While American films noir could claim relatively realistic themes and characters, their action remained largely confined to Southern California, almost as if Los Angeles had cornered the market on corruption. Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is therefore doubly unique. While film crews were already exploiting location shooting by the time it was made (1950), to set and make a noir story in London was a bit of a stretch. Even more unusual was that aside from principals Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe, the cast was largely non-American. The resulting grit and texture do not quite feel like a foreign film, but they do not add up to the average Hollywood crime movie either.
At the center is first-rate loser Harry Fabian (Widmark). Smart, personable, attractive and imaginative, he should be primed for success, but he blows every opportunity because of a get-rich-quick mentality resulting from a pathetic need to “be somebody.” Whether he accepts it or not, he is in his element in London’s demimonde, never lacking for schemes almost guaranteed to come up short. While some of his ideas are more plausible than others, he is incapable of seeing any through to success because he acts as if his fantasies have come true before the gambits bear fruit. Those who don’t know him may easily be fooled by his performances. Those who know better recognize his fast-talking bluster as barely contained desperation.
If you’re doubtful about the potential success of Harry’s fast and furious, outlandish plots, you’re even less certain about the actions and motivations of those on whom he reluctantly depends. He manages to get in trouble with just about everyone other than his ever-loyal and suffering girlfriend Mary (Tierney). As long as he hustles hard enough, he manages to keep his head above water, just, but when he crosses Kristo (Herbert Lom), a local criminal kingpin, he is caught playing both ends against the middle.
It’s a credit to the writers and Dassin that rushing from one manic setup to another we can keep up with Harry’s stunts, but it is Widmark who holds the film together. Introduced fleeing an unknown, never identified someone, flight is clearly Harry’s natural state. For a while, Widmark manages to make Harry sympathetic without indulging in an ounce of sentimentality about the character’s actions. That is no small accomplishment given that by the end of the film he is responsible, directly or indirectly, for something like half a dozen deaths. (The total is unclear because some of the victims’ ambiguous fates occur off-camera.) Eventually, despite Widmark’s riveting performance, we are more than ready to see Harry face the music. It is ultimately impossible to feel much more than pity for him, not least because following his fall is more than a little exhausting. But the roller coaster ride he takes us on demonstrates the cost of treating life as one big con.