BFI’s blu-ray release of Jules Dassin’s London based dark masterpiece
“Night and the city. The night is tonight, tomorrow night… or any night. The city is London.”
These words are taken from the voiceover which opens Night and the City. Voiceover is a tricky cinematic gimmick to use as it can have serious detrimental effects, basically by simply stating the obvious, such as in the opening of the 1982 version of Blade Runner. However, it can also allow directors to hook the audience into their movies, for instance in Otto Preminger’s Laura or Charles Vidor’s Gilda. Night and the City’s voiceover, said by its director himself, Jules Dassin, falls in the latter category; it brings the adequate level of gravitas while introducing one of the main characters of the movie: London.
Harry Fabian is a London hustler with ambitious plans that never work out. One day, when he encounters the most famous Greco-Roman wrestler in the world, Gregorius, at a London wrestling arena run by his son Kristo, he dreams up a scheme that he thinks will finally be his ticket to recognition.
Many directors have relied on the particular atmosphere of the city where they shot their movies to the point of making it one of the main characters (famous examples include many of Martin Scorsese’s movies, maybe more specifically New York in After Hours or Tokyo in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
Dassin can definitely be considered as a precursor of this technique (only one other movie of the time achieved a similar effect: Carol Reed’s The Third Man in which post-WWII Vienna takes on a crucial role). When he directed Night and the City in 1950, Dassin had already made of New York and San Francisco important characters of his two previous movies, respectively The Naked City and Thieves’ Highway. This was quite an impressive achievement considering that the wide majority of Hollywood movies of the time were most exclusively shot in studios.
In Night and the City, Jules Dassin makes London not only an amazing back drop to depict his main protagonist’s ineluctable fall, but also a character in itself with whom Harry interacts with throughout the movie. From the opening shot, on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, to the closing one, on the Hammersmith Bridge, the director presents a claustrophobic and labyrinthine London, a genuine web of dark alleys, staircases, disturbing backyards in which evolves a colorful and threatening wildlife of street musicians, false beggars, petty criminals, thieves and others. Rather than in the London of town houses, Dassin sets the plot of the movie in the more popular locations of the city: the East End and the Thames docks. We are far from the glamorous representation of the British capital very common at the time in both American and British movies.
Amidst this fauna, one man, Harry Fabian, the archetype of the magnificent loser. When we first meet him, he is running down stairs, foreshadowing his inexorable fall. Throughout the movie he is actually always running, both literally (chased by people he owns money to or gangsters) or figuratively (from his past and his love story with Mary). His fate seems already mapped out and you can feel a man on borrowed time. Harry is an anti-hero, an inveterate loser, but not a hard criminal. Rather, a lousy crook, cunning and liar, but eminently likeable because devoid of malice and pursuing only one goal: recognition (he is only really happy when he manages to get money for his “master plan” and his greatest moment of happiness seems to be when he receives a plate on which is written his name and his title: Managing Director).
Despite this, and although he acts horribly with the women in his life and he cheats his business partners, you cannot keep from rooting for him. This is one of the truly great addition brought by the screenwriter, Joe Eisinger, and Dassin to a script which, like many great book adaptations, manages to retain the core nature of a book while significantly modifying its plots and characters to fit the cinema medium (in the book, Harry is described more as a pimp for example).
If this attachment to Harry is partly due to Eisinger and Dassin’s writing/directing talents, the main element allowing the audience to empathise with Harry is Richard Widmark’s flawless interpretation which paved the way for many great anti-heroes from James Dean’s Jim Shark in Rebel Without a Cause to William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo.
Even if similar flawed characters were common in the 40s Film Noir genre (see also Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1948) or William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950)), Richard Widmark’s performance clearly stands out. The actor infuses it with such feverish belief in his plans that even if we have a bad feeling about it, we want him to succeed. The feverishness, the frenzy and the energy of his interpretation sweeps everything in its path such as when he goes to see his ex-boss, but new partner, Philip Nosseross and starts a drum solo while laughing of this childish, desperate and diabolical laugh, which characterises him so much. Richard Widmark will have many occasions of proving his talent, for instance in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, but here, he is at the top of his game
But what also makes Night and the City so compelling is the circumstances which led to Jules Dassin to direct the movie and which can be put in parallel which Harry’s inexorable escape. In 1949, while he was assigned by producer Darryl F. Zanuck to make the film, Jules Dassin was accused of affiliation with the Communist Party in his past by Senator McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Zanuck advised Dassin to go to London and “shoot the expensive scenes first, to hook the studio”. Dassin was reported to the HUAC in 1951 by directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle. That was enough to sink his career in Hollywood. Dassin was subpoenaed by HUAC in 1952 and eventually became blacklisted after refusing to testify before the HUAC. This situation led to Dassin’s exile to Europe and conditioned his directing career until the beginning of the 60s (which includes the acclaimed French Crime Drama Du rififi chez les hommes and Greek Romantic Drama Pote tin Kyriaki). When the American Communist witch hunt faded, he returned to the United States and continued his career notably with the award winning Topkapi.
Of all his American filmography, Night and the City is without any doubt Dassin’s most intense and successful work. Its mix of realism and onirism could assimilate it to a Greek tragedy which announces dark masterpieces like Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil. Like Welles later, Dassin showcases, without any romanticism, a pessimistic view of man’s virtues, always ready to betray, like he had experienced it during the McCarthyism. He does it in a groundbreaking style which borrows from both American and European cinema.
