Night and the City: In the Labyrinth

NIght and the City

On film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles—Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, and Where Danger Lives, to name three—none is more emblematic or iconographically cogent than Night and the City. Juxtaposing two of noir’s essential, virtually ontological qualities, the title of Jules Dassin’s underrated 1950 elegy for a self-­annihilating hustler reminds us not only that darkness is the visual corollary of almost all consequent action in noir—the idea of a “daylight” noir being as perverse as that of a “nocturnal” western—but also that nighttime functions throughout the genre as a sort of Platonic entity, embracing a host of non­literal meanings. Along with common associations of mystery and moral ambiguity, darkness takes on a specifically urban coloration. Indeed, film noir caps a long-standing cultural tradition in which cities are cast as a dominion of shadows and corruption. And perhaps no noir city is quite so hellish, so imbued with the stench of mortality, as the London depicted in Night and the City.

In a celebrated 1948 essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow declared that “for the gangster there is only the city,” adding that the metropolis in such films as Scarface and Little Caesar is “not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination . . . which is the modern world.” Ironically, at the moment Warshow was dissecting the backdrops of landmark thirties crime dramas, film noir was unleashing the menacing face and symbolic disorder of “real” American cities, in films shot on location in the aftermath of World War II yet bearing the metaphoric imprint of urban decimation, past and future. Working in and around London’s Soho district, rather than the familiar haunts of New York and Los Angeles, Dassin and company did not have to subtly evoke the lingering effects of wartime bombing; they are clearly inscribed in the blasted, nightmarish landscapes recruited for the film’s climactic scenes. Contra Warshow, only in film noir is the underbelly of the “modern world”—postwar, pre-apocalyptic, and bereft of hope—truly on display. Like The Third Man, made in Vienna the previous year, Night and the City maps the downward journey of an unabashedly American adventurer against a prime locus of European destruction, yielding the specter of the “secret” city to which all film noir, regardless of actual setting, pays unspoken tribute.

Dassin’s tour guide to this anxious, fearful milieu is Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a nightclub tout and would-be wrestling promoter whose overweening desire to “be somebody” is curdled by a relentless exploitation of human vulnerabilities, his own included. Harry, famously referred to by a romantic rival as “an artist without an art,” is a figure of palpable instability, always in the midst of a surefire shady venture, some criminalized shortcut to what he describes as “a life of ease and plenty.” Unfortunately, every jittery step he takes brings him closer to immanent disaster and death (in addition to morbid visual cues, variants of the phrase “You’re a dead man” are a key dialogue motif). Worse still, his precipitous actions drag down everyone around him—although, with the exception of his mistreated girlfriend, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), these underworld characters largely deserve their malign fates. Mary works at the same sleazy club to which Harry lures unsuspecting tourists. The grotesque owner, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), barely tolerates Harry’s loan requests but fails to register the illicit connection between Harry and his wife, Helen (Googie Withers), a liaison founded less on sexual passion than mutual greed. Harry’s current scheme involves tricking an aging Greco-Roman wrestling champion, Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), into matching his young protégé against the Strangler (Mike Mazurki), a vulgar but popular entertainer employed by Kristo (Herbert Lom), shady kingpin of professional wrestling and, not coincidently, Gregorius’s estranged son.

Given Harry’s history of entrepreneurial fiascoes, it is only fitting that his dream of a wrestling empire seems doomed from the start. The narcissistic Harry pays no heed to warnings about Kristo’s vicious power and fails to intervene in a chain of calamitous miscalculations until it is too late. Once the tenuous leverage he held in the form of Kristo’s hunger for revenge vanishes in a heap of dying flesh, Harry must flee for his life, unsuccessfully seeking refuge with former underworld colleagues for whom he is now merely the object of a lucrative bounty hunt. Closing a circle that opened with the film’s first shots, Harry becomes the archetypal man on the run, an image he himself sadly admits, pursued this time not by a single angry creditor but by an entire rogues’ gallery. In contrast to the majority of noir heroes, Harry is not an inveterate loner cut off from potentially redemptive social connections. Until near the end of Night and the City, he navigates smoothly through London’s subterranean network, engaging in a flurry of illegal transactions. Thus the early demonstration of a secure outlaw niche makes his ultimate isolation even more emotionally wrenching. If noir protagonists in general lose markers of a stable identity as they descend the social ladder, Harry’s loss is particularly extravagant.

The frenetically disjunctive movements accompanying Harry’s flight may well have expressed personal anxieties specific to Dassin’s life. On the heels of several relatively successful Hollywood outings, including pioneering work on semidocumentary techniques in 1948’s The Naked City, the director was, like many of his creative friends, caught up in the anti-Communist hysteria of the late forties. Under imminent threat of being forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and almost certain blacklisting, Dassin said he was told to “beat it” to England to avoid persecution. The project that awaited him, a loose adaptation of Soho denizen Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel, struck him as somewhat frivolous, and he would later downplay the film’s artistic merits. Nevertheless, it is not far-fetched to read Harry Fabian’s predicament in part as Dassin’s allegorical response to his own hasty emigration, and to the paranoid atmosphere of betrayal and cutthroat ambition he left behind in Cold War Hollywood.

Stylistically, Night and the City represents the flip side of The Naked City, with overheated lighting patterns, bizarre angles, and claustrophobic compositions replacing the more methodical, unhurried organization of the earlier film. Further, the dire Dickensian—or perhaps Brechtian, given latent parallels with The Threepenny Opera—vision of London on display belies the kind of sober, social-realist sketch of class divisions and antagonisms evident in The Naked City.

At the heart of Night and the City is a master trope: the urban labyrinth. Cities in film noir are not simply dangerous or bristling with iconographic menace—they are visualized as death traps, spaces from which there can be no escape. This common pattern finds summary expression in Dassin’s film. Nearly every setting is crammed with architectural grids, frames, cul-de-sacs, narrow stairways, perspectives that choke off the mobility and freedom of human subjects. The wrestling ring is a venerable symbol of existential constriction; far more original, and more depressing, is Nosseross’s cagelike office and the vertiginous brick tower in which Harry takes brief refuge during his flight. In early scenes, Harry commands secret urban passageways, rooftop bridges, and back alleys that afford easy transit between private and public, legal and illicit sites of operation. Once he is branded an outcast among outcasts, his knowledge of the labyrinth can no longer save him from extinction. Instead, he is forced to abandon familiar routes as he plunges into the city’s forlorn margins: first, an eerie construction site whose minatory shapes resemble canvases by Bosch or maybe de Chirico, then the riverside shack of black marketeer Anna, a last stop before his suicidal bid to complete one last profitable con. By the end, Harry is a virtual zombie, his slimy ebullience reduced to morbid self-pity. Without engendering genuine sympathy, the exhausting gyrations of this character eventually produce a spark of recognition, albeit trailed by a black cloud of dread.

This piece was originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 DVD edition of Night and the City.

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