Night and the City (1950)

Night and City posterNo doubt your yule log is ready to set ablaze for the next two weeks, so here’s something to put in your diaries for when the festivities are over  …

Praised for its use of London locations and stark lighting, Night and the City was produced in a post-war Britain that relied heavily on American loans (that made up the Marshall Plan). Economic recovery for British film depended on reducing the flow of money back to Hollywood so, after some hostile exchanges (and even a boycott), 20th Century Fox agreed to create a British subsidiary (Twentieth Century Fox Ltd), which used English personnel.  This is how Night and the City came about.

PLOT

Starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers and Herbert Lom, Night and the City is based on a novel about a hustler, Harry Fabian (Widmark), who dreams of the good life and ‘being somebody’. Having already tried lots of go-nowhere schemes, he comes upon what he sees as a chance to get rich as a wrestling promoter. He cuts deals with every dodgy character he comes across until finally, in financial desperation, he has both police and underworld after him.

The memorable visual impact of the film, was provided by Max Greene, a German cinematographer, who decided to shoot many scenes just prior to sunrise. The result is a sense of fatalism that is especially accentuated in the justly famous final chase sequences.

RECEPTION

Richard Widmark can be seen here just beginning to crest a wave of stardom. He demonstrates his considerable range in a tremendously nuanced performance as Fabian, the spiv-conman. In a race through dark streets of war-torn London, however, Widmark turns him into a tragic figure of symbolic resonance, who finally (perhaps) elicits our sympathy. Nevertheless, the film was little appreciated in 1950 (Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, called it ‘a pointless, trashy yarn’). Luckily for us, re-evaluation in the 1960s recognized this film as one of the strongest examples of film noir expressionism. It is still praised for its use of dark shadows, its portrayal of despairing under-world characters, and its juxtaposition of derelict London bomb sites with familiar landmarks (such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus). The result is a consistent vision of urban hell that this genre too often links exclusively to American cities.

TRIVIA

  1. The film was directed by Jules Dassin while he was under investigation for his alleged communist politics. On his returned to the US he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and, although never called to testify, he was named by directors Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk (whose children Dassin had once looked after – an indication of the disgraceful behaviour this era instigated!). Night and the City was his last US-financed film before the blacklist condemned him to being “unemployable.” He re-located to France, where he found no work for another five years.
  2. Born in Connecticut to Russian-Jewish immigrants from Odessa, Dassin remained in Europe after this film and died in Athens on March 31, 2008 aged 96 (co-incidentally only a week after Richard Widmark).
  3. The casting of Gene Tierney was in response to a request from studio head, Darryl Zanuck, who was then concerned that personal problems had rendered her “suicidal,” and he hoped that work would improve her state of mind. It did.
  4. The film’s British version was five minutes longer than the US cut, with a more upbeat ending and featuring a completely different film score. Dassin endorsed the American version (the one we shall watch) as closer to his vision (even though the witch-hunt had prevented him from entering the editing studio on his return to Hollywood).
  5. Because the pressure was on to start shooting quickly and have Dassin complete before the McCarthy trials stopped him working, the director did not had time to read the novel until after the film was made! So strictly speaking (if you believe that some directors are authors of their films) it should not be called an adaptation. (Though perhaps the screen-writer and novelist have opinions on this!) Dassin also never heard the term ‘film noir’ until after he had made his next film.
  6. Though on the left himself, Widmark said of McCarthyism: “I wasn’t [personally affected], because I wasn’t a joiner. But that period is a low-point in American history; it never should have happened in a free society. People listened to a crazy demagogue and it was a terrible time. Many of my friends were blacklisted. America should be ashamed of it forever.” Well he got that right!
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