I only saw this film for the first time one year ago, but the romance has not yet worn off. I’m still madly in love with this iconic noir masterpiece. The shadows of noir are rarely inkier than in Night and the City, a film that crushes all hopes of a happy ending for every one of its characters…that is, unless you watch the alternate European cut, which has the slightest suggestion of hope for at least two characters. The UK cut also has a different musical score!
But despite some really great foreign contemporaries, film noir was essentially an American movement, and in an interesting way, those difference between the two are a good example of what makes American noir such a unique phenomenon of its time and place. That is an idea that will have to remain unexplored for now. I’ll leave that topic for another day- an alternate turn in the dark cavern of noir that shall be visited on some later spelunking expedition. I simply mention it now to explain that the American cut will be the one to which I refer in this appreciation (and not because the alternate is necessarily a bad/worse film for the changes made to it).
So, wow. What a gut-punch of movie this is. Even the innocent party gets no relief from the consequences of the protagonist’s mistakes. Sort of like real life. Our actions seldom affect just ourselves, no matter how hard we may argue to the contrary. In that way, the scheming, dreaming small-time big-ideas grafter Harry Fabian (an outstanding Richard Widmark) is all of us who think we can do things the wrong way and get away with it while not hurt anyone. Widmark’s performance is a whirlwind of manic, frenzied scrambling, from the first time we see him racing across an open street beneath the shadow of a dark and forbidding city, to the last moments of the picture as he fights with his last breath the “be somebody” and get that easy money that will provide for Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), the girl he loves almost as much as he loves himself.
Tierney is also terrific at conveying a patient, faithful fiancée who finally has had enough but is too good to really let go of the man she loves. The pain on her face when she discovers Fabian ransacking her things to find money to pay off one of his many failed “investors” is agonizing and so relatable. This is real hurt that any viewer can understand. “You won’t find any money in there, Harry.” Such a subtly underplayed reaction, and so much more like real life than the more histrionic “hell hath no fury” performances we see so often. But then that’s what makes Tierney the star she was (and not the first name, as much as I’d like the think so).
The supporting cast is equally to be praised, from Googie Withers and Francis L Sullivan as Mr. and Mrs. Nosseross, a barely-married nightclub running couple whose own story is equally wrenching as the main characters, and perhaps even more fraught with tension, greed, and ambition, and a tragedy that is all-too understandable despite the near-operatic scale of the betrayal and hurt between them.
There are knockout scenes with many of the more minor cast as well, from Mike Mazurki as the professional wrestler “The Strangler,” right down to James Hayter as Figler, king of the Beggars, and Maureen Delaney as Anna O’Leary, the black marketeer who briefly shelters the doomed man as the shadows come crushing in to smother the life out of him.
But my two favorite performances may be the gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom) and his retired Greco-Roman wrestling champion father Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko). First, if you only know Herbert Lom from the Peter Sellers starring Pink Panther series, you are missing out on the range and versatility of a remarkable, if largely unsung, talent. IMDB him to see some of the many interesting and diverse roles he’s played. Here he performs the remarkable feat of portraying a villain that we simultaneously sympathize with and alternately loath, dread and fear. The pivotal scene that accomplishes that is also Zbyszko’s iconic big screen moment, his herculean showdown with The Strangler and his final gasping moments when his outsized heart breaks from the strain of that effort. Together these two actors create the single most compelling moment of a picture that is abounding in such evocative scenes. At the sight of his father stumbling out of the ring with heavy perspiration all over his body and a pained, twisted look on his face, Kristo is suddenly shaken out of his cool, cruel attitude and is suddenly a frightened child wondering what he will do without a father.
Zbysko has up to this point made the character so warm (and, dare I say, Gregarious?) that his death scene is deeply heartbreaking for us as audience members. And his performance of those final moments of life is so believable and realistic that Kristo’s reaction reflects our own. “Shut the window, please, it’s so cold,” has such a terribly chilling affect when we and Kristo see that the window in question is already closed. But when he goes through the motion anyways, his humanity and even his humane-ity shows briefly. Not a thug or a boss, just a grief=stricken human losing maybe the one person he loves, and certainly the only one who loves him. That glimmer of sorrow is reflected in the glistening tears that glow in Lom’s eyes. Then, Gregorious’ breath stops. One could almost swear one sees his soul leave his body, so eloquently acted the moment is. Then we see Kristo’s soul change too- he is suddenly more cold and alone, more vengeful and bitter than before, and is set quickly to the task of hunting down the one responsible for his father’s death.
Though this is absolutely Harry Fabian’s story and Widmark’s film, this is the standout scene for me, which of course, it must be, as it represents the turning point for all his plans and hopes. There can be no escape now. The audience senses it, and understands why he must die, even as we hope against hope he can survive. I believe that hope is the result of Tierney’s performance, and the sympathy we have for him is given to us by proxy as an extension of our sympathy for her. We want him to survive for her sake. But in this dark city, there is no such hope. This is the essence of noir. Night and the City is noir at its most distilled and pure form, a pitch-dark tragedy that sucks us into its grasp with all the compulsion of a black hole. This won’t be the last time I watch it.
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