Monday, August 19, 2013



 Jules Dassin was so impressed with Richard Widmark after directing him in Night and The City (1950) that he proposed they do another project together: Hamlet. To Dassin's disappointment, Widmark didn't love the idea.

It is telling that Dassin saw Widmark as Hamlet after filming him for six weeks as the manic Harry Fabian.  Widmark told the Associated Press at the time that he was tired of “playing heels.” He described Fabian as “a poor, befuddled fellow, a wrestling promoter, trying to be a somebody. I hope the audience will like him.”  The film wasn’t a hit, but it marked the beginning of a transition in Widmark’s career.    In 10 years, Widmark would be co-starring with John Wayne in The Alamo, which wasn’t exactly Hamlet, but it was a long way from twitchy characters like Fabian.


Night and The City features more sweating close-ups of strange-looking people than any dozen films you could name. Its London underworld setting allowed Dassin to film a horde of beggars and forgers  that seemed to have stepped out of a Tod Browning circus drama. Still, the film’s key face belongs to Widmark, perhaps the only leading man in the history of Hollywood who could easily veer from handsome to rat-like. The first time we see Fabian, he’s running through the dark London streets. In his baggy suit and white shoes, he looks like a song-and-dance man fleeing something terrible. Fabian stops to pick up a flower for his lapel, and continues running, all the way to his girlfriend’s apartment. Mary (Gene Tierney) isn’t surprised to catch him rooting through her purse. He's in trouble again, unable to pay a gambling debt. That's our Harry, smart enough to get out of most jams, but not smart enough to avoid them.

Mary is a good girl. Fabian’s previous lover Helen (Googie Withers), is a bit past her prime and long ago shacked up with Fabian's boss, club owner Phil Nosseross (Francis Sullivan). The film’s other women are either vapid waitresses or old hags. This seems fine with Fabian; he's less interested in women than in his own dreams of success.

Fabian's job is to lure people to Nosseross' club, The Silver Fox. One night he enters a wrestling arena, hoping to lure some customers out. Once inside, he witnesses a family squabble between Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbysco), an aged wrestling champion from the past, and his son, Kristo (Herbert Lom), who is promoting the gaudy new style of pro wrestling. Kristo's main attraction is a goon known as The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). Fabian weasels into the scene and sides with old Gregorius, proposing a match pitting Gregorious' younger son Nikolas (Ken Richmond) against The Strangler. The event, Fabian imagines, will rocket him to stardom as a wrestling promoter. Fabian, who knows little about wrestling,  doesn’t care how fame comes to him. Fabian is an "artist without an art," says an aspiring sculptor in Mary's building (Hugh Marlow). That the sculptor supports himself by making toys for children is part of a theme that runs through the movie: no one is what they want to be.

One of the delights of Night and The City is that Fabian seems, for a time, on the verge of being exactly what he wants to be. When Kristo learns of Fabian's plan and tries to intimidate him, Fabian won't break. Fabian seems shrewd enough to make this wrestling thing work. But when Nikolas is injured in a scuffle, Fabian's plan falls apart. An impromptu match between the hotheaded Strangler and Gregorius ends tragically, the old man winning the contest but dying in the locker room. Kristo, who surrounds himself with knife-wielding muscle-heads,  soon has the entire London underworld on Fabian’s trail. Once again, Fabian is on the run.

It's tempting to think of Widmark/Fabian as a stand-in for Dassin, a soon-to-be blacklisted American filmmaker on the run from McCartheyism.  The reality was far less romantic.  The casting of an American actor like Widmark was likely because the British film industry was struggling, and there was hope that the film would find an American audience. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck assigned the film to Dassin just as Dassin was to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, with orders to shoot the expensive scenes first in case the shit hit the fan.  By the time Dassin finished shooting, his left-wing activity was made public. He had to do his post-production work by phone, for the studio editors feared being seen with him.

Dassin's film offered a more sympathetic Fabian than the one found in Gerald Kersh’s novel of the same name. The novel, purchased by 20th Century Fox for $40,000, had featured a harder, meaner Fabian. Kersh's Fabian was a member of post-war Britain’s disenfranchised male lower class, a heartles pimp taking his tips from, of all things, American gangster films.  Screenwriter Joe Eisinger paid only partial attention to the book; Dassin claimed he never read it. The Fabian we get in the film is a sort of heroic fool, one who doesn’t realize his ambition is a poisoned sword that hurts everyone around him.

 One of the final scenes in the film has a regretful Fabian confessing his sins to an old woman who has allowed him to hide  in her waterfront shack. Fabian brags about how close he came to hitting it big, but adds ruefully, “It was just an accident.”  Mary arrives, but he is so stricken with guilt that he can barely face her. As Kristo’s henchmen gather on a nearby bridge, Fabian hatches one last plan,. Determined that the long-suffering Mary gets the reward money for finding him, he runs into the street, right into the awaiting Strangler. Fabian suffers a quick death,  dumped into the Thames. In the British cut of the film,  Kristo flicks a cigarette butt in after him.

