Harry Fabian is a scumbag. He’s a two-bit, no-good hustler, stepping and stumbling over everyone in his ongoing fight for a slice of the proverbial pie. In one of the early scenes of Jules Dassin’s 1950 classic, NIGHT AND THE CITY, Harry is combing through his girlfriend’s apartment, looking for money to put towards gambling or scheming. She comes in midway, and he sheepishly says he was looking for the cigarettes. She doesn’t buy it, and neither does anyone else. When we meet him, he’s the town laughingstock, a tired racehorse whose tricks are well known to everyone around him.
Though modern viewers will most likely find it comparably tame, the morose story of NIGHT AND THE CITY was revolutionary for it’s time. Contemporary film critics like Bosley Crowther — writing for The New York Times — wrote that the film was “little more than a melange of maggoty episodes having to do with the devious endeavors of a cheap London night-club tout to corner the wrestling racket—an ambition in which he fails. And there is only one character in it for whom a decent, respectable person can give a hoot.”
That NIGHT AND THE CITY is a “melange” of despicable people and “maggoty episodes” isn’t a failure of the screenwriters to craft a palpable story, but a failure of critics like Crowther to view the film outside of Hollywood’s narrative conventions. Elements of the film, like its portrayal of a robust and successful underworld, tiptoed the established guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code, which operated in the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s with the goal of sanitizing unsightly film for mass audiences. Such guidelines shaped film narratives of the time, establishing moral codes that would prohibit filmmakers from making films where, say, a criminal did not get his comeuppance.
It is not a mistake, then, that NIGHT AND THE CITY was a British production. Even though it was not exactly a conscious choice — Dassin was blacklisted by Hollywood during the film’s production and his access to Hollywood studios revoked — it helped to shape the film into the subversive film noir that it is now considered. In fact, the move to Britain seemed to actually deal Dassin a good hand. Not only did it free some of Dassin’s creative decisions that would not have been possible in the United States, but it also handed Dassin a perfect location.
It’s NIGHT AND THE CITY, after all, and this particular city — London — gives the film a character and edge that would be impossible in the United States. Applying the same location shooting techniques utilized in his film, THE NAKED CITY, Dassin captured the aesthetic of NIGHT AND THE CITY on London’s streets, docks, and bars. He set the action and desperation largely against a backdrop of real economic and physical devastation, not on elaborate sets.
Though many film theorists contextualize film noir as being born out of the general anxiety and fatalism surrounding World War II, there is an added element in European post-war film that distinguishes films like NIGHT AND THE CITY from similar American stories. Boston was never bombarded, nor was New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles. London was. Even as late as 1949, the evidence remains. Ruins dot the London landscape, and a scene that finds Harry confronting the film’s femme fatale, Helen Nosseross, is set in a nightclub, against a ruined and crumbling brick wall.
If film noir was truly born out of wartime anxiety, it was born out of the spirits of returning soldiers, themselves a staple of the genre in films like KEY LARGO and SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT. Their interior tumult juxtaposed with the relative indifference of the general public found its expression outwardly, in stories that surrounded them with chaos and forced them into desperate action. In NIGHT AND THE CITY, it is not the interior lives reflected outwardly, but a sense that the charred landscape is in part responsible for nudging public life into an increasingly desperate location.
It is hard to escape NIGHT AND THE CITY’s post-war locale, so much so that it emerges as a character every bit as influential to the action as Harry is. To this end, Dassin’s choice to shoot many scenes on location emerges as a useful technique for the purposes of revealing the extent of the destruction and contrasting the lives of the people with their surroundings.
In the realm of psychology, there is a convincing observation that the living conditions of people directly correlate with levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and crime, so that conditions of poverty escalate those levels and conditions of wealth reduce them. Great Britain after the war was not the United States after the war. Though the US had its fair share of psychological stress, Britain’s position was one of immense sociopolitical unease — austerity measures like rationing and compulsory government service aimed to balance Britain’s depleted treasury and return the country to a state of prosperity.
NIGHT AND THE CITY finds itself in this postwar period. Much like Harry Fabian, London in the film is striving towards a brighter future but moored in a dark present. They are two expressions of the same basic drive to succeed, by whatever means, in the face of a chaotic world. This existentialist notion has some universality, and the film’s lack of success upon release could have been due to audiences’ reluctance to confront such harsh realities. Interestingly enough, the film was reshot with a happier ending for its British release — perhaps it hit too close to home.