Yet another unfortunate victim of the infamous Hollwood blacklisting by HUAC in the 1950s, Jules Dassin made Night and the City while essentially beginning exile for “un-American” behaviour. Dassin, forced to make the film abroad and extremely quickly before the main studio heads shut him down, had to resort to near-guerilla tactics to create this noir masterpiece.

The difficult political situation Dassin found himself in forced him to take instinctive, rapid decisions, using on-location shoots in the after-midnight locale of  London’s inner-city backstreets – and as Dassin already proved in the lighter noir-policier “The Naked City“, he knows how to direct in an urban environment, using  late-night London as a stage, and bringing her to life in a completely natural and satisfying way. For example, a stand-out scene which was forcibly imposed due to the shooting conditions, is a fairly long, single-take shot from the back of a car as it drives around Piccadilly, the driver stopping occasionally to speak to the people on the streets. Dassin admitted later that he had no permission to film, there were no traffic restrictions in place, they just jumped in a car and shot in the midst of the real-life of London. It is an incredibly effective shot, and amongst others gives Night and the City a unique, organic feel, and proves how inventive Dassin could be under pressure. It isn’t just the on-location shots which impress either – visually, the film is an end-to-end feast for the eyes, with immaculately lit sets complimenting the outdoor cityscapes.

Despite completing shooting of this expansive, densely plotted film at a rapid pace and under restrictive conditions, none of this is felt by the viewer at any moment. The film unfolds masterfully and patiently, driven forward by the complex characterization of our main protaganist Harry Fabian – portrayed here in the performance of a lifetime by the dependably excellent Richard Widmark.

Fabian is a very complex character – A confident and charming small-time trickster with two feet rooted deep in the gutter. Ultimately, his passionate self-belief is not matched by his ability, and despite always having a big break “in the palm of my hand“, he never manages to carry it through, frequently dragging his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (the beautiful Gene Tierney) down with him. The film follows Fabian as he attempts to make a splash in the London wrestling racket, using his observational skills and a couple of fairly cheap confidence plays to secure the attention of worldwide Greco-Roman wrestling legend Gregorius (played by real-life wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko). Gregorius is the father of rival wrestling promoter and underworld boss Kristo (the effortlessly cool Herbert Lom) who is loathe to see his father represented by the infamous Fabian, a man known as a two-bit loser by everyone in London. Seeking funding from Mary’s nightclub boss Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) and his reluctant wife (Googie Withers), Fabian quickly gets in over his head, and so the film’s web of deceit and suspicion is spun.

Such a complex character, driven to extreme highs and lows, requires much of Richard Widmark, and once again he doesn’t disappoint, as he bears the weight of Fabian’s paradoxical and conflicted personality without falter. Laughing one moment, crying the next, moving swiftly from confident and arrogant to humble and apologetic, Widmark’s range hits all the right notes in a naturally tragic, realistic, career-defining performance. The rest of the supporting cast, while they are not tested and stretched anywhere near as much as Widmark, still manage to put in stellar complementary performances, with the possible and understandable exception of non-actor Stanislaus Zbyszko. What he lacks in emotive delivery though, he makes up for in screen prescence, and partakes in one of the most intense fight scenes ever captured on film.

It is also worth noting that the film is an excellent piece to study how post-production can effect the final product, as two versions exist. For reasons lost in time, the UK and US versions worked with the same footage, but were edited seperately, and perhaps more importantly scored completely differently. The US version is scored by Franz Waxman who utilized a huge orchestra and chose to fully score most of  the film with energetic, jazz-infused instrumentals, while the UK version was composed by Benjamin Frankel, who opted for a smaller scale, more traditional score. I have to say I preferred the UK score. The on-location shots felt had a more natural ambience with little-to-no music, while Waxman’s US score at times feels a little intrusive and overpowering – a little too “Hollywood” for the London setting.

The opposite can be said for the plot however – the US version completely omitted a few characterization scenes, and surprisingly for Hollywood had a much more downbeat realist ending than the heavily romanticized UK ending. The US edit was in my opinion correct in it’s decision to remove superfluous segue characterization, as the perfect screenplay already framed the characters “in-plot”, no extra exposition was needed. The extra scenes in the UK version felt a little forced and unneccesary, and the ending in the UK cut would probably have knocked at least half a star off the review score. However one short scene bizarrely cut from the US edition was a fairly important one, and without it, a character inexplicably appears at a location they couldn’t have known about. This doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience though, and the pacing of the US cut still has the edge.

For review purposes I have concentrated on the US edit, but both versions combined are a fascinating example of how the tone of a film can be completely altered in post-production.

Whilst my knowledge of film-noir is still in relative infancy, this film has been a real highlight for me, and I still feel confident enough to proclaim it as one of the best ever made, especially considering the restrictive conditions it was made under. Directed with flair and passion by Jules Dassin, this sits alongside “Du rififi chez les hommes” as a shining example of his output. A absolute must-see for noir fans.

5/5

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