Night and the City Review
Harry Fabian, played by Richard Widmark in Jules Dassin’s film noir masterpiece Night and the City, is a man of more ambition than sense. “An artist without an art,” as one character in the film aptly describes him. He’s a bastard, a two-bit loser, a fate-challenged pariah who thinks nothing of robbing his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) and, after he’s been caught in the act, accepting money she has to borrow in order to pay his debt. He’d rather spend what little he scrounges up on tips to inflate his self-importance than paying the people owes. But Harry’s not really that bad of a guy, once you get over the almost total lack of redeeming qualities. His childlike enthusiasm at every big idea that just might let him “be somebody” is infectious and, in the end, heartbreaking. I see Harry Fabian as a poison I’d want to avoid at all costs in real life, but, on film, he’s a fascinating, naturally sympathetic character barely constrained into his hour and a half cinematic cage.
His London is a grimy, dirty, perfectly noir representation of the lowlife world in which he lives. Harry is a manic symbol of a city that’s all underworld, all double cross, all the time. He has sense enough to realise things aren’t working out the way he’d like and, in between charming tourists with harmless lies, discovers what he believes to be the mother lode of opportunities. Or perhaps it’s just his latest scheme. The excitement he brings to every thunderbolt idea is matched only by the infantile volatility he displays when things don’t go his way. Regardless, our number one ne’er-do-well sees his chance when a hulking giant of a man loudly expresses his dissatisfaction at what’s going on in a wrestling match. "That's Gregorius," exclaims a man in front of Harry, a potential mark only five seconds earlier. “Who?,” Harry asks. “Finest wrestler the world's ever known,” replies another man. After Gregorius has had enough and begins to exit, Harry races out of the arena to the box office and aggressively apes the complaints he’d just heard Gregorius, who's now entering the room, make a minute ago.
Gregorius sees Harry's performance and continues on his way out. Fabian then chases after the aging former wrestler and feigns adoration. “You’re not...Gregorius?” "The greatest wrestler the world has ever known," he regurgitates without a wink. A plan is hatched, an idea set in motion. Harry will promote wrestling with the support of Gregorius and his protégé. Two problems: the eternal lack of money and Kristo, a racketeer and wrestling promoter who’s also the son of Gregorius. To fix the first problem, Harry goes to his semi-employer Phil Nosseross, who runs The Silver Fox, a night club where Mary helps con old men into buying drinks for champagne toasts and overpriced chocolates from scantily clad women. With Helen Nosseross (played with cunning precision by Googie Withers) also in the room, Harry begs Phil for 400 quid, but gets laughed down. Helen berates Harry for his gall, but slyly gets her husband to agree to match £200 if Harry can scrape up his half.
Nosseross (pronounced like his animal lookalike) and Harry have some history, as Harry seems to have with most everyone in the film, including Helen. Part of what Dassin and screenwriter Jo Eisinger are able to convey so well are the enormously full backstories of these characters. Carrying a healthy amount of respect for the audience, the film presents Fabian as he is and without apology or explanation. There’s a great deal implied about the past in nearly every exchange between Fabian and Mary, Phil, Helen, or the various “friends” Harry calls on, but there are no great lengths taken to establish any of it. Refreshingly, the audience is trusted to recognise these things instead of having the past condensed in unnatural movie minutes. A good example is the first time we see Harry and Helen meet, after Fabian is upset because she didn’t support his attempt to rope in her husband as an investor. Widmark plays the scene initially as furious and impatient, but then Withers, string of pearls dangling to her cleavage, attacks him with a forceful kiss out of nowhere. Something’s going on and Helen, like much of Dassin’s film, is one step ahead of both Harry and the audience.
As it turns out, though, neither character cares much for the other aside from what best suits each one. Harry needs the Nosseross money and Helen wants to break free from her husband’s purse control, both see one another as means to their goals. Both are also more than willing to double cross each other, though Harry proves himself more adept at hustling. The double cross is a vital theme in Night and the City. Nearly every character in the film says one thing and does another, usually without a pang of guilt. These are evil people made interesting by compelling performances and brilliant storytelling. Withers, in particular, is a force of nature, an atypical noir female who’s married for a lifestyle even though she’s strong-willed enough to deny her husband sex in the form of a kiss. Instead of just taking what she wants, she cons and charms her way into it. Sadly for Helen, things don’t turn out quite as planned.
Faring even worse is Harry, who unwillingly watches everything fall apart around him. The climactic punch to the gut comes when Gregorius grapples in an impromptu wrestling match with Kristo's star performer The Strangler. It's a wrenching and unforgettable scene, as tense and brutal as three minutes could be in 1950. The visceral images of two cattlelike men, one in his forties and the other a full seventy years old, methodically pounding and grabbing each other like slabs of raw meat is somehow turned into a majestic battle of old versus new, sport versus entertainment. As Gregorius, Stanislaus Zbyszko, a well-known former wrestler himself, is impressive throughout the picture, and especially poignant during the match and its aftermath. Dassin reportedly found Zbyszko on a chicken farm in New Jersey and handpicked him for the role, his only dramatic film acting.
I'd be remiss if I didn't devote a few words to Richard Widmark's performance. Widmark is somewhat of a hero to many film noir lovers, bursting onto the scene as the psychotic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death and then having to work out of the villain gutter at Fox. His Harry Fabian, arguably matched in Widmark's career only by Pickup on South Street's Skip McCoy, is a highly accomplished feat of fatalistic noir acting. Fabian is at once repulsive and without redemption, but, ultimately, benignly sympathetic, a martyr even. Widmark captures something in the doomed character that's difficult to comprehend, much less describe. This worthless manchild with an overinflated ego, who fetishises the nameplate delivered to his short-lived Fabian Promotions headquarters, is almost too stupid to dislike. I don't exactly know why I root for Harry, but I know his fate breaks my heart every time.
