TCM Pick for March: Film Noir
In my humble opinion, Richard Widmark was one of the greatest actors of his era. He was outstanding in his film debut, Kiss of Death (1947), as the manically giggling, woman-in-a-wheelchair-shoving hood Tommy Udo, and he was just as memorable in No Way Out (1950), Road House (1948), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and Pickup on South Street (1953). But I like him best of all in this month’s TCM film noir pick – Night and the City (1950), airing on March 25th. In addition to Widmark’s standout performance, this feature offers a blood-stirring score, effective employment of light and shadow, striking camera angles, and an impressive cast including Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, and Mike Mazurki. It’s a superb example of film noir, permeated by a sensation of dread that never lets up, and bookended by a perfect beginning and a perfect end.
Two-bit hustler Harry Fabian (Widmark) ekes out a meager living by luring gullible tourists to London’s Silver Fox nightclub, owned by Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), but he is constantly involved in unsuccessful get-rich-quick schemes and suffers from what one character calls “a highly inflamed imagination, coupled by delusions of grandeur.” Finally, Harry stumbles upon what appears to be a sure-thing – the opportunity to become a top sports promoter by gaining the trust of a famous Greco-Roman wrestler, Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko). But Harry’s plot angers Gregorius’s son, Kristo (Herbert Lom), who controls the wrestling game in the city.
The scene begins as Harry’s portly boss, Phil Nosseross, waddles into the lower level of his nightclub, and is greeted by Harry who, in stark contrast to Phil’s arrival, enters with a flourish by literally leaping over a staircase banister. Phil has vowed to act as Harry’s financial backer if he can put together a big-name match, and Harry informs Phil with great excitement about the bout he has arranged between the protégé of the great Gregorius and a popular local fighter known as “The Strangler” (Mike Mazurki). His exuberance is practically palpable, as he laughs with glee, taps on a nearby drumset, and makes up a catchy rhyme from his phone number, urging Phil to call his gym to confirm the news. But his merriment abruptly fades when Phil instead picks up the phone to contact Gregorius’s son, Kristo. Suspecting Harry of having an affair with his wife, Helen (Googie Withers), Phil smugly informs him: “You committed a crime against me, but it will be Kristo who will punish you for betraying his father.” And with that, Harry’s mood alters again – confident that Gregorius will protect him, he lets out with a triumphant chortle, only to revert just as suddenly into desperation when Phil informs him that he is reneging on his promise to finance Harry and “there isn’t a man in all London who will let you have a shilling. You’ve got it all. But you’re a dead man, Harry Fabian. A dead man.” Phil then crosses the room and, with both hands, strikes the cymbals of the drumset, placing an emphatic exclamation point on his grim prophecy.
“If I had the money, I could help you, couldn’t I? And if I could help you, I would, wouldn’t I? But if you ain’t got socks, you can’t pull ‘em up, now can you?” Googin the Forger (Gibb McLaughlin)
“There comes a time when a lad must learn the true facts of life. And death. Well, dear boy, your time has come.” Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan)
- The film’s director, Jules Dassin, was no stranger to film noir. He helmed three first-rate noirs before Night and the City – Brute Force, The Naked City, and Thieves’ Highway. During the filming of Night and the City, he was blacklisted because of his ties to the Communist Party in the 1930s. Unable to find work, he moved to France. He didn’t direct another movie until Rififi, five years after the release of Night and the City.
- Due to the blacklist, Dassin was prevented from entering the studio when he returned to the U.S. for post-production work on the film. He had to talk to the film’s editors and composer Franz Waxman by phone in order to share his ideas.
- When Gene Tierney was pregnant with her first daughter, Daria, she contracted German measles, shortly after a public appearance at the Hollywood Canteen. A year after her birth, the child was diagnosed as mentally retarded, a direct result of Tierney’s exposure to the measles. Tierney later discovered that she had contracted the disease from a female marine who had broken quarantine to meet the actress at the Hollywood Canteen.
- 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck cast Gene Tierney in the role of Fabian’s girlfriend, Mary, hoping that the work would help Tierney offset her personal struggles, which, in addition to Daria’s diagnosis, included an unhappy marriage to designer Oleg Cassini and a failed relationship with John F. Kennedy.
- Don’t blink, or you’ll miss this goof in the film – in the scene where Harry tells Phil he has come up with the 200 quid to help finance his scheme, Phil picks up the business card given him by Kristo’s legal adviser, Fergus Chilk. We first see Phil, in a front-facing shot, holding the card with both hands. But a second later, in a shot filmed from behind Phil’s shoulder, he is holding the card with just one hand. And after a moment, when the shot changes back, the card is being held by both of Phil’s hands again.
- Interestingly, the film was not well-received upon its release. Bosley Crowther panned the feature in the New York Times– he wrote that Dassin’s talent “has been spent upon a pointless, trashy yarn, and the best that he has accomplished is a turgid pictorial grotesque.”
- Herbert Lom, who played Kristo, is perhaps best-remembered for his portrayal of Commissioner Charles Dreyfus, Inspector Clouseau’s boss, in the Pink Panther films. Born on September 11, 1917, in what is now the Czech Republic, Lom’s birth name was Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru. He is still living.
Don’t miss Night and the City on TCM on March 25th. You only owe it to yourself!