Night: check. City: check. Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger suspects that this may be a film noir.
"Harry's an artist without an art."—Adam
When the city and the night come together, you know that naughty misdeeds are at hand. Night and the City is one of the rare noirs that redefines the film noir standard while simultaneously breaking free of noir's constraints. The hero has absolutely no redeeming quality, the plot is marked by cocksure optimism instead of gloomy pessimism, and there isn't a true femme fatale. Night and the City runs its own show and gives us a stellar example of the genre.
Facts of the Case
Director Jules Dassin was on the cusp of deportation by the House Un-American Activities Commission, so his savvy producer sent him to London to create one last film under the Hollywood banner. Frantic but capable, Dassin launched into an adaptation (a very loose one, as it turns out) of Gerald Kersh's novel Night and the City.
American expatriate Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark, Pickup on South Street) slips into his girlfriend Mary's apartment to steal 300 pounds for a get-rich-quick scheme. Mary (Gene Tierney, Laura) discovers him and asks him to get a job as a milkman, a butcher…anything, as long as it is done in the daylight. Harry could use some daylight; he is pallid, sweating from the tension of running from creditors, full of nervous energy.
Harry and his gal work for the owner of the Silver Fox Club, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan, who, appearances to the contrary, is no relation to an actual rhinoceros) and his wife Helen (Googie Withers, The Lady Vanishes). Helen aspires to leave her husband and form her own club, since she runs the show at the Silver Fox. To do that, she'll need Harry's unique talents. But Harry has his own scheme, one unlike the scams he's latched onto in the past. This one is different because it has a chance of working—if Harry can keep Phil, Helen, and the notorious gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom, Spartacus) at bay.
Film noir has long been the darling of film critics and other literate naysayers. To the casual movie fan, the term has been deeply misunderstood; the subtleties of film noir haven't exactly been a hot topic around the water cooler. But film noir has experienced a sudden, powerful resurgence in the last couple of years. Film noir is no longer a niche discussed by clove-inhaling, black-turtlenecked cynics in the coffee house at 2:00 AM. No, film noir is in, not just among critics and entertainment writers, but among a steadily increasing number of "regular" moviegoers. Warner Brothers released their Shadows, Lies, and Private Eyes collection to great acclaim, then followed it up with the noir precursor Gangster Collection. Fox released a set of film noir titles concurrent with the Shadows, Lies, and Private Eyes set, and it was so successful that they're releasing another wave of film noir in June. In fact, Fox recently released the quintessential noir Laura as spine number 01 for their new noir line. Criterion partner Home Vision Entertainment got into the act a year ago, releasing a string of Japanese noirs like Underworld Beauty (Ankokugai No Bijo) and Zero Focus. It hasn't always been so; had Zero Focus been released in 2000, without the buzz mounting around film noir, HVE would have heard crickets chirping.
This resurgence is not limited to releases of classic films, either. Pop media is leaning toward the dark side. In fact, while browsing the gloss rag Maxim the other day, I was surprised to find a brief discussion of film noir in their "Hot Zone" section. In a panel discussion titled "Miller's Crossing," Frank Miller discusses the upcoming Sin City movie, in which Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis, and a host of other big names bring his dark comic book to life. What better evidence of film noir's freshly reclaimed status than this exchange in a magazine more famous for airbrushed women than film criticism:
Maxim: Are you reinventing noir?
Criterion has long been the film snob's best friend. When the blithe antics of the 1990s encouraged us to seek "extreme" sensations and watch reality television (which is decidedly removed from reality), Criterion forged ahead with releases of interesting niche titles, which included a steady trickle of noir. But the last four months has brought us a particularly potent dose of Criterion noirs, including a re-release of M (a Special Edition, no less…a term you don't hear Criterion use very often), Thieves' Highway, Pickup on South Street, and Night and the City. Night and the City is a worthy noir title, no doubt, but it is a curious choice for the lofty Criterion Collection. The film completely bastardizes the book on which it is based, it was unpopular in London and the United States, and Dassin was effectively removed from the American public eye shortly after the film's release. Why Night and the City? Why now?
Film noir was a reaction to a blatant disconnect between reality and culture. The 1930s and 1940s brought the world a stream of unfathomably dark imagery, from genocide to fascism to atomic bombings. America, generally chipper and reasonably united, was sharply divided in the face of these horrific ordeals, some of which happened at our hands. As the curtain of naïveté grew ever more transparent, Americans saw gruesomeness and grimness in every shadow. So the media, Hollywood in particular, redoubled their efforts to present an upbeat face. Glib musicals ruled the day; optimism and patriotism were the preferred channels of self-expression. This whitewashing was not merely symbolic. HUAC began seeking and deporting unpatriotic individuals with extreme prejudice. Is it any coincidence that many of the prime HUAC targets were directors of film noir (among them Jules Dassin), the very embodiment of dissatisfaction, pessimism, anger, and rebellion? Images Journal puts it this way:
"While soldiers went to war, film noir exposed a darker side of life, balancing the optimism of Hollywood musicals and comedies by supplying seedy, two-bit criminals and doom-laden atmospheres. While Hollywood strove to help keep public morale high, film noir gave us a peek into the alleys and backrooms of a world filled with corruption."
