British 60s cinema
British 60s cinema

NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)

Based on Gerald Kersh's novel of the same name, published in 1938

Gerald Kersh's original novel was published in 1938, about the same time as James Curtis' 'They drive by night', Robert Westerby's 'Wide Boys Never Work' and, most famously, Graham Greene's 'Brighton Rock'.  Only Curtis' books 'They drive by night' and 'There ain't no justice' were filmed before the war, with the others having to wait until the post-war years (Westerby's novel, 'Wide Boys Don't Work', a natural for adaptation, had to wait until 1956, when it was made into the hugely disappointing Soho Incident (although the US title is much better - Spin a Dark Web).

 

Night and the City' has now been republished as part of London Books' laudable aim to make many of the 'low-life' writing of the 1930s available to a modern readership; the edition on the right was published in 2007, with an introduction by John King (of 'The Football facotry' etc fame), and they've also published Kersh's The Angel and the Cuckoo.

Andrew Pulver, in his monograph on 'Night and the City' BFI Film Classics series, mentions the famous story that Kersh always claimed that he was the highest paid author in the world, as he got $40,000 for the film rights, which came to S10,000 per word, as the title was the only thing thing the film producers took from his book.

 

This is of course an exaggeration, but to be honest, not much of one, as the film bears almost no resemblance to the book at all.  Its central character is still called Harry Fabian, and is still a wheeler-dealer with dreams and fantasies beyond his station, but there is one crucial difference; in the book Fabian likes to pretend he is an American, or at least lived there for many years, using American slang, and constantly referring to his time in the States, whilst in the film he is an American, played of course by Richard Widmark in one of the best performances of his career.

 

There is a great deal of material on this film and book on the web, including this article at http://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/night-and-the-city-by-gerald-kersh/

Kersh's Fabian is a much more unpleasant character than Widmark's; he starts off as a mildly pathetic figure, much like the film, where we can see he is subject to delusions of grandeur, as here where he attempts to impress his barber:

 

'I wish I was clever enough to do things like that,' said the barber.

'Well, you know how it is: either you've got the talent or you haven't.  Trouble is, there's no money about over here.  I can always pick up a living, but not real money; nothing like what I got used to in the States.  I have to work damn hard to pick up twenty pounds a week over here.  But in the States, I used to make...ha, four hundred dollars a week, and without over-working at that.'

'What doing?'

Fabian looked up at the barber with indignant suspicion.  'Whadda you think?  Writing songs.  That's my job.  But over here, there's no money about.'

'Thinking of going back?'

'Oh, I don't know.'

'There long, sir?'

'Ten years.'

'New York?'

'Yes.'

'I've got a brother in Brooklyn.  What part did you live, sir?'

'Listen, are you going to be all night?'  Snap into it, will you?  I've got a date.'

 

It's quite clear to us, the readers, and indeed to almost everyone he meets, that he has never been to the US, and later he claims to have lived in Chicago,and then Hollywood.

Fabian in the book loses our sympathy early on, when he blatantly blackmails a mild-mannered surburbanite, Arnold Simpson, who has visited Fabian's whore, Zoe (whose name is changed to Anne for the film, and now she is a respectable singer in a nightclub played by fellow American Gene Tierney) and gets £100 out of him, before going back to get more money out of him only to find that Simpson can no longer be cowed.  Fabian in the film is dishonest (he is first seen with Tierney trying to steal money from her) but in the book is plans, quite seriously, to sell Zoe into what was then called white slavery!

London noir

There is a wonderful wheeler-dealer scene in the book, but it belongs not to Fabian but to Figler, Fabian's would-be partner. Figler has to raise the funds to put up his half of the capital for the venture into wrestling, and goes through an incredible series of deals to raise the funds, which is not shown in the film (Figler is a very different character in the film) but is to some extent enacted by Sammy in The Small World of Sammy Lee (see 'Unsung films' section).  Instead a new character in the film, Helen (Googie Withers), wife of Phil Nosseros, the owner of the Silver Fox nightclub, tries to use Fabian to get her own club and leave Phil, but like everyone else she fails to take account of Harry's cheapness, as he double-crosses her in this clip, courtesy of Shanghai Benny II:

One of the few narrative elements that the film producers took from the book is Fabian's idea for promoting wrestling, although they add a twist.  In the book Fabian has Ali the Terrible Turk, an old-time legend wrestler, along with other stalwarts such as Kration, The Black Strangler and Legs Mahogany, as he explains to Helen, one of the waitresses in the Silver Fox (not the owner, she is a character who is not transferred to the film):

