Infused with atomic-fueled hatred, Night and the City is singular in director Jules Dassin’s oeuvre, and arguably in the film noir canon, in its unmitigated topography of human society as a rogues’ gallery and a murderers’ row. Scouring the self-mutilated streets of London with a spectral sense of allusion and spare poetry that stimulates a magnetic charge, it doesn’t take any mental gymnastics to discover how Dassin’s personal turmoil around the time of filming Night and the City inscribed itself in the singed chiaroscuro of the cinematography and the editing mechanics that dig up consternation throughout. The English wild cat Night and the City is the platonic ideal of its genre’s unremitting reconnaissance of urban scrawl as an apparatus useful primarily, even exclusively, for nighttime, even night-terror, skulking and nothing more.
For Dassin, Night and the City followed a string of more whimsical, droll noir masterpieces released in America, but this film’s jaundiced, shadow-constructed (and character-constricting) London ghoul setting trumps them all. If the American films dripped with Dassin’s disdain for American capitalism, Night and the City stimulates the grotesquerie of Dassin’s social exile from America upon being blacklisted near the onset of the HUAC investigations. Dassin’s characteristically unreserved countenance served as fodder for that anti-communist commission (who Dassin made no bones about hiding from), but it also lays the groundwork for his impish capacity for mischievous, outré imagery in this dastardly noir that doesn’t for a second mask Dassin’s view of his new (temporary) English home as a clammy, sticky, sordid sojourn from one underground to another.
Watching Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) desperately pinprick his way out of the city’s toxic milieu invokes a glass menagerie of terror and turmoil. Seeing Dassin requite Fabian’s attempts with a nasty, throat-grabbing visual and aural stew of stone-cold sinew to combat his hot-coal ambition, one is left with little doubt as how to Dassin felt about the possibility for true escape from a world of cackling-mad demons at this point. Fabian’s gaunt, spindly visual frame, all underwire and no flesh, is dwarfed, manhandled, and imperiled by everything from the girthy, morally ruptured fat cats around him, to the monolithic, towering malevolence of the city itself, to Fabian’s own wheedling self-ambition untarnished by any capacity for inspection of his own moral caliber. If Fabian is any kind of facsimile of Dassin himself, the character’s incapacity for refracting a mirror of his foibles onto himself and questioning his own moral glamour suggests that Dassin found no kindred company in the world, not even in himself.
Fabian’s attempts to escape from his own squalor by puppeteering washed-up fighter Gregarious (Stanislaus Zbyszko) pit Widmark’s character against underground mob boss Kristo (Herbert Lom), who happens to be Gregarious’ son. And Dassin pits them all against the city, showering the characters in an unglamorous mystique and a sensualist beat, an amalgam of sensory expressionistic poetry and rough-housed realism. Although the screenplay adapted by Jo Eisinger from a book by Gerald Kersh is punchy and inscribed with slivers of naughty, pared-down dialogue, Dassin’s lacerating slits of visual asymmetry, reflections of an askew world, are the centerpieces of this barn-burning societal-excoriation frantically suffused with morbid terror and spiked with frenzy.
Screwed tight to within choking distance by Mutz Greenbaum’s gloriously confining cinematography, this husky, hoarse film awakens a city’s nightmare version of itself for us, only to realize that waking itself only propels a descent from the frying pan and into the fire. Any pitiful light glimpsed in the frame is so soaking with thorny forewarning and roguish constriction that the false hope of luminescence hardly even fits the term “irony” anymore; that this world ever could see the light of tomorrow is foreclosed from minute one. A spidery rumble of straightjacketing lines, jagged angles, and cackling sound cues, the strung-out, acerbic architecture of London compromise him again and again, suggesting the caustic nature of his belief in success around every corner. The shadows tightening around his face, and thus his possibility for escaping the fray and entering the light, bravura images of the character running (often downwards) suggest a pile-on of tumbling, descending, and falling over yourself as the only viable corollary to scheming. One rapturous sequence harnesses the free-associative mania of montage to call out goons and ghouls from every biome of London society, all culled to stimulate Fabian’s doom. Even Franz Waxman’s angle-riddled score caresses the decrepitude and maddening panic inlaid topographically into the crags of Widmark’s perenially nervous, antic face.
Reaching into the recesses of a city’s fear about itself and pulling up a well of rats, the constricting, casually malevolent magnitude of the piece really is disarming in its caustic brutality and unrepentant excision of a linear plot – which might invoke a need for progress – in favor of watching Widmark flail around emitting anxious energy like atomic rays of human pestilence and existential crisis. The frugality of the narrative structure tears the noir project down to its skeleton-crew dialectic between hopes for a better future and an unforgiving world that alternates between dispassion and madcap glee at severing human success at the knee. Relying exclusively on the wiring of Dassin’s stable of perceptual sights and sounds, Night and the City is a sensory-activation chamber that arouses an awareness of endangered, even nonexistent humanity thrown into perceptual jeopardy by a world around us that portends severe handicapping of our sense of stability in the world. For a director dispatched from his home and cast adrift on the earth, Night and the City feels like a suitable opening up of our capacity to perceive the world, only to have it forestall our ability to ever feel sheltered again.