Writings of the time support our historical perspective on the roots of noir. In the August 5, 1945 edition of New York Times Magazine, Lloyd Shearer wrote in his discussion of film noir (titled "The growing crop of homicidal films poses questions for psychologists and producers"):
"Hollywood says the moviegoer is getting this type of story because he likes it, and psychologist [sic] explain that he likes it because it serves as a violent escape in tune with the violence of the times, a cathartic for pent-up emotions. These learned men, in a mumbo-jumbo all their own, assert that because of the war the average moviegoer has become callused to death, hardened to homicide and more capable of understanding a murderer's motives."
As I mentioned above, film noir hasn't exactly been the prom queen over the last few decades. When most people encounter it for the first time, they are a little confused and often write it off as unreasonably dark. Of late, noir makes sense. I can't help but draw parallels to our current cultural climate. As our cities are razed to rubble, our journalists are beheaded on national television, and our bombs fall on the Iraqis, America finds itself mired in an unpopular war. Not just Americans, but most nations across the world publicly debate the legitimacy of our actions, and America struggles to come to a consensus on what to do next. There is clear support both for the war and against the war, and resolving that question is not the purpose of this argument; I support Americans and their right to their opinions no matter which side they favor. The point is that we're in the midst of a national crisis.
For a time, a time that is not entirely past, voicing dissent was viewed as treasonous or un-American. Journalists who have covered the White House for decades are finding themselves distinctly uncomfortable with straightforward reporting. Homeland Security aggressively seeks out terrorists on our soil. The television doesn't always show us what is happening overseas; we're encouraged to go about our business while the war is waged. The presidential election was fought more closely than any election ever has been. I feel confident in saying that America is once again divided, and the media is torn in its representation of a grim reality. Coincidentally, film noir is red hot and selling like gangbusters. We no longer need to intellectualize film noir to comprehend it; it has become intuitive.
Enter Night and the City. Perhaps more than any other noir, Night and the City exemplifies noirish staples such as claustrophobic shadows, extreme compositions, the city as trap, and fallen men as doomed antiheroes. The characters in Night and the City are rarely comfortable, and when they are comfortable it is the prelude to a nasty downfall. Night and the City gives us everything we're looking for in film noir (with the exception of a vicious femme fatale, which I'd argue strengthens this film).
The London in Night and the City is not the London I experienced as a tourist, but it is one I believe in. Hucksters shill their way into the wallets of rubes, operating in a network just outside of the well-trodden paths. The people we follow in this film ooze a thin layer of protective slime, discouraging us from touching them. (The exception is Gene Tierney, who manages to act ordinary while her flawless face, wide-set eyes, and dark curls make my heart burst.) Bombed-out buildings house dens of illicit commerce, while bridges and river banks swarm with a second society. The portrayal is not flattering, and London is among the most image-conscious cities in the world. But the locations filmed in Night and the City form a perfect backdrop for a tale of twisted ambition gone wrong.
Richard Widmark is riveting as he takes us through this labyrinth of frustrated ambition. We start the film by viewing Harry as his underworld acquaintances do: a second-string huckster with looks and charm, but insufficient nerve and concentration to rise higher. He clutches at small-time opportunities, disparaging the practical aims of his contemporaries. Harry seeks a life of "ease and plenty," passing up concrete means in favor of lucrative wisps. But we eventually come to see in Harry what his girlfriend Mary sees, a sharp and determined mind with the drive to see an idea through. We become unwitting accomplices to Harry's vision through some directorial trickery; afterward, we can readily understand his exasperation at his investors' lack of vision while simultaneously knowing what they see in Harry. Widmark never makes Harry an admirable man; in fact, he plays up Harry's thinly veiled, contemptible nature. And yet, we are fascinated by his schemes and his personality. I didn't care whether or not Harry won the day; either fate would give me something worthwhile to watch while Widmark experienced it. Harry goes through an impressive gamut of emotions and character transformations in the course of the film, and Widmark always hits the right crazed, glassy-eyed note.
If Widmark's inspired performance is the melody, the rest of the cast delivers pleasing harmony. Each character is convincingly portrayed, from the crime bosses to the street sweepers. The net result is that Night and the City feels surrealistically exaggerated and sharply realistic at the same time. Francis L. Sullivan gives Phil Nosseross just the right note of arrogance as he navigates the crises of club ownership. He could be Nero Wolfe or Winston Churchill instead of an exploitative booze peddler. Herbert Lom's Kristo is appropriately intense and shrewd, the kind of man who would jealously preside over a wrestling operation. Yet he comes from somewhere; we see his devotion to his father, his ability to step back and let his father compete with his wrestling empire. The character is realistic, and Lom imbues him with understandable severity. Kristo's father Gregorious is played by Stanislaus Zbyszko with stirring passion, evoking the past honor of the discipline of wrestling. His scenes resonate with physical presence and emotional fire. The rival of Gregorious, known as The Stranger, is Mike Mazurki's most fitting role among a string of dumb heavies. The men in Night and the City are not made of cardboard; their despicable actions carry weight.
