By Kris Tronerud
Night And The City – dir. Jules Dassin – 1950 – Original Theatrical Trailer
Jules Dassin died this March, in his adopted Greece, at the age of 95, and the world of film lost one of is most unique and unpredictable voices. Possessed of a committed social conscience and deeply in love with the melodrama and visual power of film, Dassin was one of the few victims of the McCarthy hearings to not only survive its persecution, but persevere, proceeding to the greatest triumphs of his career as a result of the dislocation and exile it forced upon him. In his long and varied career, Dassin directed virtually every genre, from adventure film to comedy to policier to classic Greek drama to radical political drama, but is best remembered by film buffs (along with the mainstream successes Never on Sunday and Topkapi) for his middle period noirs: the undisputed masterpiece Rififi (1955), and the low-budget made-on-the-run/under-the-gun Night And The City.
Jules Dassin, so identified with his mid-life European success, (and having developed a perfect French accent along the way) that many came to think of him as French, and pronounce his name accordingly, was actually born in 1911, in Connecticut, of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. After a sojourn as an actor in the Yiddish theater (many of whose greatest character actors would later turn up in cameos in The Naked City), Dassin turned his sights on Hollywood, where he quickly landed a job as an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock. In 1941, Louis B. Mayer, angered by Gone With The Wind director Victor Fleming’s increased independence in the wake of Wind’s runaway success, took the reins of the Conrad Veidt wartime vehicle Nazi Agent away from Fleming and handed it to Dassin. The imposing Veidt initially rejected the idea, but relented when it fast became apparent that Dassin knew what he was doing. Dassin directed several notable programmers for MGM, including The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton and the quirky, now highly regarded Two Smart People with Lucille Ball, but by the mid-forties Dassin was chafing under the iron grip of Mayer, who would not let him out of his contract. In front of a roomful of industry executives called together to dress down his restless director, Dassin forced the issue by letting fly such a torrent of obscene invective that Mayer was forced to fire him on the spot to save face, and Dassin wound up at Universal, working for legendary Broadway columnist turned independent producer Mark Hellinger.
While Hellinger and Dassin seemed a natural team, and their first collaboration, the powerful prison drama Brute Force starring Burt Lancaster, and written by future director Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood) was a commercial and critical success, by 1948, the storm that would become the McCarthy era was already brewing in post-war America. When their second film together, the seminal police procedural Naked City (the first dramatic film entirely filmed on location) was re-edited by Universal to remove any references to social concerns, a furious Dassin fled to Twentieth Century Fox, whose mercurial chief Darryl F. Zanuck admired Dassin’s talent and independence. But, after a strong start (the socially conscious trucker yarn Thieves’ Highway, in which Lee J Cobb’s corrupt thug businessman is the template for his starmaking turn in On The Waterfront) Zanuck, known more for his cranky personal loyalty (he convinced Dassin to cast Gene Tierney because he felt she was suicidal, following a painful affair) than any particular political courage, got wind that Dassin would soon be targeted by the HUAC, and advised him to take the production of what Zanuck felt would be his “last film” to London, and film enough expensive scenes up front so that the studio could not afford to pull the plug. Fortunately for Dassin, and generations of noir fans to come, Zanuck’s scheme worked.
Adam: Harry is an artist without an art … (he’s) groping for … the means with which to express himself.
Mary: … I like that, Adam. It’s a very nice thought.
Adam: Yes, but it can be dangerous.
Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe in Night And The City
‘Harry” is Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a charming, clever and creative loser; a hustler who, like some demi-monde Ralph Kramden, always has a new scheme that will turn his life around and provide the ticket out of London’s seedy underworld for himself and his long-suffering girlfriend, night club “hostess” Mary (Gene Tierney). While out corralling tourist customers for Mary’s bar owner boss Phil (the great British character actor Francis L. Sullivan) a chance encounter with retired wrestling champ Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko) inspires Harry’s greatest plan yet: Using Gregorious’ disgust at the vulgar, rigged exploitation of Gregorious’ beloved Greco-Roman wrestling by his gangster son Kristo (Herbert Lom), Harry will use Gregorious’ name to compete with Kristo and gain “control of wrestling in all London” (which phrase becomes Harry’s recurring refrain, much like “top of the world” is to Cody in White Heat). But Harry’s constant need to scrounge the next few dollars necessary to keep the scam alive and to prop up his illusion of legitimacy puts Harry in the path, and under the influence, of Phil’s grasping, bitter wife Helen (Googie Withers), who has a grand scheme of her own; and all the players innocent and guilty alike, find themselves pulled under by a web of deceit (and self-deceit) of their own making.
