Sunday, October 2, 2011

Night and the City (1950) - Jules Dassin

Most people think of New York or Los Angeles when it comes to film noir, but director Jules Dassin set his dramatic story in the east end of London. It is populated with a sorry group of conniving characters. With the exception of an old wrestler who considers his sport art, the men and women here have little concern with morality and ethics. Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is the doomed protagonist, a reprehensible, small-time hustler whose plans never pan out. With no conscience to speak of, Fabian only cares about becoming "somebody." He is headed for trouble. In an early scene we see him rifling through his girlfriend's purse. It's clearly not the first time.

A man on the run. 

Fabian works for Philip Nosseross (Francis Sullivan) as a club tout, luring innocent customers to the Silver Fox night club. Nosseross is a bigger fish in the London underworld. He desperately loves his wife, Helen, but because she finds him repulsive, he is forlorn and gripped by frustration. He tries to buy her affections with the gift of a fur, but she rejects him, leaving him caressing the fur instead, taking in the scent of her perfume.

Fabian's luck looks to take a sudden turn for the better when he meets Gregorius, a one-time world champion Greco-Roman wrestler who's mentoring a promising young athlete. Gregorius hates freestyle wrestling. Though it packs in blood-thirsty customers, he views it as mere entertainment and fake. He says it is for clowns. His son, Kristo, is kingpin of the London wrestling business, but he promotes only freestyle. Fabian cons Gregorius into letting him promote a match between his young charge and a well-known local bruiser, The Strangler. To bankroll the contest, he comes to Nosseross, who agrees, provided Fabian can match his investment. Helen and Fabian then strike a backroom deal. She gives him his share of the money--by selling the fur stole--in exchange for Fabian securing her a liquor license so she can leave her husband to open her own club. Nosseross discovers the scheme, and may even suspect Fabian is carrying on an affair with his wife. He begins to engineer the fall of the ambitious employee.

Director Jules Dassin already had a solid Hollywood resume of winning film noir to his credit (Thieves' Highway, 1949; The Naked City, 1948; and Brute Force, 1947), when he went to London to film Night and the City. Like those earlier noirs, the cinematography here is wonderful, highly effective in creating a mood of despair and impending tragedy. The film opens with a great high-angle shot of Fabian running through dark London streets. Shadows play against the buildings and the wet pavement, and a hectic score accompanies the fast-paced action. Someone is after him. Fabian loses his carnation but stops in flight to retrieve it and stick it back in his lapel. An act of vanity, it gives you a key to the man's personality. He just manages a narrow escape from danger, slipping unseen into the stairwell of his girlfriend's apartment, Mary, played by Gene Tierney. Fabian is always running, either from honest work or a pursuer. A second, even more frenzied chase, will bookend the film's action. All in all, this opening is a brilliant example of the noir style.

Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney. 

Throughout the film, Dassin and cameraman Max Greene, make good use of selective closeups, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia and fear, reminiscent of Orson Welles' technique in Touch of Evil. The lighting is particularly effective for Sullivan as Nosseross. He appears as a hulking menace, with heavy jowls and gone to fat, similar to Welles' Hank Quinlan. His office is crisscrossed with windows, suggesting he lives in a cage. His is a terrific performance, and a surprising one if you're only familiar with the actor from David Lean's late 1940's Dickens' films Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

And this is Widmark's best career performance. Oozing with nervous energy throughout, he perfectly captures the complicated emotions of his deeply flawed character, a selfish bastard with no allegiance to anyone. Alternately infantile and boisterous, he mopes like a scolded child when Mary catches him in the act of stealing, and crows like a rooster when he thinks he's finally hit the big time. Watch his face in the scene where Gregorius scolds his son, Kristo, warning him not to threaten his new partner. Fabian stands protected, looking over Gregorius' shoulder, leering at the son. In two different scenes, Widmark undergoes wild mood swings, going from joy to panic in the span of a few moments. When euphoric, Widmark's signature, slightly crazed, chortle can be heard, and when desperate, his brow beads wet with perspiration, his eyes grow wild and glassy. The best sequence occurs when Nosseross retracts his support, explaining earlier that he would give Fabian "the sharp edge of the knife." Widmark had arrived jubilant at the Silver Fox, almost dancing, beside himself with glee. He taps some snare drums and cymbals while he informs Nosseross that he's ready to stage the fight. Nosseross places a call to Kristo, and tells Fabian that no one will give him an arena. "You have it all Harry Fabian," he says with sarcasm, "but you're a dead man." Fabian, shocked by the betrayal, hurries out, fearing he's now a marked man. Nosseross strikes the same cymbal for emphasis.

It seems a complicated plot, with double-crosses aplenty, but Dassin has filmed it so the audience understands what's going on, and what motivates each character.

Fabian arrives at his gym where The Strangler and his manager await to sign a contract. Gregorius and his pupil practice in the ring. The Strangler has been drinking. He baits Gregorious into a fight. It's a brutal contest. The Strangler is a dirty fighter. His tactics run to face-gouging and vicious, closed-fist punches. Gregorius uses a crushing bear hug. It is one of best shot athletic sequences ever filmed. Much of the credit here must go to Nick DeMaggio, the film editor. His resume includes Dassin's Thieves' Highway and another Widmark hit, Pickup on South Street. Mike Mazurki plays The Strangler. A familiar face, he excelled at playing thugs and "muscle" in gangster films and crime dramas. At 6'5'', with a craggy face and furrowed brow, it's perfect casting. Stanislaus Zbyszko plays Gregorious. A one-time world-class wrestler, it is his only film appearance. (Dassin plucked him from a New Jersey chicken farm for the role.) A giant round battle-scarred bulk of muscle, he stood 5'8' and was 71 at filming. Mazurki was just 43.

Two brutes in the ring.

SPOILERS AHEAD: The outcome of the match sends Fabian into hiding. Kristo orders his henchmen to find him.  Another feverish chase ensues and Fabian meets a grim ending at the hands of The Strangler, who lives up to his moniker and tosses his victim into the river. Krisco watches from a bridge, and flicks his cigarette butt on the body as it floats like garbage beneath him.

Phillip Nosseross ends no better off. When Helen leaves him for Fabian, he tells her she doesn't know what she's walking into. She sneers with contempt and replies, "I know what I'm walking out of." The cuckolded husband is devastated and takes his own life. Helen later learns that her license is a forgery. She returns to the Silver Fox to find her husband has cut her from his will. Destined for disappointment, she's the closest thing we have to a femme fatale in the film.

Jules Dassin.

Dassin was a victim of the Communist witch-hunt in America following World War. He fled the States with the help of Darrel Zanuck to make this film and would continue his work in the genre from France with Rififi in 1955, a seminal heist move. He was among the many wrongly persecuted artists by the HUAC. It's a shame, because he lost a few good years, and his already strong canon of films would have been even more impressive.

No comments:

Post a Comment