The women live up to their side of the bargain, taking on more depth than is typical of noir dames. Googie Withers gives Helen a careworn patina that allows a hint of glamour to peek through. Her plans are as ambitious as any in Night and the City and her grip is as tight:
Phil: "Oh Helen…you don't know what you're walking
Like the men, she is rendered the fool just as surely when her plans go awry. The closest we come to a stereotype is Mary Bristol, the put-upon damsel who stands by Harry no matter what comes. Fortunately, her character is granted some life in the film's final scenes, though they may be overly convenient. Gene Tierney runs with the short rope she is granted, creating a woman who loves truly, and mourns the loss of her future. Tierney's real-life depression may have seeped into the portrayal, but it only strengthens the depth of the despair we feel for her. In fact, I can't tell whether Mary Bristol or Gene Tierney generates the most poignant moment of the film. Mary shows Harry a picture of a quaint, conservative-looking couple in a row boat. It is her and Harry; she asks him what happened to the future they were seeking. It may sound melodramatic, but something about the way her voice catches evokes real pain, instantly establishing what is on the line and what Harry has pissed away in search of fool's gold.
The cast is aided by Dassin's sure direction. He knows what he wants the actors to get across, and uses the camera, staging, and dialogue to achieve it. Dassin often allows the camera to linger on one character, showing us key transitions from confidence to despair. His camera angles, aptly executed by German veteran Mutz Greenbaum, sharply elucidate the moods and perils of the city. In fact, cinematography may be Night and the City's biggest draw. The plainest circumstances are rendered dramatic through angles, shadows, and light alone. London may be solid, but ethereal pools of malice gather in every corner when night takes over.
Criterion's presentation allows the original cinematography to come through clearly. The grain is tastefully intact, but the print has been carefully cleaned of debris. Edge enhancement is rarely present, and there is a notable lack of moiré rainbows given Harry's checkered suit and pinstriped tie. Outdoor scenes are slightly grainy and have the barest hint of blur, but the indoor scenes sparkle with clean contrast and living texture.
Film noir is known for electrifying, fatalistic dialogue. The dialogue in Night and the City crackles with tension and the energy of Harry's incessant hustling. He is never honest, not until his doom is clear as the daylight he suddenly finds himself squinting into. References to death pepper the film, along with a handful of branches that Harry could use to save himself. But he never does. Widmark's delivery is organic; patter seems to be spawned out of his mouth on the spot.
The dialogue is accented by a dynamic, dire score that perfectly creates manic tension. Though the Dolby Mono track lacks surround, it is nonetheless dynamic and clear. Criterion has given us a fascinating look into the score for Night and the City, contrasting Franz Waxman's kinetic score for the American release with Benjamin Frankel's subdued, conservative score for the British version. I won't spoil the discussion, but I will say it is one of the most interesting and informative musical commentaries I've seen about film sound, highlighting the dramatic change that a few bars of music can make in a film's tone.
The musical discussion is just one of the fantastic extras included with this release. Though a handful of studios have notably stepped up their games recently, Criterion has the experience and the pedigree to deliver premium DVD extras. Criterion's liner notes mean something, and this release is no exception. Though his prose is a bit dense and academic in tone, Paul Arthur appropriately stages the film and gives us an idea of its impact. The longest extra is the feature-length commentary by DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, who discusses the film with impressive organization, pacing, and enthusiasm. He knows the film cold, and delivers thought-provoking comments that expand the possibilities of our interpretations.
Though the commentary is commendable, Jules Dassin steals the show with a pair of candid interviews. Hollywood blacklisted Dassin and altered his life forever, so his comments are free from any self-serving restraint. Dassin describes the circumstances behind the film in terms unflattering to both himself and the studios while maintaining a pleasant authority. He also breaks down and makes a startling admission that will have fans of the book seething with anger. Dassin is a joy to listen to, lucid, candid, and approachable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I often find wrong notes in films that are considered classics, but in all honesty I was wrapped up in this one from the opening screen to the closing credits, through the extras and out the back of the DVD case. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.
It doesn't get as much ink as Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, but Night and the City is one of the purest examples of film noir. This release is above reproach, with a solid image, clear sound, superlative extras, and suitable packaging. It gets redundant to say that "Criterion has done it again," but that doesn't make it less true.
The cast and crew are sentenced to rehabilitation by no less than two weeks of full sunlight.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Scholar Glenn Erickson
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