Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Night and the City

Director Jules Dassin

publicity photo with Gene Tierney (left) with Richard Widmark

NIGHT AND THE CITY        A                  
Great Britain  (96 mi)  1950  d:  Jules Dassin

Night and the city.  The night is tonight, tomorrow night... or any night.  The city is London.
—Jules Dassin’s opening narration

While the late 40’s is defined as the Hollywood blacklist era, or the Red Scare, when the witch hunt known as McCarthyism drove the leftist directors out of Hollywood, when fellow directors were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Jules Dassin was named as a Communist sympathizer by both Elia Kazan (working together in Yiddish theater in the 30’s) and Edward Dmytryk (once so close Dassin used to look after his children), two men who saved their own careers at the expense of others, as their testimony effectively ended Dassin’s employment in America.  This historical purge eradicated those voices with a social conscience, where the industry in the 50’s cleaned up their image while making the transition to television, thoroughly whitewashed and cleansed, paving the way for the white flight to the suburbs, where the American Dream became synonymous with manicured lawns and all-white school districts safely out of reach of the inner cities.  One of the unintended consequences of this change was an end to film noir in America, largely viewed as the period between John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), with its emphasis on squalid characters and shadowy underworld figures, where searing social realism and class differences make all the difference, and working class neighborhoods still produced people of interest that massive viewing audiences could identify with, faced with similar moral choices, where money was tight, circumstances bleak, and the criminal temptation for easy money was everpresent and always inviting, having grown up with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Robert Mitchum, or Robert Ryan as familiar faces.  Instead, 50’s television westerns picked up the slack, often accentuating these dubious moral choices in each weekly episode.  What happened to Jules Dassin is actually surprising, as he was given a heads up from Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, actually knocking on his door, aware that subpoenas were about to be handed out, sending Dassin to London to work on his next picture, “Start with the most expensive scenes and they won’t fire you, because it’s probably going to be the last picture you’re ever going to make.”  While it’s a side of a studio executive that’s rarely seen, Zanuck also wanted him to write a part for actress Gene Tierney, after having received shock treatments for depression, hoping to save her career.  The film’s British version is five minutes longer, with an implausible, more upbeat ending, and features a completely different film score, with Dassin endorsing the American version as closer to his own vision.  Sitting at #1 of Top 50 Noirs on two lists at Noir Countdown from Wonders in the Dark, compiled by Maurizio Roca, and listed by Sam Juliano in the comments afterwards, April 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm, listed at #33 here The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time - Slant Magazine, #28 here The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time - Paste - Paste Magazine, listed at #13 from The Independent here 20 best film noirs: From Double Indemnity to Shadow of a ..., and listed at #8 by the founder of the Film Noir Foundation and co-programmer of the Noir City film festival here Top 25 Noir Films - Eddie Muller.  This first film in exile was Dassin’s last US-financed film before the blacklist made him “unemployable,” moving to France afterwards (and eventually Greece) where he couldn’t find work for another 5 years before working on the French heist caper RIFIFI (1955), featuring one of the most brilliant crime scenes in history, a near half-hour scene shot with meticulous detail in near silence, without dialogue or music.  

Dassin was among Hollywood’s more socially conscious artists, including Robert Rossen who directed Body and Soul (1947), Abraham Polonsky who directed Force of Evil (1948), and Joseph Losey who remade M (1951), condemning the meaninglessness and violence of everyday life, where ordinary guys are never given a fair shake, with some having all the luck and advantages that money can buy while others are fed to the sharks.  Showing a healthy skepticism about the American Dream, Dassin always felt sympathetic towards the criminal element, believing impoverished circumstances led them to make the wrong choices, where his films are characterized by moral ambiguity and greater social realism, accentuating the psychological disadvantages of the working class.  Brute Force (1947) is an anarchic prison rebellion against a sadistic warden that stands as a metaphor against fascism, while The Naked City (1948) about a police manhunt, largely influenced by German director Fritz Lang, shot on the streets of New York, with its emphasis on naturalism, accentuates a documentary style, displaying a visual style reminiscent with Italian neorealism, inspiring a television series of the same name that used the film’s infamous concluding line.  Dassin felt Universal re-cut the film, claiming his “humanist” vision and emphasis on class differences had been “ripped out of the film.”  Based on a 1938 novel (not published until 1946 due to the war) by British author Gerald Kersh (which Dassin admitted he never read until afterwards), it’s a film noir crime thriller where the intensity level is off the charts, set against a macabre backdrop of a Dickensian underworld of 1930’s London still struggling to overcome the devastating aftermath of the Great Depression, recalling the German Expressionist imagery of G. W. Pabst’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1931), using the burnt out ruins of the war to typify the subterranean world of black market activities and sinful retreats, where it’s hard to believe this was filmed four years before the end of postwar rationing.  Pitted against one another are forgers, petty thieves, smugglers, con men, beggars, and dance hall girls, all set against Soho’s labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, stairwells, bridges, construction sites, and claustrophobic space that allows no one to breathe, literally a breeding ground of greed and corruption, where everyone’s nerves are on edge, yet at the center of the picture is one perpetually desperate man, Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian, all frenzied energy, like a cornered animal, a habitual liar, a small-time hustler with an obsession to make money, who pursues the dream of making it big, of “being somebody,” and “having it all,” filled with bluster and braggadocio, yet deluding himself at every turn, outmatched and outsmarted, always on the outside trying to claw his way into the limelight, a petty scam artist with million dollar ideas, none of which ever pan out, whose failed schemes have left him broke and downhearted, but he has the survival skills of a river rat.  Borrowing heavily from his girlfriend with a heart of gold, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), a nightclub songstress who provides a ready source of petty cash, Fabian is seen racing across the darkened, fog-drenched landscape in the opening, escaping through the alleyways, revealing the one constant in his life — he’s always on the run.  Filling the screen with few, if any, sympathetic characters, the film depicts a grim outlook, drawing parallels to Dassin’s own exiled status, offering an ever dour, despairingly pessimistic future. 

