"Night and the City" was director Jules Dessin's last film before falling victim to the Hollywood Blacklist for 5 years. Shot in London and based on the novel by Gerald Kersh, it's a film noir great, but not strictly an American film. Screenwriter Jo Eisinger radically altered Kersh's novel. And there are two versions of the film: one exclusively for English consumption and this American version, into which director Jules Dessin had more input and which was also released to international markets. The English version is longer and features an entirely different score. But this is the shorter, tighter, more cynical American version of "Night and the City".
"Night and the City" takes place among the hustlers, club owners, and purveyors of evening entertainment in London. Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) works as a club tout for The Silver Fox nightclub, targeting monied guests at local hot spots, cozying up to them with tall tales, and sending them over to the club for a good time. But Harry's always got scheme to get rich, as opposed to a plan of how to make a living, much to his girlfriend Mary's (Gene Tierney) chagrin. Harry's "highly inflamed imagination, coupled by delusions of grandeur" -as his employer bluntly remarks- never get him anywhere but into debt. One night Harry overhears a conversation between a old Greco-Roman wrestling champion, Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), and his son Kristo (Herbert Lom), the promoter for all London's wrestling matches. Harry sees the opportunity to exploit the elder man's distaste for the new flamboyant style of wrestling to set himself up as a promoter of old-style Greco-Roman wrestling. Gregorius agrees to work with him, and, although Kristo has a monopoly on wrestling in London, he is forced to allow Harry to proceed. But Harry must raise the cash to promote his first match. His employer, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) agrees to put up half of the money if Harry can match it. Harry can only do that by taking money from Nosseross' scheming wife, Helen (Googie Withers), in exchange for illegally obtaining a nightclub license for her. But Phil actually wants Harry ruined and cooperates with Kristo to see that he doesn't succeed.
The plot is convoluted. Harry goes through so many contortions to make himself into a wrestling promoter, it's a wonder he can keep his own scheme straight. Richard Widmark plays Harry beautifully. He's a loser and a heel, but he's surrounded by more predatory creatures than himself. Harry is so self-absorbed that he's blind to the vengeance he has inspired -and, of course, to the very patient woman who loves him. "All my life I've been running," he says. And that's what Harry does for all of this film, figuratively and literally. Other notable performances are Francis L. Sullivan as Phil, a thoroughly greedy man who is not so foolish as Harry, and Stanislaus Zbyszko as the naive but imposing Gregorius. Zbyszko is not a professional actor. He was a wrestling champion and international celebrity in his younger years -and I understand a very cultured man.
Max Greene's cinematography is classic film noir. Most of "Night and the City" takes place at night. It was filmed on location in London's dark, wet streets, which lend themselves perfectly to high contrast lighting and deep focus. I don't think I've ever seen as much close-up wide-angle photography as in this film. Greene brazenly distorts his characters, to a more noticeable extent than in most film noir. "Night and the City" is in some ways an oddity of the film noir style, because it takes place in Europe, was scripted and filmed by Americans, based on a British novel, with a mixed cast whose nationalities are never explained. It's filmed in an American style, but it's not an American film. On the other hand, "Night and the City"'s obsessed, irredeemable characters, cynicism, and visual style are exemplary of film noir. The great performances and noir cinematography are a joy to watch.
The DVD (Criterion Collection 2005 release): This is a very nice package of bonus features, starting with an audio commentary by film scholar Glenn Erikson, who wrote the essay "Expressionist Doom in Night and the City" for the first Film Noir Reader book. In this informative and interesting commentary, Mr. Erikson gives nearly a scene-by-scene analysis of the film in which he discusses and compares 4 versions of the story: the novel, the shooting script, the American Film, and the English film, in terms of story, characters, and history. Other bonus features include a "Jules Dessin Interview" (17 minutes) in which the director talks about casting, shooting the final sequence with 6 cameras, making the movie without having read the book, and being blacklisted in Hollywood. "2 Versions, 2 Scores" (23 minutes) is a documentary knowledgeably narrated by Christopher Husted that compares the film scores of Franz Waxman (American version) and Benjamin Frankel (English version), as well as the two different edits of the film. (Both scores are available on a double CD from [...]) There is a 1972 "Ciné-Parade Interview" (25 minutes) with the director in which Dessin talks to a very curious French interviewer about his difficulties working under the studio system in Hollywood and being blacklisted in the early 1950s. The interview is in French with English subtitles. There is a theatrical trailer for "Night and the City" (2 minutes). Subtitles are available for the film in English, via your remote control "subtitle" button, but I couldn't find a "set-up" or "languages" menu.