A couple of days ago, after finding out about Richard Widmark’s death, I wrote about his terrific performance as Harry Fabian in Night and the City. Today, in light of director Jules Dassin’s death, I find myself revisiting the film. I’m hardly an expert on Dassin’s life and career. I’ve seen a few of his movies, and love a couple of them, know a couple of facts about his life, and have a copy of Tokapi on DVD that I haven’t gotten around to watching. Like many people, I mispronounced his name, mistaking him for a French auteur after seeing Rififi. There was no making that mistake, though after watching Night and the City. It’s unmistakably American- even though it takes place in London. The movie is crawling with dreamers, schemers, hustlers, losers and freaks. Everyone is a little bit ugly and hard to like- except maybe the angelic Gene Tierney. The enormous club owner, swollen with greed and sloth, his shrewish wife, determined to steal whatever she can to get away from him, the sleazy wrestling promoter and his father, a quick tempered wrestling legend who’s rage is stronger than his aging heart. But Dassin doesn’t let us sit back and gawk at the grotesquery of the characters. Instead, he pulls us into their world, makes us feel for them as their dreams fall apart- even pulls off one of the most difficult tricks in storytelling- creating empathy for characters on both sides of a conflict so that we gain no easy satisfaction from the triumph of one side over the other, just an escalating tension which resolves itself into sickening inevitability. Everyone twists themselves up in knots trying to get a little bit more than they’re entitled to and, in the end, they lose what they had to start with. Like I said, a quintessentially American movie.
I don’t really know much about Dassin- just that Rififi and Night and the Cityare two of my favorite noir movies and that another great artist of the 20th century has left the world of this new, weird century behind- leaving us with one less person who might be able to explain it to us. The best we can do is look back at the work they left behind and be a little sad they didn’t leave more. I guess this would be the weekend for me to pull Tokapi out of the binder, dust it off and get to know Dassin a little better.
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