Night and the City (1950)
April 24, 2024 12:56 PM - Subscribe

A small-time grifter and nightclub tout takes advantage of some fortuitous circumstances and tries to become a big-time player as a wrestling promoter.

Londoner Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is a second-rate con man looking for an angle. After years of putting up with Harry's schemes, his girlfriend, Mary (Gene Tierney), becomes fed up when he taps her for yet another loan. His latest ploy, promoting an aging Greek wrestler, goes awry when the wrestler dies and everyone points the finger at Harry. Hiding out in a riverfront barge, Harry sees his grand ambitions spiral into a nightmare of fear and desperation as the underworld closes in.

Kimberly Pierce: Richard Widmark easily exposes the tragedy in this narrative by showing us Fabian’s hope, even in the face of his struggles. The post WWII economic recovery was largely driven by consumerism and Harry and Mary are down on their luck. They are aware of what they’re missing. Their world is this seedy dive-bar and the rundown London streets. While she’s able to just live in the moment and look beyond what they don’t have, his aspiration, and in that his hope, is ultimately his downfall.

I can praise Richard Widmark to the rafters, and ditto for Gene Tierney. However, the supporting cast in Night and the City certifies this movie as a worthwhile watch. Googie Withers, a very young Herbert Lom, the always colorful Mike Mazurki and the ever delightful Hugh Marlowe are each captivating in their own way as they help build the rich and vibrant world of this story.

Brian Eggert: But Night and the City relies most on Widmark, whose Fabian stands as an assemblage of hustler cues, from trying to lift loose cash out of Mary’s purse to constantly sweating, quite literally, about the pressure that’s bearing down on him. “You can’t go on forever,” says Mary, “always running, always in a sweat.” Fabian also always has an angle. In a tragic subplot, he makes that deal with Helen to secure her a license for her own club. Fabian, ever the scoundrel, sells her a forged license. When Helen leaves Phil in a harsh scene, saying he disgusts her and she will never come back to him, she finally lives her dream of opening her own club. But she quickly discovers the license Fabian sold her is a fake. She has no choice but to return to Phil, who has since shot himself out of despair. It’s one of the story’s turns that renders Fabian impossible to redeem, no matter how hard he tries in the last scene. As a result, historians who associated Fabian to Dassin, because Dassin avoided HUAC just as Fabian runs from gangsters, rely on a thin tissue to connect their arguments. Perhaps Dassin did feel a certain kinship with his film’s anti-heroic protagonist, which, intentionally or not, fuelled Night and the City‘s manic intensity through Widmark’s performance. Although, unlike Dmytryk (the sole member of the Hollywood Ten to give evidence to HUAC and admit his Communist standing), Dassin never returned to the U.S. for punishment. Fabian, however, clearly regrets and laments his crimes when, on the run, he stops for a brief reprieve at Anna O’Leary’s ramshackle boathouse. “Oh, Anna, the things I did,” he bemoans. Regardless of the initially parallel trajectories of Dassin and Fabian, they seem coincidental, superficial, and most certainly unplanned.

Lauren Brooks: Night and the City‘s complex plot belies its fairly short running time, with a lot of plot development packed into a very small space. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it film: one minute Harry is on top of the world, the next in the gutter trying to talk his way out again. It’s hard to root for anyone here except perhaps Mary, who suffers mightily at the hands of a man who refuses to see that he’s always going to a failure. Just as Harry is supremely unlikable, the other villains have levels of pathos: Kristos is tortured by his father’s abandonment, Phil passionately in love with a wife who hates him, Helen desperate to escape from a loveless marriage. The film’s climax is inevitable without being predictable: Harry is doomed and everyone but him knows it from the start. There is no hope underlying Night and the City’s pessimism: the criminals have almost no fear of the law, but each of them is trapped in their personal hells of ambition.

One of the most striking and brutal scenes occurs between Kristos’s father Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). The two competing wrestlers tussle together for an extended sequence that is fascinating and painful to watch: this is real wrestling, not the staged matches that Kristos specializes in. The camera documents their fight with an unflinching gaze, bringing us so close that you can almost smell the blood and sweat. If this film has an argument, it’s present in this one climactic moment. Forgotten are Harry’s fancy word games and Kristos’s gangland posturing; the melodrama that has been played out for most of the film falls back in the face of a brutal match between two men who are treated as animals. As with the rest of the film, there’s no one to root for: it’s violence without purpose, compelling and meaningless.

Night and the City’s reputation has certainly been earned: it’s an influential film with a strong cast and striking images that will be played out, in different forms, across cinematic history. It’s not one to end an evening on, though: few films are as hopeless as a European film noir, and in this one it’s hard to even cry for the loss of innocence. This is a film where innocence does not even exist.

posted by Carillon (1 comment total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I thought it was fine, not amazing, really too much wrestling for me to really care. I know it's not the point, it could be any hustle he finally is able to get his arms around. It is a beautiful film, just gorgeously shot and framed. You do get the sense from Fabian that he's run through people so hard, that when he finally does find something solid, it's too late and no one will back him.

Other than the extravagant desk ornament though, he does seem pretty good at the job. I wonder if we're supposed to think he was always this talented, no one gave him a shot, or if wrestling was something different for Fabian? Or if it wasn't long enough to self-destruct. Thought clearly setting the fight up between the Strangler and Gregorious' wrestler wouldn't be paid immediately, but rather after the box office is collected. But minor quibble. Despite my own misgivings, the fight is pretty amazing.

Interesting film over all, I wish Gene Tierney's character doesn't totally disappear for the middle of the movie, but it's a beautiful film.
posted by Carillon at 1:07 PM on April 24

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