and settle down with him, putting up with all his plotting and planning but begging with him to give them up and earn his way in a more honest, humble, and reliable job.

Hugh Marlowe may make the least dramatic contribution to the story as Adam Dunn, the downstairs nice-guy neighbor who casually plays a rival for Tierney's affections, and functioning conveniently as a plot point as a pivotal moment in the story.

Pulling him in the opposite direction of Tierney is Googie Withers, in a powerful performance as Helen Nosseross, who, with her husband Philip Nosseross, owns the club where Harry and Mary work. nights.  She is a clear Femme Fatale type, eager to leave her husband and be her own woman, by hook or crook.

Francis L Sullivan is also terrific as Philip Nosseross, playing him as scheming, sly, and jealously protective of his wife, as ultimate deperately needy for her. He sees Widmark as a threat, but plays him along in his Promoter scheme, in order to serve his own ends.

Herbert Lom, who is best known for his role as the bumbling police chief in the Pink Panther, here plays a much different role.  He is Kristos, the big man in town, a deadly menace who is territorial of his position a the most powerful fight promoter in town, who is nonetheless also a loving and loyal son to his kindly father, a retired Greco-Roman wrestler who objects to the cheap entertainment-style wrestling he promotes.

Stanislaus Zbuszko is the most astonishing surprise of the film as Gregorius, the great wrestler and father of Kristos and Nicholas, a young wrestler who follows his father's desires to be a "real" wrestler.  His performance is an impressively physical and emotional powerhouse of acting, particularly in the dramatic encounter with The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), a pro wrestling big-shot full of ego and anger.  That scene is, dramatically speaking, the fulcrum on which the entire story pivots from a good noir to an all-time great. The way each of the character respond to it makes the full consequences of Harry's scheming come into clear focus, and the stakes of the story raised to a visceral, palpable, tangible a matter of life-and-death.

I'm tempted to name 1950 the year of the dead hero. In this year, we have D.O.A., Sunset Boulevard, Panic in the Streets, and Night and the City.  DOA is narrated by a man who is dying of poisoning.  Sunset Bouelevard opens famously with the narrative voice of a man whose corpese we see floatin in the water.  Panic in the Streets follows Jack Palance fleeing police with a deady disease coursing through his veins. Can Night and the City be included in that company?  Maybe it;s a stretch, since Widmark doesn't really get killed until the climax, but on a symbolic level, he's been dead from the beginning, only he foesn't know it until it's too late.

The film starts and ends with Widmark on the run, scrambling across London on foot, dodging people he owes money or who otherwise want him dead. "All my life I've been running," he realizes in a late moment of reflection in the film. Hiding on a little boat by the warf with an old lady named Anne, Widmark finds his one moment of rest in the film. He reflects on a life of wasted time and effort spent chasing the wrong things, and blindly abusing the one person who loved him. Even his one selfless act is still just another final harebrained scheme, one that involves giving up his own life to get a bit of money for Mary.

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