Article by Tommy Scott, Portlaoise Library.
The third film in our season of online classic films is the 1950 gangster thriller ‘Night and the City’. Starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Herbert Lom, the film was directed by American-born director Jules Dassin and based on a 1938 Gerald Kersh crime novel, also called Night and the City. Set in New York during the Depression Era, the novel was hugely changed in Jules Dassin’s subsequent filmic adaptation, with the action switched to post-war London and being centred on the world of professional wrestling and the gangsters who sought to control the sport.
The reasons for this change in shooting location are important to understanding the film’s inspiration and they are both directly connected to the broader circumstances of director Jules Dassin’s life. Born in Connecticut to Jewish immigrant parents, Dassin’s early life was influenced by his parents’ leftist leanings. In response to the rise of right-wing groups in both Europe and the US, Dassin joined the Communist party in the 1930s. In 1939, enraged with the joint Soviet/Nazi invasion of Poland, he left the party and his politics assumed more centrist leanings.
However, this past association with Communism would later come back to haunt him. Within literally weeks of the cessation of hostilities in World War II, new tensions began to emerge between the Soviet Union and Western democracies. In the years ahead, a climate of increasing anti-leftist hysteria caused people with past communist associations to come under the scrutiny of the US government. In October 1947, drawing upon a list named in The Hollywood Reporter, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed a number of individuals working in the Hollywood film industry to testify at hearings. The committee’s declared intention being to investigate whether Communist agents and sympathisers had been planting propaganda in American films.
Prominent motion picture conservatives Walt Disney and later US President Ronald Reagan gave testimony and, amid the wild allegations of communist conspiracy, one of the persons who came under scrutiny was Jules Dassin. Immediately, blacklisted from working in Hollywood, Dassin had already begun work on Night and the City. Forced into finding a solution to completing the picture, he moved production to London and re-adapted the film to this new setting. As such, Night and the City is a rather unique film in that it has a particular ‘American’ noir sensibility, yet it was shot on location in London using US and British actors.
It’s arguably not a coincidence that the central character of Harry Fabian is a desperate man struggling to make ends meet, forced to make increasing compromises in order to get money. Played by Richard Widmark, Fabian is an ambitious hustler and con artist, always on the look-out to make easy money. Spotting an opportunity to muscle into the lucrative sport of wrestling, he gets on the wrong side of underworld mobsters. Ignoring warnings from his long-suffering girlfriend and his depleted circle of friends, Fabian’s desire for wealth overrides common sense, leading him into a labyrinthine world of double crosses and a final desperate chase through the streets and back alleys of London.
As such, the film’s critique of capitalism reflects something of Dassin’s political inclinations – how the drive to acquire wealth dehumanises and degrades people. No one in the film entirely escapes this taint and all the characters are, to varying degrees, compelled to do things that go against their better nature. While ‘Night and the City’ has many of the tropes of film noir, it quite different from most films of its day. Commenting on the film’s moral ambiguity, one critic called it a ‘film gris’ or grey film, suggesting that the movie’s hard-hitting social commentary negates the possibility of any easy black and white morality.
Richard Widmark’s performance as Harry Fabian leaps of the screen – a character that is unlikable and yet both human and relatable. Gene Tierney plays his long-suffering girlfriend Mary, while Czech-born British actor Herbert Lom is Christo, the wrestling promoter and hoodlum who becomes Fabian’s nemesis. The supporting roles are also extraordinary, granting the film its propulsive power as it moves through the shadows, alleys, docks and wastelands of a bombed-out post-war London. Recognised as a masterpiece in the decades following its release, Night and the City is both a nail-biting noir thriller and a brilliantly-insightful character-driven drama. Enjoy!!