'Night and the City' and 'Thieves Highway'
The artistic tragedy of Jules Dassin's being blacklisted in Hollywood after 1949's swiftly compelling 'Thieves' Highway' is leavened somewhat by the fact that the 94-year-old director is still around to partake in the contemporary celebration of his dashing noir oeuvre
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Feb. 18, 2005
Night and the City
The Criterion Collection, $39.95
The Criterion Collection, $39.95The artistic tragedy of Jules Dassin's being blacklisted in Hollywood after 1949's swiftly compelling Thieves' Highway is leavened somewhat by the fact that the 93-year-old director is still around to partake in the contemporary celebration of his dashing noir oeuvre. Two new Criterion interviews, as well as a 1972 French television program with Dassin, still a rigorous compassionist, highlight a handful of DVD bonuses on Thieves' Highway and its desperate follow-up, Night and the City (1950). Dassin's best film after '55's French heist perfection Rififi (also on Criterion), Night and the City races feverishly toward its foregone fate like its author was being run out of career and country by a lynch mob. The director, in fact, recounts fleeing the U.S. with 20th Century Fox mogul Daryl Zanuck pressing a copy of Night and the City into his hands and urging him to hurry. Landing in London, Dassin dashed off the script without ever reading the book. It resulted in a blazing role for Richard Widmark, who plays consummate schemer Harry Fabian ("an artist without an art") and his brush with fire (Herbert Lom) with both maniacal gusto and heart-wrenching grace. As the film dominoes from opening chase to the final, first-take, six-camera sequence, Dassin locks viewers into a bracing series of two-shots wherein sweat from the doomed cast pools in your lap. Thieves' Highway is no less driven, particularly with still-surviving novelist and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (They Drive by Night) barreling through his Steinbeckian tale of truckers hauling apples, blue-collar tragedy, and revenge. The cast and performances are uniformly excellent (Valentina Cortesa!), especially Lee J. Cobb ramping down his onscreen rage as a crooked produce merchant. Zanuck invented and shot both end scenes, true twists considering Thieves' otherwise long shadows. Long live Jules Dassin.
Also Out Now
Casque D'Or/Touchez Pas au Grisbi (The Criterion Collection):Another Criterion dual release, this one plucking a pair of noir-associated prizes from the all-too-brief filmography of French New Wave precursor and master storyteller/stylist Jacques Becker (1906-1960). Hailed in vintage TV as an actor's director, Becker's two recognized classics befit their national treasures: Simone Signoret bewitching a den of gangsters in Casque D'Or (1952), and noble, dressed-to-kill Jean Gabin as a retiring thief in Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954), aka Hands off the Loot. Watch for Chronicle patron saint Marilyn Buferd in the latter.
As part of its Brit Noir series a joint effort with the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown will screen Night and the City on Thursday, March 3, 7pm. On Thursday, Feb. 24, 7pm, Brighton Rock will screen, while Get Carter is on Thursday, March 10, 7pm.