|Night And The City (Directed by Jules Dassin)|
Within film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles – Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, 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 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 a ‘nocturnal’ Western – but that nighttime functions throughout the series 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...
Working in and around London’s Soho district, rather than the familiar haunts of New York or Los Angeles, Dassin and company did not have to subtly evoke lingering effects of wartime bombing; they are clearly inscribed in blasted, nightmarish landscapes recruited for the film’s climactic scenes... 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.
Given Harry’s history of entrepreneurial fiascos, it is only fitting that his dream of a wrestling empire seems doomed from the start. Narcissistic to a fault, Harry pays no heed to warnings about Kristo’s vicious power and is slow to intervene in a chain of calamitous miscalculations until it is too late. Once the tenuous leverage he held on 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 the mere object of a lucrative bounty hunt. Closing a circle that began with the film’s opening 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 might well have expressed personal anxieties specific to Dassin’s life. On the heels of several relatively successful Hollywood outings, including pioneering work on semi-documentary techniques in The Naked City, the director was, like many of his creative friends, caught up in the anticommunist hysteria of the late 1940s. Under imminent threat of being forced to testify before HUAC, and almost certain blacklisting, Dassin says 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 flipside 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.
– Paul Arthur: ‘Night and the City: In the Labyrinth’. From the Criterion Collection DVD.