Night And the City (1950): A Near Perfect Noir

Night And the City 1950Night and the city.
The night is tonight, tomorrow night…
or any night.
The city is London.

This anonymous voice-over introduces Jules Dassin‘s Night and the City (1950), which has to be one of the great noirs: a near-perfect work.

Dassin crafted a mesmerising study of thwarted ambition and tawdry betrayal into a dark existential journey of the human soul, played out in the dives and night-clubs of post-war London fashioned as the quintessential noir city. This is not a b-movie, the production values are high, and Dassin has total command of his mise-en-scene.

But the achievement is not Dassin’s alone. There is also a literate script by Jo Eisinger, wonderful expressionist photography from Mutts Greenbaum, who cut his teeth in the German silent cinema, and deeply moving portrayals by the major players. Richard Widmark’s performance is frenetic and real, and the soft counterpoint of an achingly elegant turn by Gene Tierney as his girl, transubstantiate Harry’s demise into the stuff of tragedy. Each supporting role is vividly drawn by an excellent ensemble cast.

You know Harry Fabian is doomed from the start: a dreamer of wrong dreams and sympathetically amoral, he is no match for fate and the immoral traffickers of wrestlers and cheap champagne, who plot his destruction. He is a hustler yes, but not in the same league as the big guys, the “businessmen” whose greed has no bounds and whose actions are never tempered by remorse. Harry thinks he knows all the angles, but he is not ruthless enough for that.

Harry. Harry.
You could have
been anything.
Anything.
You had brains…
ambition.
You worked harder
than any 10 men.

But the wrong things.
Always the wrong things.

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7 Comments

  1. After completing Thieves’ Highway, according to an article bySandra Berg in 2002(?):

    “‘Everyone heard that subpoenas were being handed out,’ says actor-producer Norman Lloyd, remembering one fateful night in 1949. ‘Dassin lived on Bronson, and there was a knock on Jules’ front door. Julie answered to find Darryl Zanuck [head of 20th Century Fox], who said, “You better get out of town.” He gave him the assignment to direct Night and the City in London. It was unheard of to have a studio executive come in person like that and try to help.’

    “Dassin has never forgotten that experience: ‘Zanuck said, “You’re going to England. Get a fucking script done, begin shooting, start with the most expensive scenes and they won’t fire you, because it’s probably going to be the last picture you’re ever going to make.” I liked Darryl Zanuck! While I was working on the script, Zanuck called me and said, “I want you to write in a part for Gene Tierney. She’s going through hell, and she’s a good kid. Save her.” So I wrote her a part. She was at the end of her career. This was a side to Zanuck that people didn’t know.’”

  2. futurestar

    Jules Dassin showed a natural proclivity and panache for ‘film noir’ with his sharp direction of Brute Force, The Naked City, and Thieves’ Highway. Then the Red Scare starting black listing creative artistry with a bend. Life was made miserable for him in three continents, but he still went on to make two of the best ‘crime noir’ films ever – Night And The City and Rififi. In the annals of classic cinema Jules Dassin went to be revered as a god. He died at the top of his game with world recognition, a wicked smile, and best films resurrected to pristine condition with historical supplemental support. Long live his celluloid visions.

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