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NIGHT AND THE CITY

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe, Francis L. Sullivan, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki
Director: Jules Dassin
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: February 1, 2005

"Harry Fabian is  an artist without an art."

Film ***1/2

Some years back, I happen to catch the 1992 remake of Night and the City starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange. Though it was by no means a classic, I found it to be an entertaining enough piece of light film noir. I had always wanted to check out the original film that inspired the remake, and thanks to the folks at Criterion, I was able to.

The movie itself is a knockout film noir, but the story behind the movie is even more intriguing. During the high point of the McCarthy era, director Jules Dassin found himself on the blacklist. He was told he would never make a movie in America again. Producer Daryl Zanuck, head of 220th Century Fox, ensured that his friend wouldn't be completely out of the business.

He set him up with a copy of the book entitled Night and the City by Gerald Kersh and suggested that he get to work on making the film. Of course, Dassin was unable to shoot the film in the States. The result was a chance to bring the look and feel of film noir to the gritty streets of London.

The story centers on fast talking, two bit hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), who's never met a person he couldn't con. Yet, he remains a fairly likeable guy. Although he seems to lose more friends than gain them, he still is respected by his on and off girlfriend Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), who still respects Harry despite being somewhat mistreated by him.

Looking consistently for the next big score, Harry sees his biggest opportunity yet in the form of setting up a wrestling match. When he spots a mammoth Greek wrestler named Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko), he proposes a match between him and his rival, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). It's an offer that Harry thinks will gain him huge financial independence.

At this point, Harry truly feels as if his life has hit a route to complete happiness. But he soon discovers that this particular offer, in addition to scamming more people in order to get his plan to work, just may seal his fate. The last half of this movie does offer up a sheer dose of unexpected plot developments.

I must confess that I've never much work from Richard Widmark. I haven't even been able to catch a glimpse of his first, and much acclaimed, performance in 1947's Kiss of Death, which spawned a remake that I found to be quite fantastic. After watching him in this film, I'll be quick to watch anything with his name attached. He is nothing short of fantastic as this fast talking character that has no idea what may happen to him as consequence of his harmless actions.

With its inspired setting of foggy London at nighttime, the wild assortment of characters, and its absorbingly revealing story, Night and the City is film noir at its highest. I have to give credit to director Jules Dassin, for being able to create such a tremendous piece of cinema in the wake of where the McCarthy era had landed him, career wise.

Video ***

Shown in its original 1.33:1 ratio, the picture quality on this Criterion release is about as good as you will ever see a movie from 1950 in the DVD format. The Black and White image is presented in quite glorious form. The level of detail is about as impressive as any presentation of any Black and White film that I have seen, which illustrates one of the magic qualities of DVD. Some minor image flaws, but that was to be expected, and whatever flaws are present are overshadowed by the remainder of the presentation.

Audio **

In this digital mono mix, you get pretty much what you expect. But again, this is a 55 year old movie, so whatever gets the job done is easily acceptable. Dialogue delivery is delivered as clear as possible, and the music score by Franz Waxman provide the highlights of the sound delivery.

Features ***1/2

Criterion has set us up with a good enough knockout array of extra offerings. To start with, there's a commentary track with film scholar Glen Erickson, a new interview with director Jules Dassin (which is most informative and fascinating). Also featured are excerpts from a 1972 French interview with Jules Dassin, as well as a comparison of the two scores recorded for the British and American releases of the film, a new essay by film critic Paul Arthur, and the original theatrical trailer.

Summary:

Night and the City is as superb as film noir gets, with a grand performance by Richard Widmark. I only wish I could've discovered this film earlier, but thanks to Criterion's stellar handling of the movie in this new DVD presentation, the wait was quite worthwhile.

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