Jules Dassin: Night and the City

Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

Night and the City 
d. Jules Dassin (1950)
Spine: #274
Blu-ray Release Date: August 4, 2015

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

In the late 1940s, Hollywood director Jules Dassin made a string of fine films noir: Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Thieves’ Highway (1949) (these three are available on DVD from The Criterion Collection, hopefully soon to be upgraded to Blu-ray). However, Dassin was blacklisted in Hollywood and, as quickly as he could, travelled to London to continue his film career before it was put to death. Before he left, Fox producer Darryl Zanuck apparently put a book in his hand and told him it was his next film. The book was Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel Night and the City, and indeed it was Dassin’s next film, filmed entirely on location in the beautifully dark streets of London. Today, The Criterion Collection has upgraded their old DVD release of the film, and you can pick it up in a lovely new edition.

Night and the City Cover

Though the film takes place in London, the protagonist — though he’s necessarily a fellow we cheer for — is a desperate American named Harry Fabian (played by Richard Widmark). He knows how to talk, but there’s just something missing: Fabian has never had success so his plans can’t help but sound hollow. The only good thing in Fabian’s life is something he cannot recognize, the love of the honest Mary Bristol (played by Gene Tierney).

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What does Mary see in Fabian? Why does she exercise even a bit of hope that he’ll get some money and come around so he can discard this frantic temerity? I don’t know. She’s kind hearted and a bit naïve.

Not so naïve are the other characters who “know” Fabian: an old acquaintance named Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) and her husband Phil (Francis L. Sullivan), who knows all too well that his wife does not love him, has never loved him, and would leave him if she only had the ability to support herself in this dog-eat-dog community they’re a part of.

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It’s a community that comes to live at night. Phil Nosseross owns the night club and spends a lot of time in his office that overlooks the room. Helen manages the floor under his eye. Periodically Fabian shows up hoping they’ll finance something else he’s dreamed up while wandering the dark streets. At this time, he’s wandered into a wrestling match.

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There Fabian chances upon an uncomfortable conversation between a father and son. The father is the great Greco-Roman wrestler, Gregorius (Stanlislaus Zbyszko, who really was a famous wrestler). The son is another wealthy ruler of the night life, Kristo (Herbert Lom). Gregorius is ashamed that his son has put on this particular wrestling match, which goes against the venerable tradition in which his father was celebrated.

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Fabian uses this dispute to his advantage.

It’s a dangerous game, though. In fact, it’s doomed from the start. Fabian is an irritant. Men like Kristo and Nosseross are at the top of their world because they’ve learned how to work in the shadows. There’s never a moment when we think Fabian has the upper hand, except for when he gets Gregorious in his corner.

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Of course, this is only more of the tragedy: we’ve seen Fabian ignore and exploit the honest Mary and we know he’s capable of simply exploiting this honorable, now aged man. We’re okay watching these despicable people stab each other in the back for money and power, but Fabian has started a chain reaction that hits his enemies in the heart. It’s an intense, sad, beautiful film.

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Supplements:

  • Besides being an excellent film noir, Night and the City has a fascinating production history, largely because of Dassin’s exile from Hollywood. For example, there are two version of the film, the American version, which is the film given primary position on this disc (and is the version Dassin said was closest to his vision) and the British version, which is slightly longer with a different (and tonally opposite) ending, as well as a different film score. The first supplement on this disc is the full British version of the film.
  • In one of my favorite supplements, Chris Huston talks us through the scores for the British and American version of the film (22:55). Beyond the score, though, he talks about how the two films are quite different in other ways as well, especially characterization, though both come from, mostly, the same footage. This is a fascinating look at the elements that make a film, and how choices about those elements can really affect the outcome.
  • The film is also accompanied by a nice audio commentary from 2005 with Glenn Erickson, from DVD Savant. The commentary covers a lot of ground, talking about what we are seeing on screen but also going into the back story as well as analysis of the characters. Another strong supplement.
  • Next, we get an interview from 2005 with Jules Dassin (Dassin died just a few years later in March of 2008, at the age of 96). Here he talks about getting blacklisted and how that led to this film. He is an excellent story teller, seeing quite a bit of humor in the history (it was much later, when he finally read the book — or at least skimmed it — that he realized the book was quite different from the movie) as well as a great deal of love for the craft and for those who worked with him. A great interview — this really is a strong set. (17:52)
  • There’s another interview with Dassin, this one from a 1972 French television (25:26). While the interview again looks at the Hollywood blacklisting, it also covers a great deal of Dassin’s overall work, starting with this question: What was Hollywood like in 1939?
  • The disc closes with the theatrical trailer.
  • The disc comes with a fold-out poster featuring another nice illustration from Owen Smith who did the cover, and an essay by film scholar Paul Arthur that looks at Night and the City in the context of other films noir.

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