Sunday, March 8, 2009

Night and the City (1950)

Director: Jules Dassin

Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe, Francis L. Sullivan , Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko

More Info: IMDB

Plot: Harry Fabian (Widmark) 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 financial independence.

My Rating: 9/10

Would I watch it again? You bet your sweet asteroids I would, kid!

I like my movies bleak. Life is not always nice and happy. People aren't always nice. People fuck up and people die. But then, that doesn't mean that every film I watch has to have to end poorly for the good guys. I wouldn't want to see THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) only to have Elliot Ness snuff it. It's not that kind of film. The "film noir" genre is that place where bad things can happen to anyone and they do.

Harry, Helen and Philip before the storm

I've always been a fan of Widmark. Looking at his credits, I've only seen about a half dozen of his 73 films. His first one, KISS OF DEATH (1947), is excellent. He played the sadistic, giggling hit man/enforcer, Tommy Udo, and it's one of the best screen baddies in the film noir genre. Damn, that man is creepy. He's a very good actor and his characters remind me an awful lot of what William H. Macy does. They both have a way of playing men who are slowly coming apart at the seams and playing them like no other, making you, the viewer, uneasy in the process. I was reminded of Macy's character, Jerry, from FARGO while watching this. Excellent performance.

"Now, just leave the little gentleman you always wanted to be."

As for the rest of the cast, they're great, too; especially Googie Withers as the "bad girl", Helen (wife of Philip, Harry's boss). She's fantastic. Gene Tierney's character is minimal (thankfully) as is Hugh Marlowe's. Yet, as you see in the trailer, after Widmark, they get top billing! They're barely in the picture. Screw 'em. Lom is always great and plays a menacing bad guy here. And the aging wrestler, Gregorius, is played by an actual aging wrestler from 20+ years earlier, Zbyszko. It's his only acting credit and he's fantastic. He's perfect and he's a natural. His hard, worn face, his accent; everything he brings to the role feels authentic.

Lom (L) and Zbyszko (R)

Harry is not a good man. He seems like one but that's part of the con. The people who know him in the film see through him. They've got experience with Harry. We do not. But it doesn't take long before we start to see it, too. I wanted Harry to succeed. I liked Harry but I could also see that, for as much as he wanted success, he didn't have the patience or fortitude to handle it. He will forever find himself chasing that elusive dream, always within inches of his grasp but never actually touching it. Poor Harry.

"You've got it all. But you're a dead man, Harry Fabian, a dead man."

Since this is a film noir picture you just know things aren't going to work out for very long. I don't like to spoil anything for anyone and the following does not spoil the movie. There's a scene about 2/3 into the picture where two wrestlers go head-to-head and it's not necessarily a confrontation you expected. But when it happens, it's devastating not only to both fighters but it ends up changing the "game" for several characters. It's an amazing pivotal scene that works on so many levels. For starters, it's a really good physical contest. These guys are hardcore. Then you've got a great deal of tension being meted out one blow at a time. And then there's Harry's fate in the balance, going back and forth, changing as each wrestler's advantage changes. It's a remarkable scene, whose outcome sets the tone for the final act. And what a final act it is!

I won't spoil the ending, either, but I will say I loved the hell out of it. With the exception of a little detail involving a sort of "potentially happy" ending for one certain character, it was excellent. Watch the Criterion DVD because it's got some great extras with new and old interviews with Dassin and a very good look at the difference between the US and the UK cuts, each edited by different people and each scored by a different composer (Franz Waxman on the US cut and Benjamin Frankel on the UK cut). If you like your film noir pictures like I do, this one is close to the top. Catch is as if your life depended on it (in the movies, of course).

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