Plenty of life, none at ease: “Night and the City” – Jules Dassin, 1950
Harry Fabian says he wants to be somebody. The sentence, uttered no five minutes into “Night and the City”, already hints at a larger theme: classical drama – man’s hubris leading to his downfall. And so Harry Fabian, small-time crook and hustler for a seedy club named “The Silver Fox”, hurries through London at night, always in search for the next big scheme to gain … what? Is it money, is it fame? One person calls him “an artist without an art” and there is a strong chance that Fabian himself isn’t sure of his goal, but he wants it all the more. Fabian repeatedly refers to “a life of ease and plenty”. At one point we see him ceremoniously admiring his “Chief Manager” name tag which resembles the Titan Atlas with the world on his shoulders. But his cockeyed idea to control London’s wrestling circuit interferes with bigger sharks: his former boss Philip Nosseross and Greek wrestling mafioso Kristo.
As with every tragic flaw well-conceived and well-staged, the protagonist’s path is clear to foresee for the audience and everyone else in the film except poor Harry Fabian himself. Nosseross clearly tells Fabian that his proceedings will get him killed in the end: “You’ve got it all, Harry. And your’re dead man.” Kristo explicitly warns him to back off more than once. His girlfriend Mary (a good supporting role for Gene Tierney, but don’t be fooled by the film poster, hers is really only a small part) argues with him about his madcap plans and visions of grandeur everytime they share the screen. But Fabian’s frenzied behavior, driven by manic optimism and megalomaniac hubris cannot simply stop. We get to know him on the run, right in the opening sequence after yet another harebrained scheme with greyhound races backfires, and we watch him die on the run in the last third of the film. Especially this last act is one of constant flight: Kristo puts a bounty on his head and the whole London underworld hunts Fabian down. On the way to his doom he repeatedly raises the stakes to keep his ever riskier operations from imploding. He cons a former wrestling champion Gregorius into becoming a wrestling coach on the London circuit, swindles a faked police permission into the hands of Nosseross’s wife, sets up a most unlikely wrestling fight by lying to everyone involved, and in the end becomes a plain thief, stealing his girlfriend’s savings.
This dervish dance on a live highwire is brilliantly acted by Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian. It calls for much respect for him and director Jules Dassin to paint Fabian’s character so disagreeably, so downright enervating, and yet so fascinating. Rarely was the term “anti-hero” so fitting for a character on screen. It’s almost impossible to really like Fabian, and maybe even harder to identify with him as a protagonist, but we cannot look away when he tries fate again and again. And herein this film is similar to the later “Clockwork Orange”: we can’t root for the main character, but what finally happens to him strikes us as unfair, as unjustified violence on an outrageous scale.
While Harry may indeed be the film’s main attraction, its real depth comes from Jules Dassin’s panoramic storytelling skills. Echoing “The Naked City” (1948), his last movie before he fled America on the eve of the Hollywood blacklist, he sets up the aptly named “Night and the City” as a kind of panopticon: it tells not only Fabian’s story, but the stories of everyone connected to him – or captured by him – , lastly perhaps the story of the City (capital C, mind you). “The Naked City” ended with one of the most memorable lines cinema has: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” “Night and the City” takes this concept up and broadens it. Its narrator makes the connection in the very first scene by pointing out that the story to be told is just one of many, and that it is a normal tale, something that might happen every day in this City. From this perspective the myriad of subplots and huge amount of lurid supporting characters become parts of the whole, the City.
The viewer gets introduced to Philipp Nosseross’ deep, yet unheathily obsessive love to his wife Helen, who in turn tries to escape her husband by setting up shop with a nightclub of her own. Mary is shown together with the (quite charming) upstairs neighbour, an artist who is in love with her, but she stays true to Fabian. Gregorius, the aging Greco-Roman wrestler with his old world ideals, is the only one to just believe in Harry, while lovingly coaching a young wrestler to show the decadent Londoners and their “fancy” wrestling (not unlike today’s WCW) how it’s done. Kristo is the slightly enigmatic gangster boss with a severe father complex, with disastrous consequences for Fabian as it turns out. And each of the characters is delicately fleshed out and carefully given its own bit of screen presence aside Fabian. The excellent cast helps to successfully stage this intricate configuration without it being overshadowed by Widmark’s performance. Really everyone does amazing work here, but there have to be extra kudos for Googie Withers and Frank L. Sullivan. Their performance as Mr. and Ms. Nosseros simply is marvellous.
