In Night and the City, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is a snipe without a career plan, an “artist without an art,” as one character states early on, whose hustling of tourists and quick-cash schemes result in widespread disdain at even a mention of the character’s name, most notably among his former, British business partner (Francis L. Sullivan) and sometimes lover (Gene Tierney). Fabian is an opportunist, especially in his staging of events to win over the trust of Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), an elder, world-renowned wrestler, but he’s also persistent and exhibits a prodigious work ethic that, were it in service of legitimate business, would be praised for its cunning ability to mold the system to accomplish his own means.
Director Jules Dassin, working from a script by Jo Eisinger and conventional source material in Gerald Kersh’s novel, is interested in Fabian as an idea, as a point of contention for contemplating the stakes of business ethics. After all, Fabian isn’t a boy, but not yet a man, who’s likely to be reviled by those too quick to pass judgment, neglecting to see that Fabian’s struggle is real and one derived from his refusal to accept the terms of a law-abiding cash flow. He’s a crook, to be sure, but determining what kind of crook is the driving force behind Dassin’s film, which is fraught with perilous tensions regarding personal wealth and communal well being and ultimately serves as a companion piece to the equally irreverent Thieves Highway.
Though not directly, Fabian is a complicated prototype for the “pathos of failure,” which film scholar Thomas Elsaesser claims to govern many American films of the ’70s, replete with unmotivated protagonists whose engagement with their surroundings often results in feelings of self-pity and doubt, because normative society prohibits them from cultivating a distinctive personality and meaningful existence. Fabian doesn’t want for motivation, but he’s the origin of the arc, an optimistic but wearied gambler whose efforts for capital gains are misplaced, since he’s dealing cards in a game that’s been rigged prior. All Fabian knows is that he wants to be big, but he’s pursuing it in the most impassioned, roundabout means imaginable. Fabian believes he can manipulate the pawns within the city, be it a girlfriend, a prospective business partner in Helen (Googie Withers), or the Strangler (Mike Mazurski), a meat-headed wrestler whose only known mode of dialogue involves grunts and fists. The film’s title almost has a double meaning, since Fabian essentially fashions himself a “knight of the city” (one imagines Sidney Lumet having a similar thought when naming his 1981 film Prince of the City), though no one, except himself, has been notified of this standing.
Dassin affords Fabian the space to witness his own crashing and burning, which lends Night and the City a sweetly noxious air, where failings of desire lead to an inevitable end of violent restitution, carving out the cancerous, societal cell. That is what everyone comes to view Fabian as: a worm, a lesion, a spot to be removed. Nevertheless, one would be wholly remiss to categorize Dassin’s film as taking the same stance, since there’s a perpetual empathy afforded to Fabian, often in close-up, with Widmark’s trademark grin and eyes, reeking of freshly minted desperation, caked upon years of slimy, two-bit behavior. At least, that’s how Fabian’s own realm categorizes him; he’s not simply flawed, but irredeemable, by conventional standards, for the ease with which he schemes and forsakes those he claims to hold allegiance with.
Necessarily, hate is directed toward Fabian, the perceived disease, but little is remarked upon by characters throughout to address the titular city, which seems to run on the fumes of the broken-hearted and destitute. While the film is a far cry from addressing poverty or diagnosing income inequality, its core is driven by an interest in the source of contemporary anxieties regarding urban life, which Dassin discloses as commencing from a misappropriation of anger. Even in a postwar climate, the lessons of fascist, protected interests seem lost on these citizens, whose only known method of survival is to slowly but surely eat away, both at each other and themselves. These shortsighted pursuits will gradually culminate in a sense of regret—perhaps even the “we blew it” line at the end of Easy Rider. But lest Night and the City receive too much credit for starting a (failed) revolution, maybe it’s more appropriate to simply state how Dassin’s prescient vision of impending, neoliberal demise is the most imperative and enduring economics lesson an American studio has ever devised.
As an upgrade from the 2005 DVD, this 4K Blu-ray is a marked improvement and wholly superior, making it all right to chuck the prior disc. Whether in close-up or long shot, faces, sets, and objects are rendered with considerable clarity and detail, wistfully illuminating Jules Dassin’s impeccably devised mise-en-scène. Blacks and whites have remarkable depth and contrast, while grain is visibly and beautifully present throughout. The monaural soundtrack is fleet and clean, with sound effects, dialogue, and score nicely balanced and mixed, though it doesn’t quite match the image’s perfection, if only because of the single-channel constraints. The music, especially, sounds a bit tinny at times.
These supplements are, in part, carried over from the 2005 disc. That includes an insightful feature-length commentary from scholar Glenn Erickson, who spends the bulk of his breathless offerings analyzing character types, production details, and commenting of the film’s importance as an unorthodox film noir. Also carried over is a brief interview from 2005 with Dassin, an earlier, 1972 interview with the filmmaker, Night and the City’s original theatrical trailer, and a featurette comparing the scores from the American and British cuts of the film. Paul Arthur’s essay, also from the previous DVD, is included as well. The only addition (and it’s a major one) is the 101-minute British cut of the film, which allows the difference in scores, pacing, and editing to be glimpsed in full. Dassin was said to have preferred the American cut, and it’s easy to see why. It has a more rugged, meaner sense to its cutting and scoring, which makes Fabian’s ultimate failings play less sentimental and more deterministic.
All Harry Fabian wanted was to "lead a decent life." While his luck ran out, Criterion’s sharp new Blu-ray of Night and the City ensures the film’s life will extend until the home-video sunset.