Night and the City 1950 U.S. Twentieth Century Fox; remastered Criterion Collection DVD released in 2015 (101 minutes). Directed by Jules Dassin; screenplay by J. D. Eisinger, from the novel by Gerald Kersh; cinematography by Mutz Greenbaum (as Max Greene); edited by Nick DeMaggio and Sidney Stone; casting by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Weston Drury Jr.
As a parting gift, Daryl Zanuck gave one of his accused ‘Hollywood Communist’ directors a big budget, a top cast and a crime story to direct in London about an expatriate American ‘artist with no art’.
|Richard Widmark, as Harry Fabian, the 'artist with no art' in Jules Dassin's Night and the City|
The American, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), long on get-rich-quick schemes but ever short of funds, hatches a plot to control London’s professional wrestling circuit. If Fabian succeeds, he gets out from under his nightclub boss Philip Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) and outmaneuvers wrestling promoter and organized crime kingpin Kristo (Herbert Lom). His plan involves manipulating his long-suffering girlfriend Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), his boss’s wife Helen (Googie Withers) and Kristo’s father Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), an old-time Greco-Roman wrestling champion.
|Richard Widmark, Googie Withers and Francis L. Sullivan in Night and the City: |
'Oh dear boy, you'll be the death of me!'
This cast and British character actors from Kristos’s ‘boys’, his lawyer Fergus Chilk (Aubrey Dexter) and his wrestler, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), to the street operators Anna O’Leary (Maureen Delaney), Googin the Forger (Gibb McLaughlin) and Figler, King of the Beggars (James Hayter), may be the best collection of faces any director ever shot in black and white. Zbyszko, a retired two-time world heavyweight wrestling champion in the 1920s, is a larger-than-life non-actor who nearly steals the show.
|Stanislaus Zybyszko, former champion wrestler, in Night and the City|
But London critics did not like this pessimistic tale set in the London criminal underworld, shot in their town by an American director for a Hollywood studio with Widmark and Tierney in the lead roles. The film also reportedly ‘angered’ Gerald Kersh, author of the 1938 novel on which the story was based, though director Jules Dassin said he was given the script to direct without having read the book.
|Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) works Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) in Night and the City.|
Since that time, Dassin’s 1950 Night and the City, a drop-dead-gorgeous masterpiece of make-believe in black and white, has been celebrated as one of the seminal works of film noir. Dassin disputed this label.
‘I didn’t know there was a film noir until I learned the term in France,’ Dassin said in a 2004 interview for Criterion with Issa Clubb. Blacklisted in Hollywood, the former American studio director established himself in France where he made the urban heist classic Rififi (1955) in the twilight between the Second World War and the Nouvelle Vague.
|Hard to resist a pretty lady in Jules Dassin's Rififi|
‘When Rififi came out, [the critics] talked about how I was indebted to a film made by John Huston called Asphalt Jungle  and how they were similar,’ Dassin said. ‘Now, word of honor, I had not seen Asphalt Jungle until I read about all this and I still don’t see the connection, except for one story element: a guy’s undone because he couldn’t resist pretty girls—or ladies. But that’s all,’ he said in the 2004 interview.
|Hard to resist a pretty lady in John Huston's Asphalt Jungle|
Postwar French film intellectuals enthused over the hard-boiled Hollywood crime stories shot in black and white in the narcotic American night and coined them film noir. It was a style of filmmaking that contemporary German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer and others associated with German Expressionism.
In addition to a high definition digital transfer of the original print, the Criterion Collection DVD released in 2015 includes both the U.S. 95 min. release and longer U.K. release reviewed here, as well as a June 1970 interview of Dassin by Paul Seban for the French television show L’invité du dimanche and the 2004 Criterion interview.
|German Expressionism: Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari Robert Weine (1919)|
But Lotte Eisner, an early German film critic, traced the style to more practical roots, beginning with European theater legend Max Reinhardt. A trained actor, Reinhardt became a successful theater owner and impresario of operas and grand theatrical productions at the turn of the century. He revolutionized the way operas and plays were staged and trained actors and stage crew in his methods at the time when the first German films were being made. Eisner also credits the influence of early naturalistic Danish film directors and elements of German Romanticism.
|Max Reinhardt in Hollywood: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)|
In her book The Haunted Screen, Eisner noted that Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin, for example, was famous for its revolving stage and elaborate sets. But she said that a shortage of raw materials and limited budgets in the latter part of the First World War inspired Reinhardt to substitute lighting for set décor. Reinhardt also directed several early films (Sumurûn, 1910; Die Insel der Seligen, 1913). Given this practical background, German film directors already were familiar with chiaroscuro effects and had no need to rely on what the Expressionists were doing, Eisner wrote.
|Otto Rippert's 'pioneer work' Homunculus (1916)--Lotte Eisner|
‘Proof can be found in the serial film Homunculus [Otto Rippert, 1916] which, made as it was long before [Das Kabinett des Dr] Caligari [Robert Weine, 1919], has not had the attention it deserves. In this pioneer work, the contrasts between black and white, the collisions between light and shade—all the classical elements of the German film, from Der Müde Tod (Destiny)  to Metropolis [1926—both by Fritz Lang]—are already present,’ she wrote.
Lang and many of the film professionals who began their careers in the German system where film was regarded an art—Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, William Dieterle and Robert Siodmak, for instance—emigrated to the Hollywood film studios in the Nazi period. Thus perhaps in a similar practical sense, the way film noir looks owes as much to Reinhardt, taking root in the Southern California desert in the 1930s and becoming a staple of the way studios made films that flourished as American art.
|Gene Tierney as Mary Bristol, Harry Fabian's long-suffering girlfriend in Night and the City|
Though as Dassin said of film noir in the 2004 interview: ‘You know, sometimes we know not what we do. It just happens.’