Then there is the City. It comes as no surprise that it is as important as the narrative. Post-war London sets the scene for the seedy, detailed, almost larger-than-life indoor sets. The buildings in decay are ever-present from the opening sequence. Especially the Docklands scenes clearly evoke Carol Reed’s “The Third Man“, the other great classic film noir that made good use of destroyed post-war European settings. And while the city surely has its glitz and glamour in the panoramic shots over the skyline and in the neon signs surrounding Piccadilly Circus, all this pomp is peeled off with the camera’s discrete looks behind the scenes of the clubs and the boxing rings.
The “Silver Fox” scenery with the club buzzing at night, yet empty and forlorn for the rest of the time is a prime example of how carefully Dassin scrutinizes his classic film noir scenarios. Nosseross’ office watches over the club floor in every direction (as in the still on the right). It reminds not only of the omnipresence of the gangsters, but also shows him like a factory boss who watches over his business. Dassin even takes the time to add a scene for the daily rapport of the candy selling club girls to Helen Nosseross, who reminds them that their job is all about drawing money from the customers in the most elaborate ways. It is a place where the organized crime isn’t about hidden speakeasies and tommy guns anymore. It may still happen happen at night, but at some point it became a “normal story”. It follows the rules of business, fully capitalized and catering to large crowds (as Kristos’ fixed wrestling matches do – more a stage act than a sport, more sideshow than violence). It’s a place where money can rule the world more efficiently than guns. It also traded off old ideals of honor, friendship and sportsmanship for more modern and ruthlessly efficient ways of living. The confrontation between both ideologies is staged in the ring with the clash between old-timer Gregorius and show wrestler/thug/part-time contract killer The Strangler. It is only here that Dassin stages the transition between the different Weltanschauungen with all its subliminal brutality condensed into one prolonged, intensely violent fight scene. Gregorius beats The Strangler, but dies from the strain by cardiac arrest. And with Gregorius dead, The Strangler returns to his other jobs: fighting and killing for money, lastly executing Fabian.
With Gregorius’ last fight won but lost, and Fabian as the self-made individual taken down the society around him, Dassin’s vision of modern life turns out to be much bleaker than the usual film noir tropes. Thus in the end Dassin can return to the gangster film tropes by buying a city: Kristo’s thousand-Pound bounty on Fabian turns the whole underworld into his henchmen and executioners. It recalls Fritz Lang’s “M” and his “Fury” as well as the proto-manhunt-movie “The Most Dangerous Game“. Yet where the predecessors painted the hunters as righteously indignant, sometimes stupid mobs or mad sadists, “Night and the City” is closer to Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit” (later turned into a film by Bernhard Wicki). Kristo, like Claire Zachanassian proposes a deal; Harry Fabian’s death is revenge, but it is also merely a business transaction.
Dassin’s reworkings of genre conventions throughout his whole body of work might easily fill a separate article (maybe another time), but it is only apt to close these observations with one last meta-reflection on film noir. In the end, earlier noirs stuck to rigid moral codes: whoever commited a crime was brought to justice, whether sympathetic or not. The detective could navigate the underworld by his own strict moral compass, using cunning and violence only as a necessary means to a good end. “Nice people” are not affected by the ethic ambiguities presented in film noir – rarely is a victim innocent or a perpetrator pardoned. But Dassin knows no poetic justice: when the closing credits roll, everyone in this movie has been punished, whether justified or not. Even the good and honest Mary Bristol isn’t spared her losses, and when Kristo is arrested in the last seconds of the film, he is still the only one who gained a bit of fulfillment in the death of Harry Fabian. The audience may even understand him. But it easily might be this introduction of all-encompassing gray into the black and white logic of film noir that helped “Night and the City” to stand the test of time and still connect to post-millenium sensibilities.