Night and the City (1950): Dassin’s Seminal Film Noir, Starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney

Jules Dassin directed Night and the City, a seminal, relentlessly grim film noir, based on the 1938 British novel by Gerald Kersh, and shot on location in London and at Shepperton Studios.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Night and the City

Theatrical release poster

Richard Widmark, in his seventh film, is well cast as Harry Fabian, an ambitious hustler and con man in London, endlessly looking for better deals.

Like other noir heroes and anti-heroes, he claims “I just want to be somebody,” though we doubt whether he really believes that.

Fabian is in a relationship with the honest and goodhearted girl Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), a nightclub singer, who in the first scene watches as he tries to steal money from her purse.

He has to deal with businessman Phil Nosseross (Sullivan) and Helen (Googie Withers), Phil’s estranged wife.

During a con at a wrestling match, Fabian witnesses Gregorius (Zbyszko), a vet Greek wrestler, arguing with his son Kristo (Lom), who has organized the fight, and who has been controlling the wrestling business in London.

Fabian befriends Gregorius Nikolas (Richmond), realizing that he may be able to host wrestling in London without interference from Kristo if he can persuade his father to support the enterprise.

Fabian approaches Phil and Helen with his proposal, then asks for an investment. Phil offers to provide half of the required £400, if Fabian can match it. Desperate, Fabian asks Figler, a panhandler and the unofficial head of an informal society of criminals, Googin, a forger, and Anna, a Thameside smuggler.  However, none can offer help.

Eventually, Helen offers the £200 in exchange for a license to continue running her nightclub; she claims the money comes from selling her expensive fur. Fabian then tricks Helen by having Googin forge the requisite license.

Things change when Phil is visited by associates of Kristo, who warn him to keep Fabian away from the wrestling scene.

However, Phil neglects to warn Fabian, who opens his gym with Gregorius and Nikolas as the stars, and Phil as a silent partner.

Kristo visits the gym, where he discovers that his father supports Fabian. Meeting with Phil, the two men plot to kill Fabian.

Phil removes his backing, and suggests that Fabian get Nikolas and the Strangler (Mazurki), a showy wrestler, into the ring to keep the business going.  But Gregorius is persuaded by Fabian that the fight will prove that his wrestling mode is superior.

The Strangler goads Gregorius into a long, brutal fight, in which Nikolas’ wrist is broken. Gregorius defeats The Strangler in the ring, but dies later in his son’s arms from exhaustion. With business and protection lost, Fabian has no choice but to flee.

Kristo puts a £1,000 bounty on Fabian’s head, spreading the word among London’s underworld. Fabian is hunted through the night, by Kristo’s men and by Figler, who attempts to trap Fabian for the reward. When Helen discovers that her license is forged, she returns to Phil, who had committed suicide, leaving his fortune to Molly (Reeve), the club’s cleaner and flowers stand operator.

Fabian is tracked down by Kristo. Fabian tries to redeem himself by shouting to Kristo that Mary had betrayed him in order to get the reward.

In one of the film’s grimmest scenes, set on the Hammersmith Bridge, Fabian is caught and then killed by The Strangler, who dumps his body into the Thames.

In the very last scene, The Strangler is arrested, while Kristo walks away from the scene.

Dassin was forced to cast Gene Tierney by Fox’s head Darryl Zanuck, who was concerned that his major star was then getting too depressed and even suicidal. Though Tierney gets star billing, alongside with Richard Widmark, she plays what’s an essentially secondary role.

The film’s British version was 5 minutes longer, with a more upbeat ending and featuring a different score.

The film contains a long, tough and prolonged fight scene between Stanislaus Zbyszko, a professional wrestler, and Mike Mazurki, who had also been a wrestler prior to choosing acting as a profession.

Downbeat and grim to a fault, the film has no positive or any sympathetic characters except for that played by Gene Tierney.

The tale is noted for depicting the deadly punishment of its protagonist (in the American version), and especially for its realistic portrayal of the racketeers, who emerge triumphant–they are neither slowed down nor scared or worried by the machinations of law.

Initially, the film was poorly received by reviewers, but in the 1960s, auteurist critics led by Andrew Sarris reevaluated it, and demonstrated its status as a major contribution to the movement of film noir, which had begun around 1941.

Night and the City was the blacklisted Dassin’s first movie after being exiled from America for alleged communist politics.

Various scholars have noted that Dassin’s unpleasant ordeal might have led to infusing his work in the noir genre with resentment and pessimism

Foolhardy scam-artist Harry Fabian and his ill-advised attempts to become a big shot, anger, anxiety, and hatred.

Michael Atkinson of the “Village Voice” has described the movie as a moody piece of Wellesian chiaroscuro (shot by Max Greene, né Mutz Greenbaum) and a discomfiting underworld plunge, particularly in its depiction of the mob-controlled wrestling milieu.

Critic Andrew Dickos considers it to be “one of the seminal noirs of the classical period, a perfect fusion of mood and character. Dassin created a work of emotional power and existential drama, noir pathos and despair.”

Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian
Gene Tierney as Mary Bristol (singing dubbed by Maudie Edwards)
Googie Withers as Helen Nosseross
Hugh Marlowe as Adam Dunne
Francis L. Sullivan as Phil Nosseross, Silver Fox Club
Herbert Lom as Kristo
Aubrey Dexter as Mr. Chilk
Maureen Delany as Anna Siberia/O’Leary
Stanislaus Zbyszko as Gregorius the Great
Mike Mazurki as The Strangler
Ada Reeve as Molly
Charles Farrell as Mickey Beer
Ken Richmond as Nikolas of Athens
Edward Chapman as Hoskins
James Hayter as Figler
Gibb McLaughlin as Googin (uncredited)
Adelaide Hall (scenes cut from the final edit)


Directed by Jules Dassin
Written by Austin Dempster and William E. Watts

Screenplay by Jo Eisinger, based on Night and the City 1938 novel by Gerald Kersh
Produced by Samuel G. Engel
Cinematography Max Greene
Edited by Nick DeMaggio and Sidney Stone

Music by Franz Waxman

Production company: 20th Century Fox

Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: 9 June 1950 (NYC)

Running time: 96 minutes