Limned with atomic-age zest and riddled with nervous rays of icy energy, Night and the City is singular in director Jules Dassin’s oeuvre, not to mention a kind of apotheosis of the noir form, in its unmitigated diagnosis 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 positively 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 inscribes itself in the singed chiaroscuro and the barbed, irregular editing mechanics of Night and City, shaking the frame into submission. This English wild cat of a film is the platonic ideal of its genre’s unremitting reconnaissance of urban scrawl, a vision of a world 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 setting trumps them all. If the American films radiate with Dassin’s disdain for American capitalism, Night and the City simulates the grotesquerie of Dassin’s social exile from America upon being blacklisted near the onset of the HUAC investigations. Dassin’s characteristically unreserved demeanor served as fodder for that anti-communist commission (who Dassin made no bones about hiding from). Ever the leftist, Dassin’s disdain for timid, complacent mid-century liberals 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 sojourn from one underground to another.
Watching Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) desperately punch his way out of the city’s toxic milieu invokes a glass menagerie of terror and turmoil. Dassin requites Fabian’s attempts to ascend the social ladder with a nasty, throat-grabbing visual and aural stew of stone-cold sinew, combating Fabian’s hot-coal ambition with enough vigor to leave little doubt as how to Dassin felt about the possibility for true escape from a world of cackling-mad demons. 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 ambition. 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 critique 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 Fabian again and again, suggesting the caustic nature of his belief in success around every corner. The shadows tighten around his face, erasing 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 heinous recesses of a city’s fear about itself and pulling up a well of rats, the scrambled cadences and casually morbid magnitude of the piece really is disarming in its caustic brutality and unrepentant excision of a linear plot. While the latter might invoke the capacity for progress, Dassin prefers to watch 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. 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.