You’ve got it all… And you’re a dead man…
Francis Sullivan to Richard Widmark in Night And The City
Night And The City was made under such pressured circumstances (Dassin would later admit that he never had the time to read Gerald Kersh’s source novel while he and scenarist Jo Eisinger rushed to put the film together) that it is not surprising that Night is not a perfect film. Several key scenes, such as the impromptu grudge match between Gregorious and Kristos’ champion ‘The Strangler’, and Kristos’ final pursuit of Harry, go on far too long, and the tone of the film occasionally spills over into the risibly hysterical, but its strengths — a compelling story, a rich and poetic visual beauty and a superb cast — are so appealing that its flaws are quickly swept away by the ‘brute force’ of its often brilliant execution. Bathed in the rich black and white tones of Max Greene’s neo-realist-influenced cinematography — all rich black shadow, stark silhouette and gleaming neon sheen — and propelled by Franz Waxman’s evocative Gershwinesque score, Night is given heartbreaking life by about as fine and eclectic a cast as one could find in a classic noir. Widmark, (who passed away in the same week as Dassin), gives a courageous performance as the decidedly un-heroic Harry; veering, with manic depressive velocity from near childlike naiveté and enthusiasm to savage selfishness as his latest and last perfect plan crumbles around him. (Dassin was so impressed by Widmark’s acting chops that he proposed that they stage a theatrical “Hamlet” together, which, thanks to Joe McCarthy, never came to fruition). Widmark’s genius in Night is to convey Harry’s agonizing guilt and torment so vividly that we, like Mary, are unable to dismiss him as he cons us as surely as he does his girl. Gene Tierney gives Mary an affecting dignity as she, unable to shake her attraction to his intelligence and seductive charm, continues to cling to her now rapidly fading dream of domestic bliss; quietly standing by as his furtive attempt to steal from her purse at the film’s open becomes a desperate, ferocious ransacking of her apartment at its close.
Sometimes we know not why we do… It just happens…
Jules Dassin discussing his need to endow Night and The City’s bleak characters with humanity and feeling
Indeed, the major portion of Night’s power lies in its refusal to allow its potentially stock characters to behave as such (even the brutal thug promoter Kristos becomes a helpless puppy when confronted by his adored father), presenting its cast of seemingly unlikable characters with such rich conviction that we are forced to identify with them. Night’s two most surprising and complex performances provide the substance of this complexity. Faced with casting the part of Gregorious, Dassin remembered seeing photos of World Champion Stanislaus Zbyszko in childhood, and was able to track him down ”growing vegetables in Jersey”. The aging Zbyszko might have been forgiven had he simply provided the unadorned verisimilitude that non-professional actors often bring to their scenes; by the close of Night, however, Zbyszko’s performance achieves a nuanced and subtle power that makes it difficult to believe that Night was his one and only acting role. And, as Phil, the suavely shrewd club owner whose sinuous, controlling self composure disintegrates under the weight of his helpless love for the faithless Helen, Francis L. Sullivan (indelibly etched in this reviewer’s childhood mind as Pip’s lawyer Mr. Jaggers in David Lean’s Great Expectations) is letter-perfect; at once despicable and genuinely pitiable, as Phil, like Kristos and Mary, is unable to separate himself from a love that is both all-consuming and inexorably destructive. While he shared (that we know of) none of the moral dilemmas faced by the characters of Night, it is impossible not to think that Dassin, faced with persecution and ruin, must have responded to its scenario of helplessness, betrayal and broken dreams, and Night and the City surely reflects the pessimism and fatalism of that period as much as Never on a Sunday, in the wake of the success of Rififi, and his marriage to the love of his life, actress (and star of Sunday) Melina Mercouri, mirrors his renewed optimism.
Dassin, of course, went on to make his gritty, streetwise masterpiece, Rififi, still the best of all ‘crime caper’ films, (inspiring countless variations and takeoffs including the decade-spanning, now perennial Oceans franchise, and his own lighthearted Rififi riff Topkapi), the Academy nominated megahit Never on a Sunday, and the all-black, all-star remake of Ford’s The Informer. He also was, with his beloved Melina, instrumental in the restoration of Greek democracy after many bitter years of junta rule (Mercouri became Greece’s first female Minister of Culture). There are great directors, and there are great “characters”; who by dint of strong convictions, and a unique and colorful life and personality, affect, and are affected by their times in indelible ways. Jules Dassin was both. The only director ever to tell Joan Crawford “cut” in the middle of filming and keep his job (she invited him to dinner), the man who told the omnipotent Louis B. Mayer to take his job and shove it, and one of the few to whom the terrible McCarthy era was an instrument of career advancement, Jules Samuel Dassin, in an era in which he was surrounded by men of great talent and means who sold out their integrity and their closest friends to ensure their own personal comfort and careers, was, in the truest sense of the word, a mensch of the movies.