The Noir genre is synonymous with brutality, violence and a mean streak like none other. Though these tales of creeps and loners are usually associated with the Americas, many other continents dipped their toe into the murky waters of this new era of anti-heroes, sleazy dames and unceremonious deaths in the gutter. In 1950, Director Jules Dassin (at the time blacklisted from Hollywood for his political beliefs) shot Night and the City in London, bringing the bleak and pulpy world of noir to U.K shores.
Based on Gerald Kersh’s book, The film is the story of Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) a two-penny chancer who, in a desperate bid to hit it big, gets involved in a sleazy wrestling racket, incurring the wrath of local nightclub owner Phil Nosseross (Francis Sullivan) and murderous gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom). As his fragile deals and misplaced arrogance bear down on his evasive heels, Harry’s long-suffering girlfriend Mary Taylor (Gene Tierney) begs him to make a break for the straight and narrow, but Harry “an artist without an art” knows no other way of life. As his fractured alliances come crashing down around him, Harry’s world of selfish exploitation may prove his undoing.
Night and the City is a tough, gritty and excellent movie. At the time it was applauded for daring to have a cast of almost entirely unlikable characters, and a hope-free script of miserable people in miserable situations.
Widmark is great as the out of his depth protagonist, foolishly confident in his abilities to play all angles in his favour. The beautiful Tierney provides the only shaft of hope in the film as the woman mystifyingly devoted to Harry’s well-being, whilst menace is expertly handled by genre stalwarts Lom and Sullivan.
It’s a film where potentially every character lives on borrowed time, providing a sense of tension throughout, and an overbearing feeling of distrust from the shark-smiles of all involved. Excellent cinematography lends elegance to all this unease. Whispered meetings and brutal wrestling matches are shot with Max Greene’s smart eye for composition and light, but never losing the inherent sadness of the subject matter. Dassin’s London is sometimes attractive, but never alluring.
Night and the City is a great entry in the noir canon, and a breath of polluted air amongst the many hokey gangster films that flooded the post-war market. It’s a tough sell to watch a movie featuring such scummy people in such a piss-stained situation. But Night and the City manages to captivate the viewer with dagger-sharp dialogue, tense plotting and brilliant direction.
The BFI have done the film a glorious service in this restoration. The print has been beautifully mastered in 1080p, providing a clean image as fresh as the day it was filmed. The mean alleyways and shadows housed therein are suitably dark, with sharp contrast between black and white, whilst the patterned suits of the gangsters and the tank-like bodies of their in-ring warriors come to life in crisp detail.
The disc features a selection of interesting extras. Two cuts of the film are presented, each with a commentary from genre experts Paul Duncan and Adrian Martin. There are also extensive interviews with Widmark and Dassin and a theatrical trailer. An in-depth booklet of essays completes the ensemble.
The BFI continue to bolster their proud range of cinema classics with this latest release. Night and the City is a superb example of lesser-referenced British-based noir, and is beautifully presented here with a solid restoration and good features. This release is more than deserving of shelf space for noir fans, and is well-worth a look for film aficionados in general.
4 / 5
Dir: Jules Dassin
Scr: Jo Eisinger
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom, Francis Sulivan, Googie Withers
Prd: Samuel Engel
DOP: Max Greene
Music: Franz Waxman (US) Benjamin Frankel (UK)
Runtime: 101 minutes (UK) 96 minutes (US)
Night and the City is available on Blu-ray via BFI