Saturday, July 18, 2015

NIGHT AND THE CITY: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1950) Criterion Home Video

A cornerstone of noir, renowned for its lurid concoction of unrepentant and remorseless characters, its startling brutality and its maggoty episodes of sexual betrayal; Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) remains an explosive and exploitative excursion into London’s dodgy netherworld. The film was infamously decimated by famed, NY Times’ critic, Bosley Crowther as a ‘pointless trashy yarn’ reveling in its ‘turgid pictorial grotesque(ness)’.  Crowther’s review, though negative, nevertheless, manages to tap into the essential ‘quality’ of the piece. We must first recall the term ‘film noir’ had no place in the American cinema-maker’s consciousness at the time such movies were being made. Dassin, as example, did not set out to make a ‘film noir’; the term introduced into critical discourse as early as 1946 by French critic, Nino Frank, though not embraced as part of the American lexicon until the 1960’s; meant mostly to catalog and more easily identify ‘the movement’ after the fact; a decided departure from all those frothy light-hearted spectacles of the 1930’s toward a more cynical mélange of dark drama, tawdry sex and unapologetic sin, increasingly infiltrating American movies after 1940.
Too many theories about noir have tried to classify it as a subconscious endeavor. Yet, perhaps, only when considering the rationing of the war years (decidedly, putting a cap on Hollywood’s ability to produce spendthrift entertainments as they had done only ten years earlier) does the true impetus of noir style begin to seep into Hollywood’s collective output. Simplified: consider how the woes of the Great Depression and WWII had made audiences more readily accessible to cynicism. But lest we forget that chiaroscuro lighting, a fog filter and great cinematography can do wonders for any film’s ‘production values’ when there are no ‘big beautiful gleaming white sets’ to photograph. And nowhere is this absence better revealed than in the noir crime/detective thriller. For here is a realm populated by an assortment of distorted, unscrupulous, often vicious reprobates who lived, not in the aristocratic penthouses of the hoi poloi but in the dank bowels, war-ravaged ratskellers and unseemly ramshackle of plywood hovels dotting the perpetual murkiness of sea rot and worm-infested wharfs.
We get all this – and a lot more – in Dassin’s Night and the City – jolly-old London, given over to a post-war squalidness, haunted by urban decay. Jo Eisinger’s screenplay, based on Gerald Kersh’s novel of the same name, uses location to extol the stark wickedness of some truly evil people caught in a trap of their own design. There’s Francis L. Sullivan’s Phil Nosseross (as in Rhinoceros…get it?), the perpetually sweat-sticky/portly proprietor of the Silver Fox – a hotbed for underworld espionage. His wife, Helen (Googie Withers) is a hot-to-trot ex-showgirl – nee prostitute – given safe haven in trade for a tenuous favor-based marital relationship, since worn severely thin, despite the fact Phil really does love the viper he married. Helen, however, has never been satisfied with their arrangement and yearns to ditch her life as a kept woman to become the owner of her own house of ill-repute.  The Silver Fox is hardly above board; the hired help coached by Helen in the ways of lightening their clientele’s purses once the lights have been turned down low. We also get Mike Mazurki – one of the undisputed criterion of ‘noir’ – herein cast as ‘the Strangler’ – a pro-wrestler, misused by notorious racketeer, Kristo (Herbert Lom).  
Into this den of iniquity stumble two innocents: one marginally tainted; small time operator, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) who, despite possessing both intelligence and charm, is always pursuing the wrong dreams in his desperate quest to ‘become somebody’. We pause a moment here to tip our hats to Richard Widmark; his tenure at 2oth Century-Fox begun playing raving psychotics like Tommy Udo, Alec Stiles and Jefty Robbins in Kiss of Death (1947), The Street with No Name (1948) and Road House (1948) respectively, before effortlessly crossing to the other side as a second-string leading man. It’s in Night and the City Widmark’s film persona is in its most obvious transitional phase; the bone-chilling whack job from the aforementioned films leaning just this side of empathetic and misguided. Harry Fabian is a loser – and not of the lovable ilk either.
