Adapted from Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel, which at the time warned readers that it featured a story “not for the strait-laced or squeamish, but for those willing to taste it, a treat of rare substance”, Night and the City (1950) postmarked the end of the gloom-ridden cinema of the forties as something of an exemplary of the film noir genre. Directed by Jules Dassin before his unfathomable exile from Hollywood, the film is an astonishing, baroque study of corruption and paranoia in a frantic metropolitan setting rife with betrayal.
Now, given a glorious high definition restoration, it arrives as a reminder of the seediness of a now-alien London, as well as the dangers of trying to be somebody in a world governed by failure, which lurks around every shadowed corner. In perhaps the role of his career, Richard Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, who we first see being chased through the midnight streets of London – an image that physically and metaphorical acts as a precursor to his progression throughout the film. An American abroad doubling as a second-rate conman, Harry is tirelessly on the lookout for the next hustle that just might offer him his big break and allow his dreams of success and infamy to finally come true. His long-suffering girlfriend Marry (the stunning Gene Tierney) is tired of his loan requests and grand schemes, even if his attempts are conjured just to provide them with a better life.
When Harry stumbles upon his latest ploy: to directly the challenge the wrestling racket of a local Mafioso’s by promoting/exploiting a notorious but elderly Greek fighter, a plan whose seamlessness naturally goes awry. When those around him immediately point the finger, the residents of Soho’s seedy underground set out to take him down, forcing him to frantically pull yet another trick out of a steadily depleting hat. Co-starring Googie Withers, Herbert Lom and the deliciously mannered Francis L. Sullivan, Night and the City is an iconic example of noir at the peak of its powers, exemplifying its ability to be as strikingly beautiful (thanks to Max Greene’s cinematography) as it is harsh and gritty. It tells a sprawling story against a hellish backdrop peopled by existential dread where nothing or no one is safe from an all-pervasive greed.
Unlike many films set in London that do nothing but pitch the action amongst established landmarks, Dassin travelled to the capital during pre-production to scout the dodgy inner circles of Soho that would go on to inspire his vivid representation. It wasn’t until post-production that the film – for reasons never made public (even to Dassin) – was edited for both the British and the American markets, with each version (which are both available on this lovingly crafted release) encompassing different scores and longer or shorter scenes. No matter what cut you watch, the experience remains the same: a noir masterpiece that still has the ability to shock, amuse and ultimately enthral.
Ed Frost | @Frost_E