Blu-ray Review: Night and the City (1950) - The Criterion Collection

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Maybe I'm one of the proud few, but I happen to think Irwin Winkler's 1992 Night and the City, starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange, has a great deal to offer. De Niro has a field day as fast-talking conman-turned-boxing promoter Harry Fabian. There's real chemistry between he and Lange, plus a deadly serious (and highly effective) supporting turn by late comedian Alan King. But the film was a remake of a 1950 noir classic directed by Jules Dassin, who ran afoul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Dassin's blacklisting occurred during the production of Night and the City, leaving him unable to participate in post-production. While he was thankfully able to recover from the McCarthyism setback, Dassin spent most of the remainder of his career making films in Europe. His Night and the City is deserving of its reputation, leaving the Winkler take as an admittedly fun but ultimately inconsequential obscurity.

The Criterion Collection has issued the original Night and the City (which was based on Gerald Kersh's 1938 novel of the same name) on Blu-ray, offering an outstanding new 4K transfer struck from the original 35mm camera negative. There are two cuts presented: the U.S. and the U.K. versions. The shorter U.S. version, running 96 minutes, was Dassin's favored cut—though again, he was removed from the picture. Franz Waxman scored the U.S. release, while the 101-minute U.K. cut was scored by Benjamin Frankel. Some of the plot differences get into spoiler territory, but the different scores alone make for a fascinating case study of how the same movie can feel significantly different on the basis of music. It's frustrating knowing that director Dassin didn't have any input during the editing and scoring stages of the film. However, in either form the film is strong enough to reassert itself as a classic, pushing the remake (still enjoyable in its own right, I insist!) to the sidelines. 

night and the city 2 (380x294).jpg Richard Widmark is dryly devastating as the ethically-challenged con artist Harry Fabian. Wrestling is the sport Harry chooses to exploit in this original version. He sees wrestling as a viable money-making opportunity, as long as he can steer clear of powerful promoter Kristo (Herbert Lom). Harry is a certifiable six-time loser, someone who takes advantage of everyone around him. Among those sucked into his circle is painfully clueless girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney), nightclub owner Phil (Francis L. Sullivan), and Phil's wife Helen (Googie Withers). Harry's business incompetence begins to catch up with him as he tries to organize matches with various wrestlers, including people with names like The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). Harry's decline is tragic, but unsentimental.

Again, looking at Criterion's technical presentation, the transfer of Max Greene's black-and-white cinematography is excellent. The American cut is offered in uncompressed LPCM 1.0, while the U.K. cut is only available as a step down in lossy Dolby Digital 1.0. All things considered (the age of the film, the relative simplicity of the sound design), both options sound fine but it appears the U.S. cut received preferential treatment due to it being more highly regarded (including by the late Jules Dassin himself).

Film historian and noir expert Glenn Erickson's exhaustive audio commentary, recorded in 2004 for a previous DVD edition, is repeated here. "Two Versions, Two Scores" is a 24-minute featurette (from 2005) focused on the fact that the U.S. and U.K. versions feature completely different music by different composers. Director Jules Dassin is the focus of a 2004 interview (also on Criterion's previous DVD) that sheds more light on his career. L'invite du dimanche is a 25-minute excerpt from a 1970 French television broadcast that features Dassin, focused largely on his blacklisting. Criterion has lived up to their vaunted reputation with this remastered, high definition edition of Night and the City.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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