An authentic dark Film Noir masterpiece!
Night and the City is released on blu-ray disc on 28th September.
The movie has been scanned at 4K resolution and is presented, in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, with an amazing 1080p transfer. I have only praises for the great work done on the restoration. The film looks remarkably clean while retaining its soul and completely buries previous DVD version. The grain, throughout the movie, is beautifully rendered and I couldn’t spot any traces of dirt of scratches.
Film Noirs’ fascination, outside of their captivating stories, has always been related to the elegance of their lighting. With this release of Night and the City, a cornerstone in the genre, viewers can experience a striking example with the amazing work done on the nuances of black, white and grey which pays a great homage to cinematographer Max Green.
A fantastic restoration!
On the audio side, the blu-ray disc offers an English LPCM 1.0 audio track with optional heard-of-hearing English subtitles. Again, a very impressive work has been on this side as well. The effective score from Franz Waxman takes its full extent in many scenes and the dialogue are very clear without any trace of background noise.
On the bonus side, the BFI has done an impressive job in assembling a very complete array of fascinating bonuses.
US version audio commentary by film noir expert Paul Duncan
In the audio commentary recorded for the BFI’s 2007 DVD edition, Paul Duncan (writer and editor of Film Noir books for Taschen and Pocket Essentials), discuss Gerald Kersh’s novel, the three years battle from Charles K. Feldman to transfer the book into a movie, the events which led Jules Dassin to direct the film in London, the night shoot and the two versions of the movie.
Although very didactic (especially on spiv literature), Paul Duncan’s commentary is very enjoyable and represents a gold mine of information from anecdotes (the carnation story at the beginning of the movie, how some destroyed locations were decorated as dingy bars, and the MPA’s reactions to various scenes of the movie, in particular the wrestling scenes) to insightful explanations about the changes of tone between the US and the British versions during many scenes (among others the first scene between Harry and Mary, the relationship between Mary and Adam, scenes between Phil and Helen in the Silver Fox, scenes between Harry and the beggars and scenes at the end of the movie).
Paul Duncan also spends quite a significant amount of time discussing the difficulties in transposing Gerald Kersh’s novel into a feasible movie (which was at some point nearly directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) if he had not cancelled his involvement due to casting difficulties to find a major star interested in playing such an abject character as Harry Fabian). This is an extremely interesting part of the audio commentary which fans of the movie, and 40s Hollywood movies in general, should definitely listen to.
British version of the movie (101 mins)
One of the main attractions of the disc, aside from the movie itself, is this British version of the film. It is only 5 minutes longer than the US version but it features many differences (I don’t want to point them out here as this exercise represents the main lure of Andrian Martin’s audio commentary and James Hahn section of the booklet accompanying the blu-ray release). The main one revolve around the use of different scores for each version (Franz Waxman for the US one and Benjamin Frankel for the British one) which give a difference feeling to many scenes in the movie (for instance the opening scene or the chase scene later in the movie).
This version has been newly scanned at 2K resolution and is also presented in its original ratio of 1.33:1 with an English LPCM 1.0 audio track. It doesn’t look or sound as good the US version but, at any rate, doesn’t impeach on enjoying a great example of alternative version of a movie.
British version audio commentary by film expert Adrian Martin
Adrian Martin (Australian film and arts critics) recorded this audio commentary especially for the BFI blu-ray release. He makes a very good job of pointing and explaining in detail the differences between the two versions. It is less didactic that Paul Duncan’s commentary but provides similar level of interesting facts and anecdotes.
Richard Widmark Interviewed by Adrian Wootton filmed onstage at the National Film Theatre (72 mins)
In this long 2002 filmed interview of Richard Widmark (with director Roy Ward Baker and actor Christopher Lee unseen but present in the room), the actor discusses candidly many aspects of his long carrier (his beginnings in New York in radio and plays, his first movie in 1947 (Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death)) and also, via questions from Adrian Wooton or the audience, covers, very briefly or a bit more extensively, many of his roles and the directors and actors he worked with (virtually every legendary Hollywood directors and actors of the 40s to 70s from John Ford to Marilyn Monroe). Richard Widmark appears like a very funny and charming man and at nearly 90 years old during the filming of the interview remembers quite a significant amount of information. He also discusses his collaboration with Jules Dassin on Night and the City and his relationship with Great Britain. This is a very interesting and funny interview and a real treat for every movie fan of this era.
The Guardian Lecture: Jules Dassin Interviewed by Alexander Walker (52 mins)
In this 1981 audio interview illustrated by stills of Night and the City (the same ten to twenty pictures repeated endlessly), Jules Dassin discusses his early life and career (for instance his debuts with Alfred Hitchcock), his shooting style (more specifically for The Naked City) and his collaboration with cinematographer William H. Daniels and the infamous HUAC. The director does speak quite slowly and not a lot which maybe makes the interview somewhat less interesting that it should be. Nonetheless there are plenty of interesting facts and anecdotes from the great director, including a very funny one with Senator McCarthy which specific reference to his potential involvement on directing the first Don Camillo movie!
Finally, the disc contains the original theatrical trailer of the movie.
The BFI has also included in this release an insightful illustrated booklet with essays by Lee Server, Paul Duncan and James Hahn about the movie, the various adaptations of the book and the differences between the US and British version, and full film credits.
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