Night and the City (1950)
After the Second World War, instead of allocating huge budgets for studio set designs and landscapes, directors have found additional cost-efficient means of exploring unusual set designs through dilapidated and even newly-restored locations across the globe. Eventually, with this kind of post-war mindset that film writers had had during those early Liberation years, a 1900-old philosophy rooted in German expressionism, has re-established it’s way towards the mainstream – the film noir.
In the succeeding years after Hitler’s reign, films and production outfits have blossomed and created movies that depicted the life of man, his rise, his importance, and his inevitable decadence. Through the lenses of film noir directors, we have seen the story of Everyman in Hollywood classics like STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940), FALLEN ANGEL (1945), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), and THE BIG COMBO (1955).
Much to world cinema’s passion to show life as natural and tragic, foreign directors have also continued pre-war themes on neglect, deceit and sexual motivations. Cavalcanti’s THE SMALL BLACK ROOM (1948), Reed’s THE THIRD MAN (1950), and Kurosawa’s STRAY DOG (1949) are but a few of the long list of choices that we have on this dark, yet creative approach in telling man’s tragic tale. Even Filipino filmmakers (Brocka, o’ Hara, et. al) did not let this classic genre simply pass by. In our local filmographies, we have films such as MAYNILA SA KUKO NG LIWANAG (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), CONDEMNED (1984) and BAGONG HARI (The New King, 1986).
Among these titles, Jules Dassin’s NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) has it’s own varied way of showing how man, in his need for identity and actualization, will fall into the abyss of cruel hate, through a system of justice – worthy only for a kangaroo.
Filmed and shown in the early 50s, NIGHT has provided post-war audiences with a grim look at a con’s life in post-war London. The City, as a character in itself, shifted its moral take on crime and sex as it carried each syndicated crime to glory. Along with this, the Night provided the escape and traps for each convicted character.
No wonder this film was not much of a hit among critics in the 50s.
But the universal themes in Dassin’s post-war masterpiece are undeniably among the greatest treasures we can get from such genre. In a man’s dream of living a a life he never had, five poetic sins have joined forces to remind him that life is not a winning game. Deceit is a recurring backdrop among the players. When Fabian went to find possible supporters for his newly-established promotions, he reconnects with Phil (played brilliantly by Francis Sullivan), a club-owner who pays the latter’s investment needs, but designs a scheming web for his fall. Along with this, Lust falls into place as the sensual ex-lover Helen (Googie Withers), took much pains in gaining freedom from her affectionate, yet sexually passive husband Phil, to escape and join Fabian. Greed comes into the picture, as the grief-stricken Kristo puts 1000 pounds on Fabian’s head. Next comes Ambition. In the midst of the many character goals, one is apparent, evident and consistent – the want of control. Fabian’s want to manipulate London’s wrestling arena, Kristo’s (Herbert Lom) desire to create a new form of sports, and Mary’s dream to get back to the good old days, all created new character-woven webs that resists to untangle for a final redemption.
But of all these recurring sins, only one has proven worthy of notice. The one sin, which even in the most perfect of places, falls short in Harry Fabian’s world. Passion takes the seat of the greatest transgression of them all. Gregorius’ passionate love for Greco-Roman art paves his way to death. Mary’s blind-love feeds Fabian’s greed and ambition. Phil, in his passionate need for a wife in Helen, tragically ends everything he has and everything he is. And Helen has fallen into Fabian’s trap, while her husband unknowingly led her to the pit of non-existence.
In each sin, we see a consequence; not a redemption. In Dassin’s London, each transgression is repaid accordingly. Whether physical, moral or emotional, the price is dear; the payment – eternal.
NIGHT AND THE CITY is a film on universal thematic undertones that shout cries from the dark alleys of 50s London, reminding us that punishment is as present as it was in the early years of liberation, as it is today.
In our never-ending fight against the rule of society, film noirs, like NIGHT, are cathartic, if not referential. In a world where nothing escapes, and everything changes against us, we continue to thrive and see how we can survive accordingly.