Described as “an artist without an art,” Harry moves from one con game to the next, befriending anyone in the know, hoping to capitalize on that one big score, yet his constant sense of desperation makes him appear to be a fallen anti-hero, literally clawing his way through the cracks.  While trying to con some sap at a wrestling event, he finds himself in the middle of a family squabble, where the elder Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko, former world champion wrestler), a veteran Greco-Roman wrestler denounces the unsavory, criminal showmanship associated with the evening’s main event, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), managed by his own son Kristo (Herbert Lom), a ruthlessly powerful gangster.  Cynically befriending Gregorius, concurring with the tastelessness of the match, Fabian thinks he can control the wrestling business in London by bypassing Kristo, as he has the support of Gregorius, who is considered untouchable, as his son won’t interfere.  Yet this scheme depends upon another, using the investments of his employer to swing the deal, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan in the Sydney Greenstreet role), who owns the Silver Fox Club, who has a precarious relationship with Harry, as he doesn’t trust him, and would quickly undermine him before being swindled himself.  Thinking Kristo would easily push him aside, he’s surprised when Harry remains a contender.  Like a house of cards, however, it all comes apart in the most surprising manner, and with it Harry’s dreams.  Reminiscent of the hunted down Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the criminal underworld casts its dragnet over the entire city looking for him, with a large irresistible price on his head, while the police are nowhere to be seen.  Like a city of the damned, Harry has no escape, though the camera captures infamous city landmarks in his epic night journey scrambling across the city, including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Hammersmith Bridge, finding no refuge in the storm, reduced to what he’s always been, a man on the run (not unlike Dassin himself).  Thwarted at every turn, frustrated at the futility of his defeat, realizing the end is near, Harry confesses near dawn that “I just wanted to be somebody,” predating Marlon Brando’s famous line from ON THE WATERFRONT (1954).  Derided at its release, likely the result of the political climate, it performed poorly at the box office both in America and Britain, despised by novelist Gerald Kersh, receiving mostly negative and hostile reviews from the British press, hating an American star while believing the film’s overly grim depiction of rampant crime “insults” London, (yet found nothing wrong with Carol Reed’s depiction of Vienna a year earlier in THE THIRD MAN), the film is now considered Dassin’s masterpiece.  Accentuating the photogenic postwar London landscape, with 54 different city locations used, including Soho, London Bridge, Waterloo, Petticoat Lane, Piccadilly, Mile End Arena, Strand and Regent Street, and the Festival of Britain construction site on the South Bank, German cinematographer Max Greene got his start during the Silent era, but here, as in Dassin’s earlier film shot in New York, his focus is on extensive location shooting in the city streets, much of it shot after midnight, setting the stage for the film’s rediscovery by the French New Wave directors in the 60’s, who copied his low-budget shooting style and doom-laden noir aesthetic, similarly taking their cameras to the streets, using non-professionals, while embracing his appreciation for gangsters and the down-and-out element living on the edge.  A bizarrely stylized thriller where Richard Widmark finds himself stalked by Dassin’s camera along with pursuing mobsters, the ruins of postwar London are transformed by warped angles and expressionistic lighting into a sinister tinderbox of villainy and terror. 

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