One of the first things you learn when you’re learning to become a screenwriter is that your protagonist (see: main character) should be likable. It makes sense, you want someone the audience can see themselves in so they can form an emotional attachment to their plight and their story. Considering that most people see themselves as “good”, you obviously want your main character to be some form of “good guy” with a few flaws to humanize him or her. But what happens when the story you want to tell doesn’t call for a good guy? What if your story is about bad guys?
1950’s NIGHT AND THE CITY, directed by Jules Dassin and written by Jo Eisinger, based on the novel of the same name by Gerald Kersh, is a prime example of a film with dastardly, wicked, and some may say irredeemable characters. A staple of noir, NIGHT AND THE CITY is the story of Harry Fabian (played by Richard Widmark), a hustler and insufferable heel, and his attempts to make it big in the seedy underworld of the East End of London. He finds what might be his last and only shot in wrestling, an industry controlled by ruthless gangsters and racketeers. His doomed journey towards the big time is speckled with a fantastic and equally dark supporting cast, including Phil Nosseross (played by Francis L. Sullivan), a portly and imposing gentleman who owns the Silver Fox nightclub, his wife Helen (Googie Withers), a conniving femme fetale, Kristo (Herbert Lorn), the dangerous racketeer who runs wrestling in London, and The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) one of Kristo’s violent and unstable star-wrestlers.
I suppose I should point out that not everyone in NIGHT AND THE CITY is bad. First we have Mary (Gene Tierney), an old flame of Harry’s that just wants to lead a decent life, instead of working at the Silver Fox. Her plight is undercut, however, in the sense that her role does not serve much of a purpose to the story, other than to help inform us of Harry’s character. The real standout character (and performance) in the film is the aged wrestler, Gregorius the Great (played by actual former wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko, in is only acting role). Gregorius is a former world-famous wrestler and champion of the old traditional style of wrestling, Greco-Roman. He’s also kind, friendly, larger than life, and a firm believer in tradition. Of all the characters int he film, he’s probably the only one you’d want to have a drink with, let alone meet in the first place.
Poor Gregorius has come to London to see his son, Kristo’s wrestling business. Kristo’s style of wrestling, free form and ruthless, angers the staunch Gregorius and leaves him open to manipulation by our main character, Harry Fabian. Yes, that’s right, our main character, the one we are meant to root for, is planning to trick a kindly older gentleman into trusting him so that he may muscle in on Kristo’s territory. Relatable stuff, right?
Let’s take a moment to look at Harry a little more, shall we? In fact, let’s focus on just one piece of the movie, the scene where we meet him, because first impressions mean a lot, especially in a movie. In Harry’s introductory shot, we see him being chased through the streets of London at night, by some anonymous thug. After some dodging and ducking through shadows, Harry finds sanctuary in the flat of Mary, who isn’t present. Harry starts rifling through Mary’s things, looking for money. When she arrives, she informs him that he won’t find anything there, hand on hip. Obviously, this isn’t the first time she’s been robbed by Harry. With a boyish grin, he insists he wasn’t looking for money, and then asks for some anyway. He’s looking for funds to start up a new scheme, a dog racing track in Kentucky, something that he’s sure will work this time.
From the get go, this says a lot about Harry’s character. He’s in business with questionable characters, he isn’t above taking advantage of those closest to him, he’s good at talking his way out of trouble (to a point), and most importantly, he wants nothing more in life than to be a big shot. “I just wanna be somebody” he tells Mary as she reminisces af a simpler time between them. It’s also important to note that Harry doesn’t take to well to criticism. The slightest poking at the seams of his hair-brained plans, and he throws a tantrum.
I know I mentioned earlier that it’s good to give your characters flaws. It grounds them, makes them human, makes them more realistic. In Harry’s case, his flaws almost certainly outweigh his strengths, and in fact, he gets even worse as the film progresses. Later in the film (and I think it goes without mentioning that the following bit here is a SPOILER), Harry tricks Mary into leaving her apartment so that he may attempt to rob her again,. This time when he’s caught, however, he does not stop. He doesn’t even try to talk his way out of it. He takes the money and pushes Mary out of his way and throws a few quid her way as she’s on the floor, crying. Now, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that Harry was driven to this point out of sheer desperation. Even so, you would imagine the hero of our story to have a change of heart, a moment of decency where they see the ills of their ways, and tries to find the money in a decent way. That’s not the kind of film we’re taking about here with NIGHT AND THE CITY. (END SPOILERS).
