As movie openings go, the first minute of this landmark British noir takes some beating. Surveying a night blacker than newspaper print, a disembodied voice introduces us to the scene we’ll spend the next 100 minutes touring: ‘the night is tonight, tomorrow night or any night. The city… is London’.
Based very loosely on Gerald Kersh’s excellent 1938 novel of the same name, Night and the City is the story of Harry Fabian, a small-time Soho club tout living in a derelict post-war capital populated entirely by a Dickensian array of beggars, forgers, con-men, bookies, gangsters and sharks. Fabian, played by Richard Widmark at his shifty, sweaty best, is keen to make something of himself, navigating the criminal underworld to achieve ‘a life of ease and plenty’ by becoming a wrestling promoter – the only hitch is that soon he’ll find the city turning in on him.
The story behind Night and the City is almost as compelling as the script itself. Directed by Jules Dassin following the success of The Naked City in 1948, it was his final film for Hollywood before the McCarthy trials exiled him forever. Foreknowledge of his precarious political position meant that Dassin and his largely American crew were forced to film on location on a tight schedule, often staying up all night to complete scenes – something which adds a pace and intensity entirely suited to Fabian’s descent into hell.
Far from the cosiness of some of the London-set British-produced movies of the period – Hue and Cry, say, or Passport to Pimlico – Dassin and his director of photography Max Green present the city as a savage prison – employing disorientating camera angles, claustrophobic compositions and documentary lighting that makes characters look like intaglios. A fine supporting cast – including Herbert Lom in the first of many roles as a heavy-lidded gangster, Googie Withers, and a remarkable turn from monolithic former professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko – wander through the shadows in near-constant blackness, through a skeletal city: with large tracts of industrial wasteland and bombed-out buildings at its very centre, it’s hard to forget that Night and the City was filmed three years before the end of partial post-war rationing. London here is a chiaroscuro city made up of physical and emotional scars, where there is no chance of redemption or escape and morality is merely a hindrance to survival.
This lack of moral resolution was the reason why Night and the City received such a hostile critical reception on its original release. Forget all that, though: if you want to be grabbed by the collar and dragged through the gutters of Piccadilly, there’s really nothing like it.