Friday, August 24, 2007

Night and the City (1950)

Editor's note: Things continue to be busy here at the blog. There are two Noir of the Week articles coming up in the next few days. This one's unique because I haven't read any of Dr. Mayer's writing and I've yet to get a copy of the book, Encyclopedia of Film Noir.It was co-written by Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell and was just published last month.
I asked Dr. Mayer to tell us a little about the book:

"Part 1 contains five chapters which examine readings on film noir, including what is film noir, the Hard-Boiled Influence, Film Noir and the City, McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Film Noir Style. Part 2 incudes entries on more than 150 films, including ‘
Night and the City’, and 60 actors and directors. While most of the films selected are American, there is a sizable coverage of British Film Noir. Hence ‘Night and the City’ is an apt choice because it was produced by a Hollywood studio, Twentieth Century Fox, with American stars (Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe) and an American director (Jules Dassin), who was about to be blacklisted in Hollywood - but it was filmed in London in 1949. This confluence of influences resulted in one of the most powerful noir films ever produced - both stylistically and thematically."

The following is a excerpt from the book:

By Geoff Mayer

NIGHT AND THE CITY (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950)-Director: Jules Dassin; Script: Jo Eisinger, based on the novel by Gerald Kersh; Cinematography: Max Greene; Music: Franz Waxman; Cast: Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Hugh Marlowe (Adam Dunne), Francis L. Sullivan (Phillip Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Gregorious), Mike Mazurki (the Strangler), Edward Chapman (Hoskins), Maureen Delaney (Anna O’Leary), James Hayter (Figler).

This is a key noir film. Filmed in London in 1949, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox, sent director Jules Dassin to Britain as he was about to be expelled from the studio following orders from New York because of his left-wing political sympathies. Zanuck told Dassin to start filming Jo Eisinger’s script for Night and the City as soon as he could and he also told Dassin to film the most expensive scenes first so that it would be costly for the studio to remove him from the film. Zanuck also asked Dassin if he could develop a role for one of the studio’s most important female stars, Gene Tierney, as he wanted to get her away from Hollywood following a failed romance.

Dassin did not have time to read Gerald Kersh’s book, published in 1938, and his interest in the project was both formal and ideological. He wanted to present London as an urban nightmare with night for night shooting at a time when it was still difficult to generate sufficient light for extended night scenes, especially those filmed in long shot. Dassin, however, received the cooperation of many London businesses who agreed to leave their lights on at night so as to assist the filming. As a result, Night and the City is one of the strongest examples of film noir expressionism and it presents London as an urban hell - a world of dark shadows, desperate individuals and derelict buildings. Tourist landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, along with other parts of the city, were transformed into a consistent vision of urban hell, a perfect encapsulation of a dark, threatening world permeated by betrayal, fall guys and moral corruption.

Dassin was also attracted to the film’s overarching theme based on the destructive effect of money and ambition and Night and the City is one of the toughest, bleakest films ever produced by a major Hollywood studio. The film’s opening sequence was developed by Zanuck who jettisoned the more conventional, and softer, opening scenes in Eisinger’s script. Zanuck wanted to emphasise Fabian’s vulnerability from the start. The film begins with Harry Fabian, a cheap American-born scam artist, running through the desolate streets of London, and the film ends in the same way with Fabian running for his life through the same wasteland until he is executed by nemesis, The Strangler, with his body dumped into Thames at Hammersmith. In between these events the film traces the downward spiral of Fabian as he tries to live down failed investments and ‘be somebody’. In the past Fabian’s activities have caused suffering to his girlfriend Mary Bristol, Now he is doomed. He overreaches himself when he tries to compete with men such as Kristo when, striving to lift himself out of the world of small time crime, manipulates himself into the position of wrestling promoter when Kristo’s father, Gregorius, and his wrestling protégé Nikolas, become disenchanted by Kristo’s demeaning exploitation of the wrestling business. Fabian exploits this rift by promising Gregorius that he will promote classical Greco-Roman wrestling but, short of funds, Fabian gets caught between Helen Nosseross’s desire to leave her husband and start up her own night-club and Phil’s jealousy and sexual frustration. Fabian accepts money from both parties and this, eventually, leads to his downfall when, in financial desperation, he tries to provoke Gregorius into fighting The Strangler. Fabian loses control of the situation and when Gregorius dies after subduing The Strangler, Kristo sets the London underworld onto Fabian with the promise of a bounty for his head.

