Night and the City

Some time ago I blogged on Gerald Kersh’s classic novel Night and the City,

One of the finest novels ever written about London’s Soho and its underworld. Product Details

But today I want to talk about director Jules Dassin’s 1950 film version, perhaps one of the finest examples of film noir ever made. And the first remark I would make is to forget the book entirely. Dassin’s film has only a slight resemblance to the book. Dassin never read it until after he’d made the picture, and Kersh was, perhaps understandably, rather peeved.

However, out of one masterpiece came another. The film, in so very many ways, equals the book in quality. Now a word of warning. There are at least two different cuts of Night and the City, both with different musical scores. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call them the American and British versions. And to complicate matters there are scenes in one that are missing from the other. The British version has a weaker romanticised ending. Personally, I favour the American version and its musical score; the latter seeming more apt for this excursion into noir.

In the novel, the hero, Harry Fabian, tries to pass himself off as an American hustler. In the film the part is played by an American, as an American. Richard Widmark is quite superb as this two-bit hustler, roaming the streets of Soho and the banks of the Thames, and never once seeming out of place. Desperate to take over control of the all-in wrestling scene, corrupt and crime-ridden at that time, Fabian hustles money from night-club owner Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan, in his greatest screen role) and his wife Helen (a menacing Googie Withers).

As the wrestling scene is run by gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom) this puts Fabian in considerable danger. Only the fact that Fabian has gone into partnership with Kristo’s father, an old champion wrestler known as Gregorious the Great, saves him. The old grappler is played by former world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko.  Zbyszko had never acted before, but he gives a wonderful performance, culminating in a graphic bout with the actor and former wrestler Mike Mazurki. Probably the best fictional wrestling bout on film.

It all, of course, goes badly for Harry Fabian, who soon finds himself on the run, with much of the London underworld appearing to be after him.

At one point, Fabian is described as a man for ever on the move, on the run. And Widmark gives a performance where his character is always in motion, hardly ever still, leading up to a terrific chase sequence at the end, through the monochrome streets and bomb sites of postwar London.

The photography is quite superb, depicting a London now lost for ever, beautiful to look at, this film, and benefitting from the stark contrasts of black and white, which adds to the feeling of menace. Monochrome should be used more often in film-making. Colour is not everything, as modern cinematographers should learn.

If there are weaknesses in the film, it is the under-use of film noir regular Gene Tierney, as Fabian’s love interest. She plays so little a part in the story the character might as well not be there. Hugh Marlowe – a grand actor who deserved better parts and more leads than he got – as her neighbour is totally wasted. But these are small flaws in Dassin’s masterpiece.

Dassin was sent to London by Daryl Zanuck to make this picture, to evade possible arrest due to alleged communist sympathies, in the paranoia that beset Hollywood at that time. The director was, rather like Fabian, almost on the run. Because of the political difficulties he was allowed very little hand in post-production editing, though his ideas were taken on board.

This all added up to the creation of a masterpiece, the real-location shooting giving the film a vibrancy and reality which is quite outstanding.

Different from the book? Yes, but the two complement each other is portraying London and its underworld at a most interesting time in history.

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