BFI Classics: Night And The City

Author: Andrew Pulver

Night and the City is one of the best of Britain’s film noirs. Given that it was made by an exiled Hollywood director and backed by a major studio (20th Century Fox) this is no surprise. As author Andrew Pulver points out up until recently it was the Ealing film The Blue Lamp (1949) and the 1948 adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock which were lauded as Britain’s best crime films, but as this little book explores it is only over the past couple of years Night and the City has been rightfully re-evaluated. On a recent viewing of the film it became apparent to me that this is a film that has stood the test of time. The author gives a good argument as to what makes this film so good.

The film was based off a pre-WWII book by a London based writer called Gerald Kersh who wrote about the criminal underworld in London’s Soho. Needless to say the London of Kersh’s novel is even seedier, more geographically placed and pulpy in nature. Kersh was said to be disappointed in the resultant film and on being given $40,000 for the rights said all that was left was the title and therefore was paid $10,000 a word. This is something of a misnomer as the film has much in common with Kersh’s source novel. True the main character, Fabian was not an American but rather a local with American pretensions (taken from watching Hollywood films presumably) and the film seems to use London locations from all over town including St. Paul’s and the City, Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Waterloo, the building works in preparation for the Festival of Britain and Hammersmith Bridge. But director Jules Dassin uses these locations with some effect. What Dassin also has is a good cast led by a Hollywood big name in Richard Widmark (in one of his finest performances), Gene Tierney (another American), Herbert Lom who made a career as a hoodlum, Ealing favourite Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan as the sleazy overweight nightclub owner but the biggest coup was a former wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko whom Dassin vaguely remembers from years before from watching him wrestle. Zbyszko was perfect and memorable in the role of the veteran Greek wrestler while his son (Lom) dominates the wrestling underworld.

The story opens with Harry Fabian running through the city one night and a narrator giving a one sentence commentary during the opening introducing the night and the city. He makes his way to his girlfriend’s flat (played by Tierney who was written into the part at last minute at the suggestion of Darryl F. Zanuck following her suicide attempt) wanting to borrow money off her. Fabian is a chancer (a ponce in the novel) and spiv and stumbles on an opportunity to make a buck in wrestling with hiring a has-been old school wrestler named Gregorius. It goes without saying that Harry Fabian’s ducking and diving lands him in ever deeper trouble with fate forever on his tail. There were two versions of the film edited and released: one longer edit for the UK release (not approved or known by Dassin until 10 years later) and the definitive American cut.

Andrew Pulver writes this book with some authority with the voice of someone who knows his subject. Pulver is the Film Editor for The Guardian newspaper and makes a very interesting read from the outset. The book is well illustrated and annotated throughout and splits his book into suitable chapters. He never losses sight of the original novel and draws comparisons on it several times throughout the book. Needless to say that he goes through the films origins, its productions, the background to the making of the film, contemporary Hollywood politics and the credits of the films distinguished cast and crew. It’s particularly insightful when using some of the filming techniques Dassin employs and takes much of his sources not only from Kersh’s novel but also from the interview from Dassin late in his life and the documentary on Night and the City by Paul Duncan, both of which are included on the 2008 BFI release of the film. In fact Pulver makes the point that the film was left ignored until as late as 2000 when quoting an interview with Jules Dassin at the NFT on talking about his career the film is not mentioned once whereas other films such as his earlier film noirs, the French film Rififi (1955) and his Greek film Never on Sunday (1960) are all lauded. I would go so far as to say that the BFI release replete with essays and commentary and this book have aided in a rightful re-appreciation of the film.

For me the best part of the book and the aspect of the film I particularly enjoy is the way London is inseparable from the film as background in much the same way as Vienna is to The Third Man made just one year before this film and I doubt this was lost on the director. In fact the book’s author recognizes this and concludes his book with this similarity to Carol Reed’s film. The third part of the book entitled The City gives a wonderful account of Dassin’s use of London as cityscape, integral to the film even if it does remove itself from the locale of Kersh’s original book. Surprisingly Pulver makes no mention of the 1992 New York set remake which has none of the style or class of the 1950 original nor does it make good use of New York’s locations as the older film.

Chris Hick

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