The other novice of the piece is Harry’s careworn, yet eternally kindhearted gal pal, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) who is in chronic ‘damage control’ mode to keep both she and Harry afloat financially. Alas, there’s just so much even this inherently ‘good woman’ can do. Pity Gene Tierney; an actress whose talents, honed and willed by Darryl F. Zanuck, made her one of the studio’s most sought after leading ladies of the 1940’s, but whose career experienced a cataclysmic downward slalom. Looking back on Tierney’s tragic private life beyond the movies, there always seemed to be another dimension of allure to all those sad-eyed vixens she brought to the screen; occasionally as the willful and self-destructing femme fatale with poison on her mind and venom in her heart – or…at least, occupying the hollow where a real woman’s heart ought to be.  
Night and the City does not give Tierney much of an opportunity to shine. She breezes in for a few choice scenes at the start, then all but vanishes until near the end; forced to crisscross this backdoor world of Suzy Wong in search of her wayward lover, earmarked for extinction by Kristo as revenge for the death of his own father; wrestling great, Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko).  Interestingly, Night and the City isn’t entirely Richard Widmark’s picture either; his presence merely essential to keep the machinations of Jo Eisinger’s plot moving along. If anything, the movie belongs to Jules Dassin; newly exiled after being labeled a communist sympathizer by HUAC. In hindsight, the unpleasantness of that ordeal seems to have effectively soured Dassin on humankind in totem; Dassin bringing a modicum of more personalized bitterness to the movie’s already funereal patina. There isn’t one character among the lot who remains ‘above it all’; only varying degrees of villainy from this rogue’s gallery that even the likes of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would be hard-pressed to embrace.
Night and the City works for two reasons; chiefly because it is an exquisitely produced, rancid and juicy slice of ambition run amuck and given over to the devilry of desperation and abject vengeance. Also, because today’s topsy-turvy tumult and societal ambivalence toward heroes in general is more willing to embrace the inert and phlegmatic dictates of imperfect vipers and heavies, herein championed as merely par for the course of how the proverbial cookie crumbles in a world feeding upon itself to its own inevitable moral implosion. Particularly in its own time, Night and the City must have seemed foreign; for it doles out an astonishing amount of unalloyed animosity. But Night and the City is more than competently made. It is, in fact, a moody plat du jour for Dassin, working with cinematographer, Max Greene, who gives us a London unlike any we have seen before; a claustrophobic cityscape of congested flats and shabby shanties wedged in between Tower Bridge and Piccadilly Square – both, prominently featured in the movie.
Our story begins appropriately with a chase, possible the greatest in any noir; Greene ripping a page out of cinematographer, Gregg Toland’s manual on deep focus as a means to frame Harry Fabian’s escape down a narrow cobblestone byway in his attempts to elude yet another crony to whom he owes money. Harry bursts into the apartment he shares with live-in, Mary Bristol, hurriedly searching the room for some quick disposable cash. Mary catches Harry rifling through her purse. He lies to her about wanting a cigarette. But Mary knows him too well for games. Moreover, she’s been down this road before with Harry. He wants too much - for himself, that is - and not nearly enough for the two of them as a couple; just a small-time hood who desperately needs to think of himself as the proverbial ‘big man’.
Unhappy chance, Mary doesn’t have any money either. Instead, she lumps it up a flight to the cramped flat of Adam Dunne (Hugh Marlowe hopelessly miscast as a beatnik artist/sculptor with a surprisingly lucrative cash flow). The screenplay momentarily waffles as we find Adam in the process of burning yet another pot of spaghetti on his stove. Mary pinches him for the money Harry needs. Adam lends it willingly. But he also attempts to clarify for Mary – whom he transparently desires for his own (but who obviously is not yet willing to give up on her paramour) – that Harry is an artist without an art. Confused, Mary asks Adam to explain, to which Adam reasons any man without genuine purpose in his life to get up in the morning is doomed to remain perpetually frustrated with life in general. Such philosophizing will prove very prophetic, indeed.
