Directed by Jules Dassin
Criterion Collection, 1949
NIGHT AND THE CITY
Directed by Jules Dassin
Criterion Collection, 1950
In our unabashedly capitalistic times, its easy to forget that once, not so long ago, the system that much of the world now accepts as the only workable model for global economics was still very much in question.
Take, for example, the films of director Jules Dassin, who cast a skeptical eye on concepts like "profit" and "ambition," even though in doing so he risked being blacklisted by the Hollywood establishment. Despite jeopardizing his career, the 1949 film Thieves Highway took a pejorative stance against the sort of chiselling that becomes second nature when each guy is trying to make a buck off the next. One year later, to escape the scrutiny of The House Committee on Un-American Activities communist witchhunts, Dassin found himself in the U.K., working in self-imposed exile to film Night and the City, a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of ambition.
Like many film noirs, both of these works show commerce as a malevolent force in our world. Thieves Highway sets its story, somewhat unpredictably, in the high-stakes world of fruit transport, where a couple of hours can spell the difference between a big payoff and a truckload of rotten Golden Delicious. Richard Conte acts his face off as Nick Garcos, the vengeful son of a crippled truck driver who was injured in a crooked deal with shady produce market profiteer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). While the film is ostensibly about the price of apples a brilliant correlation between the fruit of evil and the root of evil its also about the price of people. "How much would you sell somebody out for?"
That question is answered repeatedly in Night and the City, where almost everyone is eager to get a piece of poor Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a simple nightclub tout who oversteps his bounds when he schemes a way to become Londons biggest wrestling promoter. Against a backdrop of sweaty, hairy-backed galoots, the fast-talking Widmark perspires through a performance memorable for its hysteria and delusion megalomania has never looked quite so sweaty. But youd sweat, too, if you didnt know which of your so-called friends was worthy of your trust.
Scratch any cynic and youre bound to find an idealist underneath, but Dassin earns his idealism by showing us a society where ones humanity is secondary to profit, to making it, to being somebody. As one of the minor players, played by the great character actor Jack Oakey, says in Thieves Highway: "We get kissed off before we even get a chance to pucker up." Even with the broad gestures, hard-boiled dialogue and moral complexity in the actions of all concerned, there is poetry in Dassins realism that elevates his films to the level of art. Art isnt often considered a valuable commodity in these unabashedly capitalistic times, but its still worth wondering why.