From its definitive title, which succinctly encapsulates the genre’s fundamental gloominess and urbanity, to the inevitably cataclysmic end for its enterprising protagonist, Night and the City is no less than the archetypal film noir. Jules Dassin’s 1950 masterpiece was his first movie after being exiled from America for alleged communist politics, and the unpleasant ordeal seems to have infused his work with a newfound resentment and pessimism, as the film—about foolhardy scam-artist Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) and his ill-advised attempts to become a big shot—brims with anger, anxiousness, and a shocking dose of unadulterated hatred. Few films are as wholeheartedly bleak as Night and the City (sharply adapted from Gerald Kersh’s novel by Jo Eisinger), which ignores typical noir elements (an intricate heist, a femme fatale of some dangerously sexy note) in favor of watching the wicked, weasel-like Fabian scamper about like a decapitated chicken that doesn’t realize it’s already dead. That such nihilistic nastiness is remotely entertaining is a tribute to Dassin’s frantic, expressionistic portrait of London’s sickly underworld and Richard Widmark’s hysteria-laced performance. And even then, the fact that it’s this breathlessly exhilarating is something of a small cinematic miracle.
Richard Widmark’s sweaty, chaotic face—his eyes on the brink of popping out of their sockets, and his mouth a tight, humorless line that emits a cackle like the Riddler on speed—is a reservoir of self-loathing and agitated ambition, and the director shoots his star’s maniacal mug in slashing shadows that suggest Fabian’s delusional lack of self-awareness. A two-bit crook who dreams of a life of “ease and plenty,” Fabian finds what he believes to be his ticket to the top when he persuades legendary Greco-Roman grappler Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko) to form a wrestling business aimed at toppling the phony pro-wrestling operation of crime boss (and Gregorius’s son) Kristo (Herbert Lom). However, as the film’s opening and closing scenes (set to Franz Waxman’s throbbing, hot-blooded score) convey, Fabian is on the run not just from those he’s screwed (a considerable segment of London’s population), but also from the cold, hard truth that he’s a minor-leaguer unfit for the lawbreaking big time. Fabian’s loyal, upstanding girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) is told by her friend Adam (Hugh Marlowe), a wealthy artist and cook whose domesticity is a counterpoint to Fabian’s juvenile, amateurish career of vice, that her boyfriend is “an artist without an art.” Desperate to prove Adam wrong and validate his calling as a wheeler and dealer, yet completely incapable of honest self-analysis, Fabian commits noir’s cardinal sin by striving to better his lot in life. The results, predictably, aren’t pretty.
Only a year removed from the more traditional Thieves’ Highway, Dassin’s first production abroad is dripping with symbolism, from the constrictive staircases Widmark rapidly descends (indicative of the direction Fabian’s schemes are headed) to the lethal wrestling match between Gregorius and The Strangler (a metaphor for the uselessness of Fabian’s attempts at social climbing). Just like his anti-hero, the director is obsessed with “angles,” as his frame doggedly circumscribes Fabian with astringent architecture and harrowing darkness while amplifying the mood of impending existential tragedy by refusing to present the character’s face in full light. Meanwhile, Dassin’s London is a malevolent urban nightmare, a tangled web of disorienting murkiness and dastardly double-crosses, and the metropolis’s menacing enormity—just like ruthless Silver Fox club proprietor Phil’s (Francis L. Sullivan) massive girth—forms a discordant visual and thematic contrast with Fabian’s wiry, hyper-kinetic frame. “Harry, you coulda been anything,” a despondent Mary sighs after her lover’s foolproof plans have been torn asunder, but in truth, Fabian—a man who robs and abuses Mary and callously screws over Phil’s untrustworthy entrepreneurial wife Helen (Googie Withers)—is fulfilling the only destiny he’s got. A more apt summation of this vitriolic hustler comes courtesy of the acidic Kristo, who perceptively recognizes that Fabian was “born a hustler, and you’ll die a hustler.” Fabian is confined by—and doomed to perish in—the endless night and the wicked city, and thus when Mary, working in a swanky nightclub, sings, “Here’s to tomorrow morning,” the unromantic irony is enough to make one choke.