BFI and the Criterion
The BFI R2 PAL disc is dual-layered and progressive and varies from good to great in its video presentation. I watched the R1 DVD released in 2005 from the Criterion Collection just after seeing the new BFI and was surprised at the vast difference, especially considering both transfers appear to be from the exact same source print. The Criterion edition is strikingly brighter, a tad cleaner, and noticeably less grainy. Vertical damage lines are visible on both, though slightly more in the Criterion than the much darker BFI disc, which exhibits an almost distracting amount (depending on what size screen you're watching the film on) of grain, or digital noise, early on in the film. Obviously, this disparity will give each release certain strengths during the course of the picture.
Here are some comparisons of especially dark scenes, with the BFI on the left and the Criterion on the right (click each image for larger versions):
The BFI image completely fits the gritty, dirty portrayal of the dark London streets and looks far more natural than the Criterion version. As the film progresses, somewhere past the first two or three reels I'd say, the BFI seems to lose part of the grain and much of the second half looks beautifully dark. Black levels throughout are very deep and impressive, a significant edge for the BFI. A telling point of comparison is when Harry's being chased and is cornered by a knife-wielding thug. In the BFI's darker image, we see an exceptionally black screen until the metal of the knife shines into the picture. By comparison, the Criterion shows a much brighter image and the attacker and his knife are visible earlier, losing some of the claustrophobic tension the almost complete blackness of the BFI creates. Though Criterion seems to have done more digital clean-up work, removing a bit of dust and specks, it looks too bright in comparison. The BFI is less clean and their grain is unavoidable early on, but I think it fits the film slightly better than the more sterile-looking Criterion.
Audio seems a little less polished on the BFI disc than the Criterion Collection release, as well. I heard a crackle here and a pop there that I didn't notice on the R1. Minimal concern though, I think. On the bright side, Night and the City has a little stronger audio, to my ears, than the other two concurrent BFI Film Noir Collection releases of Cry of the City and Kiss of Death. Franz Waxman's score booms nicely and dialogue is quite clear. English subitles for the hearing impaired are optional and unobtrusively white in colour. The BFI also gets extra marks for providing subtitles for the commentary, a too rare practice.
This BFI release of Night and the City is, like Criterion's disc, the preferred American cut of the film. After Dassin had finished work on the movie, 20th Century-Fox studio head Daryl Zanuck apparently added some scenes and changed the music from Waxman's score to a new, lighter one by Benjamin Frankel without consulting the director. The longer version was originally released in UK cinemas, but has never been put on DVD. You can learn all about the differences in an excellent supplemental piece entitled "Two Versions - Two Scores," (23:56) carried over here from the Criterion DVD. Also repeated on both discs is a recent interview, from 2004, with Jules Dassin (17:53). Dassin is a treasure and here he discusses, among other things, the urgent circumstances surrounding his involvement on Night and the City and his fondness for Richard Widmark. This interview, as well as the two others Criterion conducted with Dassin that can be found on their Rififi and Thieves' Highway releases, are priceless and just about as good as DVD supplements get. Both video pieces have near-identical running times on the R1 and R2 editions. Also, I discovered that these supplements are both interlaced (on both editions) and exhibit combing that may be noticeable on some displays. Each release includes a booklet, with my preference going heavily to the 16-page effort from the BFI. Their cover image is a beautiful reproduction of original poster art and they include two agreeable and informative essays, one generally about the film and one about the differences between the novel, this 1950 film version, and the 1992 film version.
Criterion extras absent from the BFI disc include excerpts from a 1972 French interview with Dassin and the film's theatrical trailer. Both DVDs include a commentary, but they are not the same. The Criterion commentary is by online DVD reviewer Glenn Erickson (aka DVD Savant) and is very similar to his reviews in that a good chunk of time is spent as somewhat of a history lesson - of the film, the actors, the source novel, the shooting script, the different versions - with a little bit of analysis thrown in as well. His commentary is very well-informed and crammed with details, all while doing a fine job of keeping things interesting. BFI's commentary is from Paul Duncan. He provides even more history of the film, giving insight into preproduction and aspects of the novel. His approach sheds light on the British perspective of the film and he discusses some of the background to the underworld setting. I found his commentary a little dry at times and he rarely discusses what's going on in the film at any given moment. During some of the especially tense and brilliant scenes in the movie, I felt like I was in front of the Colosseum, listening to a tour guide drone on about what day construction began, how many people were working, and what day each one was born - all while I really just wanted to stare in awe at the structure. Having said that, both discussions are definitely worth listening to and complement one another without excessive overlaps.
There's no question as to whether those who enjoy film noir should own Night and the City on DVD. It's Jules Dassin's finest film and features Richard Widmark in a never-bested performance. The only thing up for debate is which version - the R1 released from the Criterion Collection or the new R2 edition by the BFI. Each has its own unique commentary, and both share a comparison of the US and UK versions and an essential interview with Dassin. The image quality for both is quite good, but different. My view is that the Criterion's brighter, more cleaned-up image looks like a high quality DVD while the darker, grittier version from the BFI looks more like how the film would feel in a cinema. Those with deep pockets might want to own both, for the differences in the extra features and the video quality. If I had to choose only one, I'd probably pick the R2.