I watched Night and the City while four-year-old Polly showed an utter lack of patience and demanded lunch become brunch. Now I want a Bloody Mary.
If someone were to ask you what Film Noir is just say Night and the City. This 1950 classic checks just about every box of the loosely defined and short-lived genre. You’ve got the noir look; black and white with deep shadows, dark streets, and lots of fedoras. You’ve got the noir plot; hustlers scheming their way through the London underworld, stabbing each other in the back as they go. You’ve got the hardboiled, pulpy title, Night and the City. And of course, you’ve got the noir ending; where everyone goes home sad. The only thing missing is the prototypical Femme Fatale, but Googie Withers comes pretty close.
I think you can pin the success of this film on three things; the stylish direction of Jules Dassin, the beautiful lensing of Max Greene, and the electric performance of Richard Widmark.
Dassin and Greene did a masterful job of turning every frame of this into a statement piece. Every single shot is dominated by lines that feel like a spider’s web or the bars of a prison cell as Widmark’s character, Harry Fabian, a doomed would-be wrestling promoter, weaves his way through seedy nightclubs, fight clubs, and the twisting streets of London. You can feel the screws tightening on him from the opening shot all the way to the suffocating finale. There’s no reprieve for this son-of-a-bitch. And every time you think he’s got a chance, fate interjects to take it away.
Widmark is one of my favorite actors of the Noir Era and I think this might be my favorite one of his films. Here he plays a man who is a black hole that thinks it’s still a sun or at least has the chance to be one. Everyone who enters his dark, cold orbit is crushed by the force of his ambition. It’s Fabian’s persistent grind that does him in. He isn’t lazy, drunk, or hooked on drugs. He just put his efforts into the wrong things. One of the interesting things about Night and the City is how close it comes to being a completely different story. If a few minor things would have gone Fabian’s way we’d be singing his praises. But that’s not how it goes. Blind ambition is fine, but you can’t fuck with people’s heads and get away with it. Not in the movies, at least.
Richard Widmark reminds me of my old friend, Todd. Todd is one of those guys people just give things to. He’d show up at a concert without a ticket and get let in for free because he’s Todd and people just like him. One time, I told him about a band that was coming to town, the Black Diamond Heavies, and Todd said he’d meet me at the show. They were playing at this little joint on the Lower East Side called Pianos, which was about the size of a subway car. Todd didn’t have a ticket, of course, but when I got there he was already inside sitting at the bar putting down beers with the band like they were old friends. In less than ten minutes they had put him on the guest list and given him a copy of their album. I don’t think he asked for any of that, he’s not an asshole, they just gave it to him because he’s fun and charming.
I should probably stress that Todd isn’t a sociopath like the characters Richard Widmark often plays. Todd would actually do quite well if he was a character in a noir like Night and the CIty. He’d probably be an emcee at a nightclub or the croupier at an illegal casino that remembers everyone’s name and knows when to make sure the right card comes up.
I would probably be strangled and thrown off a bridge before the end of the first act.