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Night and the City and Dassin

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Richard Widmark in Jules Dassin's Night and the City

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

By Anthony Frewin


Forget what anyone else says, Night and the City (1950) is Jules Dassin’s finest film. The Naked City, made two years earlier, is a good film by any standards. But Night and the City beats it by a head, because Dassin had learned a lot of tricks on the earlier picture. Now he really knew what he was doing. It’s a noir masterpiece, no ifs or buts.

The Naked City was a film about a city (New York), as indeed is Night and the City, which captures post-war London like no other film. One could perhaps point to Hue and Cry (1947) or The Blue Lamp (1950), both largely shot on location, but these two films present that Ealing Studios view of London (and England) that is idealized and, dare one say, almost pastoral. For instance, the character of Dirk Bogarde in The Blue Lamp, who shoots a policeman, lives in a moral and physical vacuum. He’s an anomaly, an aberration who exists outside the community, whereas in Night and the City, the characters seem to be born of the very city itself and, with their scams and petty villainies, they are ricocheting off each other and the city like a ball in a pinball machine.

The film's protagonist is Harry Fabian, played by Richard Widmark. Fabian is a snivelling con totally bereft of any moral sense who believes everyone is fair game (he even steals from his girlfriend). This is one of Widmark’s finest roles before he translated into a straight-talking leading man. In fact, it’s one of his finest roles, period. His eyes swivel about, looking for the break that never comes. His mind whirrs constantly, seeking an angle, an opportunity. If it wasn’t for the bad luck, he wouldn’t have had any luck at all.

In fact, he has had good luck and a break, namely his girlfriend, played by the beguiling Gene Tierney. But he fails to recognize what Destiny has given him.

Here’s a London of lonely streets, threatening passages and alleyways, seedy clubs, apartments with the detritus of earlier occupants, bombsites and enveloping fog. Here, too, is a London little changed from the time of Charles Dickens. The film is rich with Dutch angles, looming shadows and vanishing points. It’s an edgy expressionism that fits the subject matter perfectly. Dassin saw a London that homegrown directors either refused to recognize or were incapable of seeing. The British cinema would have to wait 20 years before a film came along that could tip its cap to Dassin — Mike Hodges’ Get Carter in 1971.

Night and the City was Dassin’s last Hollywood film before being blacklisted. It is a magnificent farewell note that Tinseltown ill-deserved.

The wonderful Criterion Collection has recently reissued the film, and it's the DVD version to get. And as to the remake with Robert De Niro in 1992? Forget it. Unless, of course, you thought Sylvester Stallone’s remake of Get Carter in 2000 was worth watching.










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