From the moment you see Richard Widmark running through dark alleys in the opening scene of Jules Dassin’s 1950 classic, Night And The City, you know he’s totally screwed. If only he knew it.
But such is the lot of film noir protagonists. Caught up in the backwash of their own bad choices, they can only hope to put off, not avoid, what inevitably awaits them. And they’re always the last to know.
Night And The City, adapted from the 1938 Gerald Kersh novel of the same name, takes a look at the London demimonde of the era, where Harry Fabian plies his trade as a nightclub hustler. He periodically “borrows” money from his girlfriend to finance his big dreams, not the least of which is setting up a life of ease and plenty without having to work. Standing in his way are the sinister fat man, played by Francis L Sullivan, pursuing a personal vendetta against Fabian, and the East End godfather, played by the dark-suited Herbert Lom, whose intense presence fires up the proceedings every time he walks onscreen.
This is truly one of the greatest films, not only of the noir genre, but of all cinema. Dassin’s direction is flawless, capturing perfectly the seedy filth of London’s underbelly, while telling the riveting story of one man’s misplaced dreams.
Max Greene, the Director of Photography, is superb, never allowing the viewer to get comfortable. The expressionist look of the film is all sharp black-and-white contrast and angular shadows, and this, along with his off-center camera angles, produces an unsettling effect throughout. This is never more evident than in a nightclub scene, where a mirrored disco-type ball casts its little gleaming points over the oddly-lit club, bleeding into the office above. Toward the end, as Fabian’s reckoning approaches, dawn breaks over London, and suddenly the film takes on a pasty, grayish cast. By then, I felt like I was covered with dirt and needed a shower.
Meanwhile, the stressful score of Franz Waxman pumps up the adrenaline in all the right places. As Fabian runs deep through the back streets of London, the music pulls you to the edge of your seat.
But most of all, this is Widmark’s tour de force. Fabian is a complex character, driven by his own twisted ambitions, and beset by deep emotions. When he whines to Gene Tierney, “I just want to be somebody,” he injects a whole new feeling, a real truth, into that tired line that has been uttered by countless lesser actors. Widmark makes it all look so easy, so real, that he pulls you with him, deep inside Harry Fabian’s head and heart, as he’s sucked down into the whirlpool. Never again would he be given a role so challenging, showing us how he was so tragically wasted through his long career.