This sets up the film’s magnificent final act as Harry seeks refuge amongst the denizens of London’s underworld only to discover that, except for his surrogate mother, Anna, and Mary, nobody will help him. His unsentimental death lacks any sense of glamour. Fabian, as Dassin constantly reminds us with his mise-en-scene, is doomed from the start. He is a tragic figure who, as one character tells him, is ‘an artist without art’ who overreaches himself. Fabian grasp of an unstable world is shown to be untenable right from the start and, at the film’s conclusion, he runs through the nightmarish streets lamenting that he ‘was so close to being on top’. The film concludes with his death as his body is dumped into the Thames.

At times, the doomed protagonists of film noir assume some of the dramatic characteristics of tragedy, particularly when they over-stretch themselves. Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian, at times, assumes this tragic persona. At other times he approximates his giggling psychopath persona from his trademark performance as Tommy Udo in his debut film Kiss of Death (1947). Overall, he is a spiv, a con man sent out to ‘The American Bar’ to persuade gullible American tourists to follow him back to Nosseross’s Silver Fox club where ‘hostesses’, trained and drilled by Helen Nosseross, can fleece their victims. He dies when he tries to move out of this limited sphere. In his attempt to ‘be somebody’ and raise money to promote a legitimate wrestling match, Fabian takes the audience on a tour of London’s underbelly as he visits, firstly, The Fiddler who runs a scam involving beggars with fake disabilities (The Fiddler, who eventually betrays Harry near the end of the film, offers to set Harry up with his own operation involving ‘a few good beggars’), then Googin who forges birth certificates, passports and medical licences and finally Anna O’Leary, who deals in stolen nylons and cigarettes. This is a world devoid of ‘normal people.

Night and the City was a startling production from a major Hollywood studio due largely to its almost total lack of sentimentality. American director Jules Dassin and actors Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, and Hugh Malowe joined talented British actors, such as Francis L. Sullivan as the love-stricken Phillip Nosseross and Googie Withers as his venal wife Helen, and German cinematographer Max Greene who gave Dassin the depth of field and unusual compositions he wanted. Greene and Dassin filmed many scenes just prior to sunrise so as to accentuate the film’s sense of fatalism.

When Dassin returned to the United States for post-production work on Night and the City he was, due to the fact that his left-wing past had become public, was prevented from entering the studio and had to convey his ideas with regard to the film’s post-production to editors Nick De Maggio and Sidney Stone and composer Franz Waxman by phone as they were too frightened to meet him in person due to possibility of any direct association with Dassin may have damaged their careers. The film received, mostly. Negative reviews in the United States and Britain, possibly affected by the political climate, and performed poorly at the box office. Dassin did not direct another film, the wonderful Rififi, for five years. Night and the City was remade in 1992 with Robert DeNiro as the doomed protagonist, but the change of setting to New York, and a more sentimental perspective, weakened the film and it is an inferior version.


  1. An excellent review of the R2 DVD con be found here:

  2. I loved this film. Thank you for all of the insights and background info, I'll be writing my own review soon and I know I'll be hard pressed to compete with yours. superb.

  3. I've always liked to think that Dassin knew of his impending exile when he decided to make this film, and had seen it as an opportunity to make the kind of film he had always wanted to make. I've also liked to think that it's completion and release was a way of thumbing his nose at Hollywood and it's paranoia, and letting them know what a damn good director they were suppressing. His diligence in the struggles with post-production were indicative of how important it was for him to complete the film. A triumph over the adversity of those dark days, and one of the great landmark noirs.