A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)

It's fun sometimes to go back and read the reviews Bosley Crowther wrote for the New York Times, panning films that are now regarded as classics. Crowther, if you've forgotten, was the lead film critic for the Times for 27 years, until he panned Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and persisted in attacking the film in follow-up articles until the Times nudged him into retirement. My generation grew up thinking of Crowther as the classic fuddy-duddy. Some of the harsh moralizing that marked his Bonnie and Clyde diatribe was present throughout his career, as in, for example, his comments in his review of Jules Dassin's Night and the City, which he called "a pointless, trashy yarn," a "a turgid pictorial grotesque," "a melange of maggoty episodes," and a "cruel, repulsive picture of human brutishness." It almost makes you want to run right out and see it, doesn't it? But there's a part of me that thinks the old foof was onto something: Night and the City is just a little too dark to be credible, and some elements of it -- such as Richard Widmark's over-the-top performance and the expressionistic camera angles of cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum (billed as Max Greene) -- verge on film noir self-parody. Still, there's a great energy in Night and the City, which often reminds me of Dickens's forays into the underworld -- the titular city is London -- especially when it comes to character names. The chief villain (Francis L. Sullivan, imitating Sydney Greenstreet) is a Mr. Nosseross -- his given name is Philip, not Rye -- and there's a minor character with the über-Dickensian name of Fergus Chilk. Widmark plays Harry Fabian, whose life is a continuous hustle, trying to gather enough money to finance his various get-rich-quick schemes. His long-suffering girlfriend, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney, in a smaller role than her billing suggests), is a singer in a clip joint run by the Nosserosses -- Philip and his wife, Helen (Googie Withers). Eventually, Harry overreaches by trying to loosen the hold on the pro wrestling exhibition racket in London held by Kristo (Herbert Lom), whose star wrestler is known as the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). Harry cons an honest old Greek wrestler named Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko) into staging a bout between Gregorius's protégé, Nikolas of Athens (Ken Richmond) and the Strangler, but everything goes to hell when Nosseross withdraws his promised financial support. There is a great wrestling scene in which Gregorius himself takes on the Strangler, who has broken Nikolas's wrist. Gregorius wins, but dies of a heart attack afterward, one of the many deaths the movie accumulates. The film makes great atmospheric use of its London setting, which was necessitated because Dassin was about to be blacklisted in Hollywood -- it's to the credit of 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck that he warned Dassin of this and, when Dassin decided he would seek work in Europe, allowed him to make the film in London.

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