If innocent people never run away then Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is the guiltiest man in London. Fabian is a smart – too smart, if you ask his detractors – two-bit hustler who always seems to have one eye on a get-rich-quick scheme and another on the nearest exit. Fabian is tired of being small and an early scene in which his girlfriend (Gene Tierney) walks in on Fabian going through her purse (‘You won’t find any money in there, Harry.’) tells you he’s a man willing to get very dirty to see his name in lights.
His next big idea is wrestling and after pleading with businessman Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) for some financial backing, agrees a fifty-fifty deal as long as he can stump up his share of the money. Bouncing between contacts and burnt bridges, Fabian searches desperately for someone to offer a helping hand.
And it’s Fabian’s desperation that propels Night and the City. He wants fame so badly, he very quickly ties himself in so many knots he can barely keep track of who he’s dealing legitimately with and who he’s using to climb the ladder. Fabian ends up famous, with half of London out for his head after one big con too many. Widmark gives a compelling performance, sometimes uneven, more than a little grating, but he’s difficult to take your eyes off. His only crime (apart from all the stealing and grifting, of course) is that he just wants to be taken seriously. ‘An artist without an art,’ as one character pointedly observes.
Fabian may be the focus, but Dassin intricately weaves other subplots in and around the main story. Helen (Googie Withers), the unhappy wife of Nosseross and her attempt to start up her own club, freeing herself of her prison sentence masquerading as a marriage would be enough plot and intrigue to be its own film. Equally as compelling is the father-son relationship between wrestling promoter Kristo (Herbert Lom) and his father, a legendary wrestler. It’s to Dassin’s credit that it never gets convoluted, an ailment suffered by many film noirs before and after.
Dassin’s command of the film noir genre is here for all to see in a beautifully restored print from Criterion–a fine crime film by any standard. (8)