Harry rushes off to pay his debt, also to stop in at the Silver Fox; quietly observing Phil’s wife, Helen going over trade secrets and the rules of the house – or rather, the scam – with her girls; stiffing the clientele for some high-priced chocolates and pocketing the rest of their dough to feed her kitty. Phil is condescending toward Harry. After all, he can spot a rube a mile away. Any way you slice him, Harry Fabian is a bad investment. Still, he’s a fairly competent con artist – Phil and Helen exploiting Harry’s ‘talents’ as their plant to lure naïve, rich American tourists away from the more reputable clubs in town with the promise of female companionship and excitement in their money trap. Sending three new suckers to their doom after a chance ‘on purpose’ cute meet at the American Club, Harry tries a similar ruse at the local fights, nearly booted out by the arena’s manager, but making the acquaintance of retired Greco-Roman wrestler, Gregorius and his protégé/son, Nicholas of Athens (Ken Richmond).
Harry cons Gregorius into thinking he still believes in the art of classical wrestling, something the notorious racketeer, Kristo does not. In fact, Kristo – who also happens to be Gregorius’ son, has made a killing off ‘the Strangler’ and his more theatrical bouts. Harry strikes up a deal with Gregorius to resurrect and promote Greco-Roman wrestling in London. The self-promotion alone could lead to a very lucrative cash flow; also a perilous confrontation with Kristo. Hurrying back to Phil with his good news, Harry is disgusted by Phil’s lack of vision. Phil suggests if Harry can raise 200 quid he’ll match it; thereby giving him the necessary funds needed to launch his enterprise. But Phil is so condescending toward Harry, the bargain immediately turns rancid between them; Harry attempting in vain to tap every con in the city he knows for the money he needs, including Figler (James Hayter), the king of the beggars, Googin, the forger (Gibb McLaughlin) and black market seller, Anna O’Leary (Maureen Delaney). Each turns him down flat.
Appealing to Phil again, Harry is shot down, this time, by Helen’s insistence: to invest in any of Harry’s schemes is tantamount to flushing it all away down the proverbial crapper. Helen has ulterior motives however; not the least, her own desires to rekindle a previous affair she carried on with Harry right under her husband’s nose.  Helen’s already pilfered 200 quid from the Silver Fox’s safe to give to Harry: no – not for his venture, but for Harry to get Helen a nightclub license on the fly. Alas, Harry can use this money to bait Phil to ante up his half of the promised investment – all of it funneled back into Helen’s nightclub – the Flamingo.  Unfortunately for both Helen and Harry, Phil figures out where the money actually came from; facetiously allowing Harry to continue with his ruse, but insisting Fabian Promotions remain strictly Harry’s company with Phil as its anonymous ‘silent’ partner.
Not long thereafter, Harry and Gregorius form their partnership; Kristo paying Harry a call with the Stranger in tow, to urge Harry to drop his interests in pro-wrestling…or else. Instead, Harry reveals to Kristo his own father has invested with him; the father/son rift growing into a bittersweet chasm. Kristo confronts Phil who openly confides his plan is to see Harry Fabian destroy himself. Kristo assures Phil so long as Harry only promotes Greco-Roman wrestling his business is destined to fail. So, Phil promises to withdraw his hundred quid for the rental of the arena at the last possible moment, pretending to Harry he has merely had a change of heart about their joint venture. In the meantime, Harry lies to Helen about securing her a license to reopen the Flamingo. Instead, he’s had Googin forge a reasonable facsimile at a greatly reduced fee, pocketing the rest of the money to use for his wrestling enterprise. 
Harry now appeals to the Strangler’s manager, Mickey Beer (Charles Farrell), concocting a diabolical scheme to get the Strangler to challenge Gregorius’ son, Nicholas; sparking a grudge match. The Strangler is too stupid to figure out he’s being played as the patsy; and Gregorius, while infinitely more intelligent than the competition, is nevertheless blinded by his faith in Harry to see him for the small-time hood he truly is and will always remain. Elated by this turn of events, Harry rushes back to Phil, certain he will put up the necessary funds. Instead, Harry learns too late he has been duped by Phil, who telephones Kristo to explain about the match, believing Gregorius will never stand for it. When Harry informs Phil he has already gained Gregorius’ support on the matter, Phil is both chagrined and amused at once. For Phil has still won their battle of wits – this time, on a technicality. Harry hasn’t the money to rent the necessary venue to stage his match.
