Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Night and the City

If you are interested in movies, sooner or later you need to experience Film Noir. Noir’s universe is one populated by those on the fringes of society – Those to for whom an easy buck or a quick lay is what keeps them going. ”Night and the City” was released in 1950 at the zenith of the Noir era, and it belongs on any short list of the best ever made. Many of the signposts of Noir are present, but NATC reaches beyond them. It’s got a lot of meat on its bones.

The man standing at the centre of the film is Harry Fabian, wonderfully played by Richard Widmark. Harry’s job is as a “tout” for a gentlemen’s club, but he knows in his heart that he has big things ahead of him. We first meet him as he is going through his girlfriend’s purse, looking for cash. He needs it for his latest venture – a greyhound track, which he describes as “A sure thing!” The girlfriend (Gene Tierney) has plainly heard all this before.

You don’t have to watch the film for long to realize that Fabian always has his eyes and ears open. Working the crowd at a wrestling match, he sees a disagreement between the legendary wrestler Gregorious and his promoter son, Kristo. Harry moves quickly and has corralled Gregorious for a drink before he has even left the arena. A new scheme has been hatched – Harry will control wrestling on London, with Gregorious shielding him against Kristo. The greyhound track never gets mentioned again.

Harry Fabian is a great character, and “Night and the City” is a great movie, but its true genius lies in the way director Jules Dassin has crammed it full of truly great supporting roles. Most notable amongst these is Phil Nosseross, Harry’s boss at the Silver Fox men’s club. Nosseross sits in his glass cubicle at the club, running things in a quiet, measured way. Fabian comes first to him for money, and Nosseross laughingly tells him to bring in 200 pounds and he’ll match it. Nosseross clearly believes that he’s safe in making this promise, but he doesn’t yet realize that Harry has an ally – Nosseross’ wife. Harry soon is back with his 200, and in a sublime little scene, Nosseross goes to a closet, and sees that the fur coat that he has bought his wife is gone. You can see the tumblers clicking into place in his brain, as he realizes where the money has come from – and that she is going to betray him.

The wife has her own plan – To use Harry to get a license so that she can start her own club and leave her husband. She, of course has chosen the wrong partner. Harry has a forger friend produce the license, and he cons her into thinking it’s genuine. The new club is up and running, and she has left her husband when the truth of Harry’s handiwork is revealed to her.

Then there is the matter of the wrestling promotion. Harry has Gregorious and his young protégé Nicholas under his thumb, but realizes that he needs a popular wrestler named the Strangler to guarantee a good gate – And Strangler is under contract to Kristo. Harry contrives to provoke the Strangler into a rampage, and has him rush to the gym to confront Gregorious. Harry wants to create an atmosphere where Strangler agrees to sign with him just to get at Nicholas, but he gets more than he bargained for, as Nicholas breaks his wrist in a struggle, and Strangler and the elderly Gregorious engage in a lengthy wrestling match. Gregorious finally overpowers the younger man, but at a terrible price. Kristo appears in the gym just in time to see his father collapse. This scene is strangely poignant, as the old wrestler dies in the arms of his estranged son, who we have theretofore only seen as an icy businessman.

The death of Gregorious seals Harry’s fate, and soon he has a price on his head, and is being pursued by what seems to be the entire London underworld. Harry is hiding out in a houseboat, despondent and exhausted when his girlfriend finally finds him. Literally surrounded by his enemies, Harry decides to try to make some right out of his life. He can still arrange it so she can live a live of plenty. He runs from his hiding place screaming “She’s turning me in!” “She’s cut my throat!” …. And promptly runs right into the arms of the Strangler.

NATC is my favorite Noir – by a country mile. Harry Fabian is essentially a snake, but he means well. He’s smart, but foolishly reckless about what he goes after. His girlfriend tells him at one point ”You could be anything” , and we sense that’s true. Back when he thought he was making a big score, Nosseross tells him something that is really his epitaph. “You’re a dead man, Harry Fabian. You’ve got it all, but you’re a dead man.”

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