Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Night and the City (1950) - Jules Dassin

Jules Dassin was one of America's great Noir directors. The three films that precede this one, (Brute Force, The Naked City and Thieves' Highway) are all absolute classics. Each one dripping with the smell of men stuck in a bad place at a bad time. A place where rooms have huge window frame shadows burnt into their ceilings, and the night time streets are permanently wet. Prior to shooting this film, Dassin was warned by Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck that he was going to be blacklisted.* So Dassin was packed off to London to make this, which would end up being his last American film for a whopping eighteen years. Still America's loss was Europe's gain, since Dassin wouldn't have been offered what many consider his masterpiece (1955's Rififi), if the silly sods hadn't seen red.

Night and the City is every bit as good as any of the films I've mentioned above. It's the story of Harry Fabian, a chancer, a ponce and general all round bad 'un. How bad? Well he steals money from his girlfriend (the wonderful Gene Tierney), and for a living cons people into a side street drinking den, to be fleeced alive by the girls working there. He always has some scheme on the go, everyone of them destined to fail. Everybody knows that he's one of life's losers, everyone that is except Harry. A chance encounter with an ex superstar wrestler sparks an idea in Harry's grifter brain, and sets in motion a series of events that will see our man spiral deeper and deeper into troubled waters, until the inevitable happens.

Fabian is played with enough nervous energy to power a large town by Richard Widmark, who hardly sits still for the whole film. He's in almost every scene and is sheer joy to watch. Of course having the action take place in London is great for me, but even better than that is that it takes place not in the West End, but down by the riverside and in the still rubble strewn East End. As you'd expect it looks sexy as fuck, lot's of location shooting, shadows that stretch down long wet roads, lit by god alone knows, but when it looks this good who cares. It's got all the usual noir trappings, but feels so fresh just by being set in London and not New York. The supporting cast are all on top form, you've got Googie Withers pulling Fabian's strings, while Herbert Lom sets about teaching poor Harry Fabian a lesson that no man should have to learn. Even the hardest of you will wipe a tear from your eye, (even if you do use the excuse that your not crying, just tired), by the time the end credits roll.

Like a lot of the great old films (or at least the ones I like), there is very little back story, I'm not sure why Harry is in London or even how long he's been there. Not that any of that matters, by the time you are caught up in the story you won't have time to wonder anything. Of course it bombed on release and is now hailed as a masterpiece. Some things never change, eh? If you haven't seen this and are a fan of Noir, then you really should do something about it. Likewise with the other Dassin films I mentioned, everyone a classic or your money back. Now would I lie to you?

*Back in 1947 the good ole US of A began rooting out those evil COMMUNIST types from it's entertainment industry. This went on for the best part of a decade, ruining many a career. Some managed to get work by using pseudonyms, but for most it spelt the end of any sort of life within the film world.

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