Frustrated, Harry elects to tap his easiest mark – Mary – yet again. Thanks to Adam’s intervention, Mary finds Harry trying to steal her money. She begs, pleads and implores Harry to reconsider the error of his ways. But it’s no use. Harry’s a lost cause and – as Phil has already wisely assessed, “a dead man”. Returning to the gym, Harry is confronted by the Strangler who insists on satisfying the grudge match then and there. Nicholas and the Strangler begin to fight, the Strangler easily breaking Nicholas’ wrist in a few short rounds, thereby ruining Harry’s chances to put on the pro match and thus recoup his losses. As Kristo, Harry and Mickey helplessly look on, the Strangler and Gregorius begin to battle; the old master and the lumbering ox sparing like a pair of sweaty farm animals in a brutal no-holds-barred showdown. After an exhaustive bout, Gregorius is victorious in the ring, but collapses just beyond and is carried into Harry’s office where he dies with Kristo by his side. Kristo now demands blood for blood; Harry’s head on a platter. In the meantime, Helen discovers the license Harry obtained for her nightclub is a forgery. Her fate in question, she slinks back to Phil who may or may not be in a forgiving mood; at least, not one without sacrifices yet to be made on Helen’s part.
Kristo puts out a hit. Harry’s fair-weather friends turncoat to satisfy their greed. Narrowly escaping a pair of Kristo’s goons, Harry ducks into Figler’s hideaway. To his face, Figler offers Harry safe refuge. Behind his back, he plots to alert Kristo of his whereabouts in order to collect the reward. Once more, Harry averts certain death; finding his way to Anna O’Leary’s dilapidated shanty on the Thames. She sincerely offers him a place to hide, Mary unexpectedly turning up to encourage Harry to get out of London altogether before it’s too late. As something of an apology for all the grief he’s put her through, Harry tells Mary to turn him in to Kristo and collect the reward. If someone must, let it be Mary – the only woman who ever truly loved him. Mary refuses to entertain this notion. So, Harry makes a spectacle of himself, chasing after Mary while shouting at the top of his lungs, drawing undue attention.  The Strangler, who is nearby, pummels Harry to death before tossing his lifeless remains into the Thames near the Tower Bridge as Mary helplessly looks on. From his place atop the bridge, Kristo looks on with a sinister glint of pure satisfaction; presumably with no intention of paying out anything to anyone.
From beginning to end, Night and the City is relentlessly bleak; director, Jules Dassin tapping into the darkest parts of the human psyche. Few noir thrillers are as bereft of even the slightest emotional core. None of these characters – except perhaps Harry Fabian, in the eleventh hour of his own mortality – exhibit even an ounce of compassion, much less remorse for their wicked, ‘wicked’ ways. Richard Widmark gives us a pitiable wimp, out for all he can get, cruel in his intensions, maniacally manipulative, but without any real success achieved in the end. No – Harry Fabian will never be a ‘big man.’ At this point, he isn’t even much of a human being; just frantic and hapless, bitter and tortured; a shell of something that is supposed to come with a conscience, but instead lacks even a sliver of decency as he drifts from pipe dream to pipe dream on the ether of his own ego. And Widmark gives a delicious performance herein; the quintessence of a beaten loner, just arrogant and dumb enough to think he can pull himself from this bottomless pit.
A trifecta of stellar and blistering performances round out Night and the City; Googie Withers’ heartless harpy, Francis L. Sullivan’s despicable schemer and Herbert Lom’s outright merciless hoodlum. The sexual relationship between Withers gadabout and Sullivan’s oily nightclub owner is bizarre, tasteless and ghastly; Sullivan’s formidable bulk in constant danger of crushing Wither’s slender frame. At one point, Phil tempts Helen with a stylish mink in trade for just a kiss. She is given the briefest of moments to consider the offer before his abject frustration overtakes. The struggle of wills that chronically supervenes gives the audience a sample of what their sexual relations must be like; perverted - like watching a killer whale trying to mate with a pelican. Withers writhes in disgust while Sullivan locks her in his meaty fists and damn near squashes her against his bloated girth. The last performance worth mentioning is Herbert Lom’s Kristo; an appetizingly unsparing heavy. Kristo has no soul – no stomach, either for doing the heavy lifting; his pleasure derived from quietly observing as his edicts are met with the most brutish reprisals inflicted by his small army of thug muscle. One senses a deeper frustration at play in Lom’s subtle exchanges with Stanislaus Zbyszko’s mountain of a man; the epitome of the old world stalwart; Lom’s hard-boiled eyes casually ogling Ken Richmond’s more slender, if muscular pinup; his father’s rejection completing his own emasculation.
