Classic Musings: Night and the City (1950)

Some people understand what they're supposed to do with their lives -- with their smarts and talents -- at an early age, while other take a good while to figure out what they're meant to do, bouncing between professions in the meantime. Then, there are those who never really figure out what they're built for, resulting either in folks stuck in unsatisfying jobs or futilely chasing entrepreneurial opportunities until their number's up. Jules Dassin's spirited film noir Night and the City revolves around much more than that, naturally, spinning a dangerous web of scheming and backstabbing through the wrestling racket in post-WWII London, yet there's a timeless bittersweet tone lying within the pursuits of American hustler Harry Fabian that elevates the film through this life crisis. He's a man who never discovers a legit means of providing for he and his lady, despite his many skills that could be put to use in any number of other ways, which makes the mesmerizing hole he digs for himself both saddening and infuriating to behold.

Played by Richard Widmark in the prime of his antiheroic film noir popularity, Harry Fabian scurries about the darkened alleyways and smoky nightclubs of London trying to pull any con that might be worthwhile to him, often tied back to the club owned by seedy businessman Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) and his crafty and detached wife, Helen (Googie Withers). While caught up in a botched job at a wrestling match nearby, Fabian witnesses a scuffle between a legendary wrestler, Gregorious (Stanislaus Zybyszko), and his son, bout organizer and local "entrepreneur" Kristo (Herbert Lom), that gets the gears moving in his head when their conversation turns to the purity of the sport. To make his scheme work, he needs capital, the kind of money he can't borrow from his innocent squeeze Mary (Gene Tierney). Thus begins Fabian's journey to get the coin required to become a player in London's wrestling circuit, a potential avenue for legitimate and lucrative income after he gets over this hump ... and he's willing to do just about anything to make that happen: lying, double-crossing, forging, even outright stealing.

Corruption permeates the lively streets of London in this take on Gerald Kersh's eponymous novel, creating a grimy and unpredictable setting in Night and the City that's hinged on a tentative "honor amongst thieves", where waiters and flower merchants on the streets are all in on the game. They're also the eyes and ears of those who have the coin to spend on whatever information they glean />about those who partake in their services, tossing allegiances aside when push comes to shove. Director Dassin doesn't make that element of the criminal underbelly one of malevolence, though, reserving that for the rigors of competing business and family conflict that drive the bigwigs studded throughout the town. Instead, this neutrality builds an environment where Fabian's scheming is both kept under wraps from the regular population (and law enforcement) and remains common knowledge among the larger players, granting him the freedom to maneuver under their skeptical observation.

The writing within the film noir genre commonly exaggerates the pulpy and on-the-nose style of it all, as if perpetually embroiled in a competition to one-up another entry, but Night and the City tailors the dialogue and twists so that they feel like natural extensions of this coarse, opportunistic atmosphere. Plenty of memorably stylistic lines are to be relished throughout the film -- such as a clever reworking of the "give enough rope" idiom using the sharpness of a blade -- but many of them often fly under the radar since they feel so integrated into the situations. The same can be said for the shrewd, subtle reveals of pertinent information and tactics at Fabian's disposal: many faces appear in his vigorous sprints between locations that could simply accentuate the atmosphere, but the script makes clever (re)use of them in the layers of his plotting, whether they're planned or spontaneous fixes to problems. That natural progression and usage of details, often revealing information by deduction that doesn't hold the audience's hand, makes Dassin's well-paced cinematic style breeze by even quicker.

Barring a few conveniences for the sake of the story, from people staying put in places for lengthy periods of time to the opportune smudging of ink from condensation, Night and the City generates shrewdly-written and uncompromising suspense that's always a few steps ahead of expectations. Unlikable swindlers and shady businessmen (and women) each have their own sympathetic qualities that make it tough to completely despise them amid their machinations, whether it's unreturned love from spouses and family to stifled ambition due to the town's dominant businessman, yielding a degree of unpredictability to the lines they're willing to cross to keep the upper hand. What's great about Night and the City comes in how quickly, and logically, the burly moving pieces of an industry built on stout backs and larger-than-life personalities can muscle out of their control. A stunning-photographed and poetic brawl near the end defies expectations of what the film's setting up, one whose stakes subvert the value of cash and contracts for the sake of family, honor, and the art of battle.

Coupled with absorbing, charismatic performances from all the rogues involved, Jules Dassin expertly structures Night and the City so that it's unclear whether we're supposed be pulling for Fabian and his wrestling endeavors to succeed or fail, which ties into the aforementioned idea of people whose potential is never properly realized. The story puts the audience in a neutral position there, cutting off most of the heroic or villainous bias so those watching can relish the twists and turns of his plan without being swayed. In that, against the rhythmic clanks and foggy depths of London through director Dassin's immersive viewpoint, there's something truly bittersweet about seeing this capable, honest-faced conman who thinks on his feet surrender to the moral demands of this scenario, elevated by Widmark's frantic personification of misguided ambition and fickle allegiances. It'd be easy to see Fabian's talents caught up in navigating boardrooms, pulling political strings, and persuading judges and juries instead of grifting between the city's dark corners, but whether we'd want him there is, of course, something else altogether, a true testament to the film's nuanced handling of genre characterization.

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