 

'Come in.  Take a look at my place.  It's only temp'ry headquarters, till our new place is fixed.  We're getting a place in Regent Street - chromium plate, a cocktail bar, special mats, everything.  Take a look at those two guys sitting by the wall over there.  See the big nigger?  Get an eyeful of those biceps.  That's Charlie Bamboo, the Black Strangler.  I discovered him.  Hell, six months ago he was a punk.  I took him off a Jamaican banana-boat, and made a world-beater out of him.  See?  Londos?  O'Mahoney?  Ha!  Listen: the Strangler too beat 'em both, with one hand tied.  It's a bet!  I'd bet a thousand quid on it.  The other guy's Legs Mahogany.  He's good too.  He's got a scissor-hold - may I be paralysed, he could cut a bullock in two between his legs.  And take a look at the fat old mug on the mat, now, with that youngster.  He's Ali the Terrible Turk.  Boyoboyoboy, did that man used to be a big shot in his day!  he came to me on his bended knees, and he said: "Mr Fabian, sir, I'm starving to death; please give me work." We-ell, you know how it is, I wouldn't see a god starve.  I'm funny like that.  I couldn't see a dog starve.  So I gave him a job, sort of training the boys, kind of style, and sort of massaging 'em a bit.  See?  He worships me like a god.  He's a good old-timer -' Words poured out of Fabian's mouth, like rice out of a burst sack - 'Live and let live is my motto, live and let live, if you get what i mean.  Jesus, are we geting a programme, or are we getting a programme?  I'll tell you: we're getting a programme.  I'll show 'em.  Bielinsky thinks he can run a show.  I'll show you a show...Look at poor old Ali.  That guy with him is a coming champ: Siegfried the Murderer, I think I'm going to call him.'    

 

Widmark captures this self-delusional quality of Fabian perfectly in the film.  Wrestling does indeed feature in the film, with Ali the Terrible Turk now becoming Gregorious the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko, a wrestler in real life, as were the others, hence the realism of the wresting scene), but the twist - which works very well - is that the main wrestling promoter in London, Kristo (played with true menace by Herbert Lom) is Gregorious' son (in the book the Kristo character, Bielinsky, never makes an appearance).    In this scene, vaguely replicated in the book, with Ali the Terrible Turk wrestling Kration, Gregorious takes on his arch enemy The Strangler, thanks to JMoneyYourHoney for this one:

The film ends as it began - with Harry Fabian on the run

It is this element of the film script - Kristo seeking his revenge on Fabian after his father dies after defeating the Strangler in the clip above (as happens in the book to Ali after he defeats Kration, despite being nearly blinded) - that gives the film its epic, tragic quality, as Fabian seeks sanctuary (in scenes similar to those in Odd Man Out, released three years earlier) but to no avail.

 

The book is far more prosaic; as the police clean up the streets in preparation for the Coronation (which sets it in 1936, although it is never mentioned whether it is Edward's or George's coronation, presumably the former) Zoe, along with many of the other 'sex workers', is arrested, and as she finds out that Harry has been seeing another woman she implicates him as a pimp (although the term then was 'ponce') and he is arrested.

 

It's impossible to say which is 'better', the book or the film - each has its own merits, but  i do feel that the film has a more dramatic feel, as befits the medium; the book has a lot of other characters and sub-plots (Vi, Helen's friend and fellow waitress, is a brilliantly drawn character in the manner of James Curtis and George Orwell, but is completely missing from the film) but they would only confuse the issue in the film.  I do feel that the fact that an American actor, rather than a British actor pretending to be American, is a great loss, but entirely understand the commerical imperatives behind such decisions (it is bizarre, but again understandable, that Hugh Marlowe, who is completely superflous in the film and only appears briefly about three times, has a higher billing than Googie Withers or Francis L Sullican as Phil Nosseros).

As is often the case, both film and book can be enjoyed on their own terms, but perhaps Kersh was close to the truth when he wrote that they only took the title and ditched the rest.

 

The DVD of the film seems quite expensive to me, at about £10 - I have my copy with three other excellent film noirs, including Where the Sidewalk Ends, for about £15, see aside, whilst the book might be available from the local library, or if not then abebooks have a second hand copy for about £3.50, although my copy is a hardback one from London Books (www.london-books.co.uk for £12, part of their excellent series republishing the 'lowlife' classics of the 1930s etc) 

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© Paul Thompson