Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

NIGHT AND THE CITY

THIEVES' HIGHWAY (THE CRITERION COLLECTION)           

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It's really difficult to explain to someone who hasn't seen Jules Dassin's NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) that it's possible to create a film that dwells on the sociopathic ambitions of a destructive loser (Richard Widmark) and his descent into hell and is almost operatic in its unrelenting plummet into darkness and despair and yet, most miraculously, somehow manages to be one of the most bracingly entertaining films ever made. 

This is primarily because director Dassin has, with the help of a bitterly potent screenplay by Jo Eisenger, splendidly stark photography by Max Greene and a acerbically melodic Franz Waxman score that perfectly captures the shrilly demented state of mind of our despicable leading character, dared to create a film so brave that it doesn't give a brass farthing whether it caters to audience approval or not, all of which would not be possible without the enthusiastic participation of a stupendous cast , including Googie Withers, Frances L. Sullivan, Mike Mazurki, Herbert Lom, and Stanislaus Zbyszko who electrifyingly create characters that will forever linger in your mind.

But it is the courageously unsubtle and in-your-face performance by Richard Widmark as two-bit hustler Harry Fabian that dominates all around it. Rarely has a movie star had the sheer bravery to completely immerse himself in such a utterly unattractive character as passionately as this. (Those who dismiss Widmark's performance as merely a succession of over-the-top rantings and ravings are sentenced to watch the anemic Fabian that Robert DeNiro delivered in the ridiculously bland and misconceived Irwin Winkler remake.) Indeed, so audacious is this performance that it's astonishing to contemplate the fact that after PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)   Widmark would lazily convert himself into a second-rate leading man in a depressingly consistent collection of increasingly uninspired films. NIGHT AND THE CITY, however, remains a mesmerizing reminder of the unlimited potential that the man once possessed.     

The  many film-buffs who consider Raoul Walsh's THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940 ) to be the best major studio film ever made about the "long-haul boys" who drive perilously rickety and dilapidated trucks by night to bring their goods to the markets of American cities clearly haven't been exposed to Jules Dassin's infinitely superior THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949), which until a contrived and ridiculous final few minutes heartlessly thrust on it by the studio, manages to be an edge-of-your seat thriller that is also a searing indictment of the severe corruption that at the time bedevilled certain produce markets.


It's not a pretty picture of a seemingly innocent domestic industry that screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (author of the book on which the first half of THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT is based) paints, but it is an unusually compelling one, thanks to the sharp and incisive directing job (his last in the U.S.) turned in by Dassin, the superb photography of Norbert Brodine, and some extremely well-judged performances by Lee J. Cobb as the surly racket leader and Richard Conte as the hapless trucker. Indeed, Dassin's control of his two stars is such that Cobb manages to overcome his tendency to over-act in  such venal roles, and Conte, so great as a bad guy in Robert Siodmak's CRY OF THE CITY (1948) and  Joseph H. Lewis' THE BIG COMBO (1955) here delivers arguably his most convincingly sympathetic characterization.  

As is usual for Criterion releases, the full screen black and white transfers of both films are beyond perfection and the monaural sound is strong and rich. The NIGHT AND THE CITY extra feature that really stands out is the documentary about the considerably different British version which includes additional scenes that, for my money, should mostly have been retained in the U.S finished product.

--DICK DINMAN

 

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