' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Night and the City (1950)

Friday, September 29, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: Night and the City (1950)

Jules Dassin’s “Night and the City” begins with Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) being chased and it ends with him being chased, putting into bleak perspective the life and death of this unrelenting hustler, eternally seeking to stay one step ahead of someone else, the city of London presented as a maze of dark alleyways and twisty staircases and oppressive rooms reflecting his existence. The first time we properly see Fabian, he is going through the purse of his girl Mary (Gene Tierney), looking for money but claiming he’s only looking for a cigarette when she catches him, foreshadowing a life lived one lie at a time. It’s a little difficult to understand why she might stick with him despite it all, the kindly neighbor (Hugh Marlow) downstairs less a source of conflict than mere evocation of what Harry isn’t, though there is one moment, right near the beginning, when Harry flops down in a chair, stares off into the distance, and says he wants to be somebody that sticks with you. It’s the simplest, dumbest motivation, but Widmark says it that way, momentarily letting all the hustle drain away and leaving behind the shell of a loser so hollow and pathetic that, for a second anyway, like Mary, you kinda feel sorry for him. 

His job consists of getting dressed to the nines every evening and going around town to tout the nightclub of equally unscrupulous Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan). It’s a seedy occupation of braggadocio that feels spiritually correct for a guy desperate to position himself as bigger than life, walking down a street and saying hello to everyone like an actor playing a part. The whole thing fairly breathes of “Uncut Gems” (2019), and I was not surprised to learn afterwards that co-director Josh Safdie considers Dassin’s noir one of his ten favorite films. Indeed, the house of cards in “Uncut Gems” is partially structured around professional basketball and the house of cards in “Night and the City” is partially structured around professional wrestling. To get in a game run almost exclusively by the dastardly Kristo (Herbert Lom), Harry manages to win the misplaced trust of Kristo’s father Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko), who views his son’s emphasis on show business over sport as a betrayal of his Greco Roman roots. As such, Harry sets up a match between Kristo’s hotshot The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) and Gregorious’s prized pupil Nikolas (Ken Richmond), the entire scheme fueled by an elaborate series of betrayals and double crosses, Widmark playing it all without a second’s hesitation or reflection, painting himself into a corner with greedy glee. 

Harry’s scheme unravels in the ring, though absent a crowd, when The Strangler goads Gregorious into a fight, one in which mere bluster morphs into a struggle of life and death. It’s a hell of scene Dassin concocts here, infusing it with a verité sensation by eschewing music, piecing it together with agonizing close-ups that accentuate the tension, two wrestlers bolstering and soothing their egos giving way to two men just trying to survive giving way to two men as animals, devolving into something breathlessly savage. Gregorious dies, effectively killing Harry too, all the cows, to quote Detective Lt. Frank Drebin, coming home to roost. Even then, when Mary turns up to try and help him, he can’t stop scheming, his eyes pitifully lighting up as he pitches one last cockamamie ruse that might get him out of this jam. He ends up in the Thames instead, undoubtedly sinking straight to the bottom. 

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