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Night and the City (1950)

I’ve been tackling quite a few deep cuts in my Noirvember reviews this month after I stumbled upon the pages and pages of rare movies filling YouTube. Yours truly also was stunned to discover a surprising number of well-known hallmarks of film noir, loaded and waiting for a rewatch as well! This is particularly delightful considering the lack of classics on many streaming sites, as well as the distinct challenge of locating certain films on physical media. And I must admit, when I found one of the cinematic gems from my all-time favorite Richard Widmark, I was giddy with excitement. So, here’s everything you need to know about Night and the City.

Night and the City follows Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) a young American struggling through life in post World War II England. Ever the wild-eyed dreamer, despite how much he tries, Harry can’t seem to extricate himself from the rough, seedy nightclub scene were he makes his living… much to the frustration of his girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney). When Harry forces his way into London’s underground wrestling scene, he suddenly finds himself in way over his head. Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe and Herbert Lom co-star in this Jules Dassin directed feature. Jo Eisinger receives credit on the screenplay.

Richard Widmark shows from the opening scene just why he’ll always stand as a noir legend. Night and the City opened in 1950, just three years after Widmark made his screen debut in Kiss of Death (1947). While he is cast as the protagonist in this film, he’d only recently shaken the villain typecasting which plagued the early years of his career.

In Night and the City, Widmark unearths yet another layer in his — often sadistic– star persona: likability. As the movie opens and he’s talking to Mary about yet another scheme to get ahead in life, you can’t help but feel for the guy. Harry Fabian is very rough around the edges, I mean, this is noir, after all. However, he’s inherently sympathetic and it’s easy to want this young man to succeed.

Richard Widmark easily exposes the tragedy in this narrative by showing us Fabian’s hope, even in the face of his struggles. The post WWII economic recovery was largely driven by consumerism and Harry and Mary are down on their luck. They are aware of what they’re missing. Their world is this seedy dive-bar and the rundown London streets. While she’s able to just live in the moment and look beyond what they don’t have, his aspiration, and in that his hope, is ultimately his downfall.

I can praise Richard Widmark to the rafters, and ditto for Gene Tierney. However, the supporting cast in Night and the City certifies this movie as a worthwhile watch. Googie Withers, a very young Herbert Lom, the always colorful Mike Mazurki and the ever delightful Hugh Marlowe are each captivating in their own way as they help build the rich and vibrant world of this story.

At the same time, a number of these roles exist to build conflict and show the very real push and pull both Harry and Mary feel throughout the narrative. For example, Adam (Marlowe) exists to show the promise of a better life and a stabilizing force for Mary– despite his inability to cook spaghetti (he is a bachelor after all!). He’s a good and simple man, which also establishes him as a source of conflict between the couple. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Mary might grow sick of Harry’s drama and run to Adam’s waiting arms… and Harry knows this.

Meanwhile, I’ve written a fair amount about Night and the City director Jules Dassin over the course of our coverage this month. Despite having only ten films under his belt, Dassin reaches his stylistic pinnacle with his work in this movie. Every frame of Night and the City is a work of art. Dassin’s crafting of light and dark to tell a story is masterful, just look at some of these shots:

With these absolutely stunning visuals, Dassin and his cinematographer Max Greene easily guide the tone of Night and the City with an unseen hand. The visual power of these images casts a heaviness over the narrative which wouldn’t be present without these very specific stylistic choices. There’s a tension and an unease which falls over the film which would be dramatically lessened without Dassin’s skilled visual flourishes. This is the mark of a truly great filmmaker.

Speaking truthfully here, this isn’t my first time through Night and the City. This was probably my fourth or a fifth rewatch and interestingly, I’ve enjoyed it more each time through. As I’ve mentioned this month, this is one of my favorites; however, it didn’t play well for me the first time out. It is a very bleak movie, and initially, it felt like a long and hard watch. Night and the City is film noir at its grittiest and most complicated. So, this might not be the best entry point for those looking to jump into the movement. It also might not fit the bill for a fun movie night. Though, if you’re looking for film noir at its absolute finest, very few works can top Night and the City.

Night and the City is available to stream over on YouTube.

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