We meet Night and the City‘s protagonist Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in his natural state: on the run from his creditors.
Things are bad for Harry before the movie begins and they will only get worse. He spends most of the movie on the run, robbing Peter to pay Paul. In scenes where no one is currently on his tail, he paces or fidgets or smooths his hair. During Night and the City‘s sad final scene, Widmark collapses exhausted in a heap in a boathouse. “I’m so tired of running,” he sighs. We know how he feels.
Harry’s last stab at “the big time” is a scheme managing wrestlers. But he needs more money to get the idea off the ground; and when they sleazy club owner who promises to bankroll him demands half the money upfront, he has to borrow that money too, which makes him indebted to the owner’s unfaithful wife. But the owner quickly realizes his wife’s infidelity and plans Harry’s demise (he eventually reveals his plan to Harry by announcing “No, my dear boy, I am not giving you 200 quid. I am giving you the sharp edge of the knife.”) Harry is like a magician tossed into one of those Chinese water torture cabinets that’s slowly filling with water from a faucet that cannot be turned off, only he’s forgotten how the trick works. So the movie is like watching a man slowly run out of air, struggling against his straitjacket.
Widmark is amazing this movie. He plays lowlifes and underworld types in most of his famous roles, but it’s remarkable to see just how dissimilar all these characters are beyond the superficial connection between their vocations. His Harry is almost the exact opposite of his Skip McCoy in 1953’s Pickup on South Street. Skip is the ultimate operator, cool under pressure even in the tightest of spots. Harry, on the other hand, is so vulnerable and Widmark captures the character’s feral desperation with an intensity and a commitment that is heart-breaking. We don’t particularly like Harry but thanks to Widmark, we feel awfully sorry for him. His portrayal reminds me of another desperate and impossible struggle against the quicksand of self-inflicted disaster I’ve always been a big fan of, that of Hayden Christensen in 2003’s Shattered Glass. Perhaps there’s something I identify with in these characters who know their disgrace is inevitable but who fight against it all the same.
Director Jules Dassin, a few years removed from his awesome prison drama Brute Force, made Night and the City in London immediately after fleeing the United States to avoid losing his career to the Hollywood blacklist. No wonder then that the movie is steeped in a pervasive mood of paranoia and persecution; when Harry’s final stab at the big time fails, a gangster puts a price on his head so great that practically all of London begins to hunt him. Dassin’s mood at the time was understandably bleak, and that’s reflected in the fates of the main characters, all of which are tragic, and there’s a ferocity to the action sequences, particularly a brutal wrestling match shot in a purely visual style that marks it as a predecessor to the famous heist sequence in Rififi, that sets the film apart from its contemporaries. Dassin isn’t playing around. When the water’s rising all around you, there’s no time for that sort of thing.