Night and The City was reasonably well-received upon its original release in June, 1950. Variety called it “an exciting, suspenseful melodrama,” directed by Dassin with “mounting menace.” Several movie columnists of the day chose it as their “pick of the week,” placing it above such releases as Quicksand, Open City, The Jackie Robinson Story, Ma and Pa Kettle Go To Town, and Father of the Bride. But others felt Night and The City was a routine “crime doesn’t pay” story. Time dismissed it as “a gaudy melodrama” that “gets some lurid effects out of a sordid story, murky backgrounds, and a gallery of grotesque characters.” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “a pointless, trashy yarn.” Wood Soanes of the Oakland Tribune called the script "mediocre," and described Widmark as “running around in circles, making funny faces.” But even the worst reviews mentioned the strong supporting cast, with Zbysco and Mazurki garnering their share of the praise.

For the role of Gregorius, the studio had wanted an actor who might be able to wrestle a bit; Dassin wanted a wrestler who could learn to say a few lines. In Zbysco, he found a walking cathedral of wrestling lore, a former real-life champion who had wrestled throughout Europe and America. The fellow could act a bit, too. A quiet game of checkers between Gregorius and Nikolas is one of the few touching scenes in the movie, and Gregorius’ death scene is a marvel. "He had a way of physicalizing things to make them real,” Dassin said in a 2005 interview, still in awe of Zbysco more than a half-century later.

If Zbysco brought stature and nobility to the role of Gregorius, Mazurki imbued The Strangler with sadistic menace. “Iron Mike” Mazurki had once been a top wrestler, but he’d already lent his intimidating presence to several movies, including Murder My Sweet (1944) and Nightmare Alley (1947). As The Strangler, Mazurki was spot-on, particularly when he would mock Gregorius and Nikolas as “Old woman and dancing boy!” The match between The Strangler and Gregorius is surprisingly ugly, partly because of The Strangler's glee at hurting the old man. Mazurki would temper his persona during the next few decades, until he became a familiar face in 1960s TV sitcoms. He also had a nice role as a lovable mountain man in Challenge to Be Free (1975). But in Night and The City, Mazurki was rock-bottom evil.  You might even say he was the embodiment of Fabian’s dark id, as uncaring and powerful as Fabian wished he could be.

Night and the City pounded across America for most of the summer of 1950 before landing in that netherworld where old movies exist. It was occasionally seen on late night television, but was largely forgotten until the 1960s when film buffs celebrating the genre rediscovered it. But Night and The City wasn’t an immediate touchstone for lovers of film noir. There were no hardboiled private eyes, no dangerous females, and no guns. Noir fans pointed to Dassin’s Riffifi (1954) as a superior film.

The reputation of Night and The City changed when a new print was shown at the 1983 Teluride Film Festival in Colorado. It was the surprise hit of the week and sparked a Widmark retrospective that played in revival houses around America. The Boston Globe's Jay Carr observed in 1984 that Night and The City "holds up splendidly in recirculation. So much so, in fact, that it seems to combine Widmark's best role and (Dassin's) best film."

The film started appearing regularly on American movie channels (AMC, TCM) and enjoyed an almost yearly rotation at various American art cinemas and noir film festivals. The British cut sometimes made its way onto American screens. Dassin claimed to favor the American version with its pulverizing musical score by Franz Waxman, but the British version is a delight, including a great scene of Fabian demonstrating a new type of pill designed to improve a car’s gas mileage.

Aside from a grungy remake produced in 1992, Night and The City has enjoyed an almost continuous streak of appreciation since that 1983 Teluride screening. The cinematography by Max Greene, the breakneck pace, the labyrinthine London streets, the mesmerizing supporting cast, particularly Francis Sullivan’s turn as Phil Nosseruss, added up to a British noir with an American heart. 

Dassin made only a handful of films while remaining an exile in Europe. Widmark would go on to play a variety of detectives, doctors, ragged sheriffs, and military men. Now and then would come the loopy grin, and for a brief moment, Harry Fabian was back.

Widmark bridged two eras. He was part of the old Hollywood studio system, but in his willingness to play characters as if they bordered on nervous collapse, Widmark was as modern as Marlon Brando or, as David Kehr of The New York Times once commented, James Dean. Kehr, writing about Widmark's death a few years ago, made special mention of Night and The City:

"It’s hard to imagine another tough-guy actor of the period allowing himself to come as close to tearful impotence as Mr. Widmark does at the end of that film, at the moment his character realizes that there is no escape from the vengeful associates he has betrayed. Running toward the camera, as well as toward his death, Mr. Widmark allows his face to go slack and his limbs to loosen; he seems to become a panicked child before our eyes, shrinking into infantile helplessness. A jump cut might take us to the opening scene of Rebel Without a Cause, when James Dean’s drunken teenager collapses on the sidewalk, playing with a toy monkey."

If Widmark were around today, he'd make an interesting Joker in a Batman movie. But unlike modern actors, Widmark wasn’t one to overanalyze his performances.  “There is something suspicious,” Widmark once told Roger Ebert, “about a guy who is too articulate about his work.” He also told The New York Times that he didn't enjoy watching his old films. ''I always tried, but I was never satisfied," Widmark said.  Dassin remained a faithful admirer, though. The 2005 Criterion DVD of Night and The City included an interview with Dassin, who praised Widmark as an underappreciated actor. “Dick," Dassin said, "was fearless.”

Widmark died at age 93 on March 24, 2008. Dassin died just a few days later at age 96. There is never much that separates a director and his Hamlet.


August 2015 saw the release of a Criterion Blu ray edition of this classic noir.

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