The man being chased is Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a scam artist who hides out in the apartment of his girlfriend, Mary Bristol (a radiant Gene Tierney), either hoping to wait out the guy waiting for him downstairs or get Mary to pay him off. It takes a little while for the film to really settle into the scheme of Harry's that takes everything to its tragic denouement, but that's no problem, as Harry's night-to-night is entertainment enough. Semi-employed as a tout for the Soho club that Mary dances at, Harry spends nights luring tourists and other suckers into the club, and when not doing that, scours the city's underworld plotting the one killer idea to put him on easy street.
Harry's big plan comes about by happenstance, but the upshot is that he wants to set himself up as a wrestling promoter for the sake of managing matches for the Greek wrestling great Gregorious (the fantastic Stanislaus Zbyszko, a real wrestler who had never acted before), who just so happens to be the father of the pseudo-gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom), who runs all the wrestling matches in London. Perennially penniless, Harry is forever hustling to get money, and much of the film follows him chasing the same two hundred quid from end of the city to the other, as he plays every side against the other, father against son, club owner against his own wife, and Mary's compassion for him against her innate knowledge that he's conning her every second of every day.
Although this is a film replete with fine actors and marvelous moments, there are really two stars here: Widmark and London. Widmark is all dandified flash and conniving intelligence, a thin and hungry shark who would steal your wallet out of your pocket even while begging you to give him just one more chance; at one point he's referred to as "an artist without an art." Director Jules Dassin (Rififi, Thieves' Highway) seems to have a similar hunger about him in this, his first film made after leaving America in the wake of being accused of being a Communist. Every scene is on-location, and you can feel it, from the cramped brick-wall basement clubs to the tangled alleys of Soho, from the bright lights of Piccadilly to the Thames' mist-shrouded docks, this is far from the generic city so common to gangster films and the sunny fakery of film noir's California sets.
While the scenario is seedy and the climax steeped in sadness, this is far from a dour work. Widmark's high-octane whininess makes him a consistent object of ridicule, with the audience expected to feel little empathy for him as he ricochets from one screw-up to the next but rather appreciate his ineptness as comedy of the blackest sort. Sharply written, shot with crystalline accuracy and heartfelt through and through, Night and the City is the rare masterpiece that earns the appellation not by announcing its grand intentions but by following them through with sublime confidence and precision.
The Criterion Collection DVD of Night and the City contains a restored, high-definition digital transfer of the film, audio commentary by a film scholar, two interviews with Dassin (one new, the other from 1972), and a comparison of different scores recorded for the British and American releases. The sharp-as-a-tack picture transfer is simply astonishing. The new interview with Dassin is especially illuminating, with Dassin discussing in detail his being caught up in the Red Scare dragnet, and the insanely fast conditions under which producer Daryl Zanuck had him making the film itself (including Dassin not even reading the novel it was based on until much later). A perfect package, all in all.
Run time: 96 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 1st April 1950
Distributed by: Criterion Collection
Production compaines: Penta Films, Tribeca Productions
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Fresh: 12 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Jules Dassin
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Screenwriter: Jo Eisinger
Starring: Robert De Niro as Harry Fabian, Jessica Lange as Helen Nasseros, Cliff Gorman as Phil Nasseros, Alan King as Ira 'Boom Boom' Grossman, Jack Warden as Al Grossman, Eli Wallach as Peck, Barry Primus as Tommy Tessler, Gene Kirkwood as Resnick
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