Thursday, October 9, 2014

Jules Dassin | Night and the City

on the run
by Douglas Messerli

Jo Eisinger (screenplay, based on a novel by Gerald Kersh), Jules Dassin (director) Night and the City / 1950

Jules Dassin’s noir nightmare, Night and the City, begins with a scene in which the film’s central figure, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark)—it would be difficult to describe him as the “hero”—running through the dark city streets, stopping just long enough among what seem to be the ruins of a metropolis to catch his breath, before speeding away once again. Finally, temporarily outwitting his pursuer, Fabian drops in to his girlfriend, Mary Bristol’s (Gene Tierney) flat. Although the door is open, she’s nowhere to be found, which doesn’t stop the thug from entering and, a few minutes later, riffling through Mary’s purse. She discovers him in the act: “Harry, you won’t find any money there.”

In those few early minutes we get the gist of the whole story. Fabian is a punk, a would-be dreamer constantly running into the lure of pipe dreams while running away from his debtors. This time he tries to convince Mary—a beautiful club singer who inexplicably is in love with the sleazy Fabian—that he just needs a few quid to buy a dog track, a half lie, since he really needs the money to pay off an overdue debt which has necessitated his race through the London streets. He may also want to get money to pursue his newest scheme, but it doesn’t matter: Harry Fabian will never get ahead of his own past.

     Dassin sets up the whole story by having Mary try to convince him to give up his vain attempts, as he puts it, to “be somebody,” wishing that he might settle down to become just an ordinary man who might work just as hard as Fabian has on everyday pursuits. We immediately sense, however, that her request is like asking Fabian to be a real human being. As it is, Fabian is a phantom of his imagination. His charm, if he has any, exists completely in his ridiculous schemes to get rich. He’s a born con-man, wheezing out the foul air of his hallucinated dreams.

     So too is Dassin’s whole film a kind of hallucination, an over the top presentation of outrageously nasty underground gangsters such as Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), owner of the Silver Fox Club; Kristo (Herbert Lom), who controls the fighting scene of London; and Figler, King of the Beggars (James Hayter), a figure right out of The Threepenny Opera, along with their molls, in particular Helen Nosseross (in a wonderful performance by Googie Withers), who puts up with her husband with hopes he’ll soon drop dead, and their soldiers, Fergus Chilk (Aubrey Dexter), who works as Kristo’s lawyer, and Fabian himself, whose everyday job is to bring in wealthy, unsuspecting travelers and tourists into Nosseross’s club. Other than Mary, who performs at the Silver Fox, the only wholesome figure in the entire film is Adam Dunne (Hugh Marlowe), Mary’s likeable if somewhat emasculated neighbor. He begins the film by unsuccessfully attempt to boil pasta, an act, even if a failure, that is unimaginable for any other male in this movie, but just possibly may have won her heart by film’s end.   

      While attending one of Kristo’s wrestling matches—you know, the kind with everyone dramatically leaping upon their opponent’s prone bodies, sometimes two at a time—Fabian overhears a conversation between Kristo’s formerly famous Greco-Roman wrestling father, Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and Nikolas of Athens (Ken Richmond), and up-and-coming Greco-Roman wrestler taught by Gregorius. What’s clear from the conversation that Fabian overhears is that Gregorius is not at all happy with the kind of wrestling his son is promoting, declaring that he is about to return to Greece with Nikolas in tow. Suddenly, the constantly plotting Fabian has a new scheme: sign Gregorius and his wrestler and create a new sensation that will set him up as the king of the London wrestling scene. Forget that Londoners are not at all interested in the old style, fair-playing wrestling, Fabian’s dreams are always too big for reality. And it’s that sad fact that makes Windmark as Fabian so thoroughly watchable and, yes, just a little, loveable. As Mary and even Helen perceive, he’s not only a truly hard worker, but is an inveterate dreamer; if only he could wrap his mind around a plausible and agreeable task! Unfortunately—or fortunately for the sake of the movie—that’s out the question. And once Fabian wraps his mind around a project, there’s little he won’t do to make it happen. That it’s doomed is precisely what makes him so fascinating as a little man fighting against all odds.

     In this case, Fabian must not only raise enough money to pay Gregorius and Nikolas’ opponent, but must raise the money to pay for an available venue. Apparently there’s no one left in London willing to loan him a farthing, and Nosseros not only dismisses his project but laughingly mocks it. Out of the shadows come Helen Nosseros, with whom Fabian has apparently had a long affair: having sold off a silver fox fur her husband has just awarded her for her faithfulness and hard work as his club’s manager, Helen is willing to hand over her money to Fabian if he will buy her the license she needs to open a new club—without her husband’s knowledge, since she’s determined to leave him. Helen, it appears, made of the same stuff as Fabian, is also a schemer-dreamer, only with a bit more down-to-earth perspective; in fact, given her success with at the Silver Fox, she would certainly succeed—if only Fabian weren’t involved, who quickly uses her money to match a mockingly proffered equal sum by Nosseros, paying off Gregorius and setting up an office, as a legitimate wrestling promoter. The most touching scene of the film, surely, is Fabian’s receipt of a purchased lamp whose base declares, in gold letters, his new position, an object he strokes with more love than he could offer any woman.

     He mollifies Helen with a false permit.

     But how is Fabian going to get around Kristo? Well, he is clever, and having Kristo’s father in his pocket doesn’t hurt. But Kristo still outwits Harry by forcing Nosseros to demand that he’ll continue to support Fabian only if Nikolas wrestles a local figure, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) in the manner popular in his own rings. To win over the purist Gregorius, he sets up The Strangler to bullying challenge Nikolas to a fight. It works, and the fight is on.

     But The Strangler, an utterly stupid bloke, can’t stop his badgering of Gregorius and his disciple. The two get into a war of words that ends in a terrifying fight between them, each using employing his own style to try to do in the other—The Strangler slugging his opponent like a crooked boxer, while Gregorius traditionally holds the younger man in a vise-like bear hug. While Gregorius wins, his heart is not only spiritually, but quite literally broken, as he dies in his distraught son’s arms.

     Fabian knows the price he must now pay—Kristo immediately offers a £1,000 bounty—and he is again on the run. This time not only will no one help him, but all are ready to kill him or sell him out. For a moment or two Fabian takes a rest in Figler’s place, only to realize that the Beggar King has already made a call to Kristo: “How much you sellin’ me for?” he asks, on the verge of another breathless escape. Only the blackmarket boat-residing Anna O’Leary is willing to let him rest for a few moments before Mary, catching up with her lover, tries to intercede, insisting that he needs to leave the city. A few minutes later, however, Kristo and his gang have tracked him down, and, as Mary turns to leave, Fabian—who even now cannot resist another scheme—shouts out against his former lover, blaming her for his capture in the hopes that Kristo will award her the bounty money. Mary drops to the sidewalk in despair; she has told him earlier in the movie that not only is he killing himself, but killing her in the process. The Strangler grabs the punk, and living up to his name, breaks his neck, tossing Fabian’s body into the Thames— while Kristo stands on a high bridge above observing the final crucifixion of the man who spent his own life trying to become somebody he could never be.

     A few scenes earlier, after discovering Fabian’s treachery and being forced to return home to her husband, Helen Nosseros discovers he has killed himself, leaving the club and his money to Molly the Flower Seller (Ada Reeve). If she’s still standing, she is no more alive, it is clear, than Fabian. This is a world that has no room for dreamers.

     At least in Hollywood. Evidently the ending in England was a bit more upbeat, so maybe there are still Fabian-like figures haunting the foggy London alleys.

Los Angeles, October 9, 2014

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