Harry Fabian begins and ends 'Night and the City' running from somebody in a nightmare nocturnal London, literally ducking and diving, lurching into abandoned warehouses and slums, crouching in doorways, scrabbling up alleys: a hounded man with a desperate febrile face. If the traditional Western is about escape from a fixed identity, than Fabian's quest is, as is appropriate to such an interior, urban genre as the crime film, its opposite - he wants to stop running, to earn a fixed place, a recognisable identity, to be treated with respect, to be somebody.
But in the first ten minutes he is a divided man. Scrounging cash from his unbelievably tolerant girlfriend, Mary (oh yes) she shows him a photo of their past, an idyllic picture of harmony on a rowing boat, presumably on some pleasant English river. Harry has fallen from this pastoral paradise, he has moved from this fixed, frozen image to a lift of constant movement, where to stop is to die, assuming and casting off identities as he goes. The film's negative drive is very similar to Godard's 'A Bout De Souffle', and like Michel Poiccard, Harry is a dead man, A Maxwell's Demon of energy and information overloading, hurtling into inertia.
Although the film comes within the description of film noir, it's rise and fall narrative more properly belongs to the 30s gangster genre, and Harry is like a man out of time. His bluster, quick-thinking energy, and absurd sense of style (he stops n the middle of life-threatening flight to pick up his fallen buttonhole) would be thoroughly appropriate in the worlds of 'Scarface' or 'The Public Enemy'. But film noir in an interior, subjective genre, the laws are less easily manipulable, everyone's looking out for himself. Harry doesn't even rise very high - although he almost convinces you that he does - he gets as far as the rehearsal stage for the big drama that will be his success.
The figures of drama seep through the film, from Mary's singing to an audience, to the extraordinary wrestling rite that sparks off the action climax. This fight is extraordinary, as the film changes registers, changes from one plot to another, with Harry marginalised in his own drama, moved from playwright and actor to impotent observer. Because throughout Harry is the former, willing events, dreams, even people into existence, performing a constant series of roles, adapting for the different audiences; even playacting a crucial narrative plot point (getting Gregorius to fight the Strangler). This further splits the already divided Harry - the man of public performance(s) has nothing left for himself - he is indeed a dead man.
'Night' is about 3/4 a masterpiece. Unusually for a noir, which often forsook coherent narrative for 'meaningful' spectacle, it is an exciting action film, full of unbearable suspense and good chases. The filming of London, after the initial jolt of a spiv hero with an American accent, is unparalelled, its seedy underworld given a gothic-Dickenisan intensity, all shadows, Chinese-box-like interiors and grotesques - Francis L. Sullivan as Phil Nosseross, half Satan, half sympathetic cuckold, is outstanding. The mechanics of underworld commerce (club touting, hostesses etc.), is brilliantly done (and more economically than 'Casino'), as well as sociologically important; showing that the film is about much more than a man's downfall.
Anyone who knows Jules Dassin from his interminable Melina Mercouri films may be surprised by the level of invention here - the bursting, lurching mise-en-scene, threatening to explode at any moment, full of overspilling wide angles, masses of intrusive decor, brilliant composition in which mise en scene ironically frames and imprisons characters who think they've all the freedom, or the placing of characters in space to reveal their true power. Franz Waxman's score is a neurotic marvel, full of sudden shards of lightening. Best of all is Widmark's astounding performance, a seedy Jerry Maguire, full of talk and promises hiding inner terror and emptiness, charming and cocky at the right times, shockingly, paralysingly brutal when he needs to be.
The last quarter is a little disappointing, with its cod-psychological 'explanations' of the end, diluting the hero's potency, (although the 'revelation' of past here mirrors the photo at the beginning), and the Willy Loman/'Angels with Dirty Faces' stretch for redemption is a bit much. But the ending is bravely downbeat - this is a rare Hays Code era film that allows the villain go unpunished.