The real star of Night and the City is undeniably the phenomenal B&W cinematography from Max Greene – a formidable visual artist whose work spanned the early silent era to the mid-1960’s. Night and the City is unequivocally Greene’s signature statement, possessing an odious allure. Every element of the plot, each subtle nuance of character development has the sword of Damocles hanging over it; Greene going well beyond mere mood lighting techniques. There’s a distinct – and by my mind, wholly unique style at play herein; a look of oppressiveness and claustrophobia permeating each and every frame; the scenes abhorrently lacking an appropriate level of oxygen for these characters to survive within the same space.  Watching Night and the City for its visual flair alone (with the sound off) is like being subjected to the chaotic and distressing attributes of a carnival ‘dark ride’; our plummet into eerily lit and spookily concealed shadows given over to an intoxicating paradigm of pathos and hopelessness magnified to near lethal levels.
Two years ago I was simply enthralled by the Pretty Gold (PG) German Blu-ray of Night and the City; incorrectly advertised on Amazon.U.K. as a region 2 release framed in 1.77:1 aspect ratio, from Intergroove under their ‘Pretty Gold Productions’ label, which appears to have been sanctioned by 2oth Century-Fox. What Night and the City on Blu-ray actually was, is a correctly framed 1.37:1 ‘region free’ hi-def offering and a visual feast. With the exception of some extremely minor age-related dirt and speckles, the PG transfer is nearly pristine, sporting razor sharp crispness, superbly rendered grain and no artificial enhancements.
Now, nearly two years later we get the Criterion Blu-ray, mastered from a new 4K digital restoration performed by Fox Home Video. Image quality differs considerably from Germany’s region free ‘Pretty Gold’ (PG) release, starting with the PG appears to suffer from a very slight horizontal stretching of the image. Criterion’s reissue is considerably brighter than the PG, though only marginally cleaner; also, by my eye, a tad soft and subtly cropped on its right side.  It also has an ever so slightly higher bit rate. Never having seen Night and the City on celluloid, I am unable to quantify which presentation more accurately recreates the film’s opening night splendor. But the Criterion looks a tad too scrubbed for my tastes; the gritty, darker and more prominently featured grain structure of the PG somehow replicating more of the noir ‘look’ than this new remaster, which diffuses virtually all of the shadowy effects in Max Greene’s cinematography to varying tonalities of gray. We can debate which version looks more like the movie should, but suffice it to say, either version presents the movie with more than ‘acceptable’ image quality. Preferences…hmmm. Criterion’s PCM original mono shows off Franz Waxman’s underscore to its best advantage.
Where the Criterion truly excels is in the extra features: first up, the 101 minute alternate ‘British’ version, featuring a completely different main title sequence with a score by Benjamin Frankel – for starters. The image quality on this alternative version is not quite as pristine. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. Extras are Criterion’s forte. While the PG had none, Criterion provides insightful added content to sweeten the deal. From 2005, we get film scholar, Glenn Erickson’s expert audio commentary on the U.S. version only, plus a 1972 television interview with Jules Dassin, another from 2005, exclusively produced for Criterion, but running a very scant 17 minutes, and Chris Huston’s exemplary comparative analysis of Waxman and Frankel’s scores. Night and the City comes very highly recommended from both labels on Blu-ray. I think I still prefer the ‘look’ of the PG but cannot help but applaud Criterion for their deluxe offering herein.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Both versions: 4.5
PG 0

Criterion 4

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