Perhaps the things I’m telling you about NIGHT AND THE CITY don’t seem all that shocking to you. In modern film and TV, characters with loose morals, and protagonists you could even call the bad guy are more common place. Look at BREAKING BAD’s Walter White, or FARGO (the TV series, not the movie) and its character Lester Nygaard. Both shows deal meek, bookish characters delving into the criminal underworld. The deeper they crawl, the more their true nature seems to be revealed, and we learn that these characters may not be the good guys we thought they were. In both shows, we do have supporting characters that align more with the side of good, that act as foils for our hero-villains. BREAKING BAD has Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, a DEA agent, and FARGO has Molly Solverson, a local deputy. In both shows, as the series progresses, some viewers may find that they are rooting for our “hero’s” foils more than the heroes themselves. It only seems natural to want the good guy to win, especially after our protagonists start doing things that could be considered evil.
This model doesn’t so much apply to NIGHT AND THE CITY. As I mentioned earlier, almost all of the characters have some degree of nastiness about them. Yes, there is Gregorius, who seems almost completely untarnished in terms of character, but he never stands at opposition to Harry. In fact, Harry has him wrapped around his finger for the whole film. You could argue the shoes of the sympathetic character are filled by Mary, and they are to a degree, but her absence for long stretches of the film prevents us from seeing her as much more than an extension of Harry’s character. This rather dark and bleak look at humanity in NIGHT AND THE CITY is part of why critics in 1950 looked at the film so unfavorably. It was called “grotesque” and “without any real virtue” by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times. More recently, it has been seen in a much better light, though, and is now heralded as a classic. This due to, in part, the celebration of the film noir genre in more recent years. We’re also far more accustomed to darker tales in our movies now.
But perhaps there is something more. Something that endears viewers to this tale, something that’s goes against everything I’ve been saying up until this point. What if the characters in NIGHT AND THE CITY are likable and relatable? All of them. Harry, Phil, Helen, Kristo, Mary, Gregorius, The Strangler… well, maybe not The Strangler.
First let’s take a detour with a more recent film with a protagonist that many could call “unlikable”. 2014’s WHIPLASH, written and directed by Damien Chazelle was a bit of a surprise hit. The small indie drama about a young jazz drummer trying to cut his teeth in a prestigious conservatory under the tutelage of a ruthless teacher garnered five Oscar nominations and three wins, including best supporting actor, for J.K. Simmons fantastic turn as the villainous teacher, Fletcher. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sure Fletcher is unlikable because he’s ruthless, but he’s so fun to watch and so unpredictable, you can’t help but like him a little bit. Well, I don’t want to talk about him. No, I want to talk about this movie’s protagonist, Andrew Neiman. Yeah, the one that’s really good at playing the drums. The one that plays until his hands bleed. Yes, I’m saying he is a bit unlikable… to a degree.
Andrew is shown to be a bit anti-social. He puts his drumming before any personal relationships, even going so far as to break up with his girlfriend to focus more time towards drumming,.He has outbursts at dinner parties. If you met him in real life, you’d probably think he was a self-centered jerk. And you’d be right. Andrew Neiman is a jerk; but, he has some qualities that we, as an audience, are able to appreciate. He is talented. We see first hand that he is really good at playing the drums. Like really really good. To top it off, he is a very driven character. Remember what I said about him playing until his hands bled? That drive also helps explain some of his bad behavior. He is determined to be a great drummer, no matter what the cost. Not even a car accident stops him from trying to play.
And, why does he do all this? Because he wants to be the greatest. He wants it more than anything. Because of this, we have a common ground with him. Even if you aren’t musically inclined, or don’t particularly care about jazz, you see that he cares about something deeply, and wants to be the best at it. That’s something that almost anyone can relate to! And by following him on that pursuit, and most importantly, see him struggle along that path, we are endeared to him. We’re in his corner. We’re rooting for him, even though he’s a jerk.
So, how does this relate to our topic at hand, NIGHT AND THE CITY (other than the fact that Andrew and his Dad go to see the film Rififi, also directed by Jules Dassin, in WHIPLASH)? Harry is a jerk (among other things). But he wants something. He wants it more than anything. He just wants to be somebody. A big shot. That’s something that most people can relate to as well. We all have times where we feel like we’re the little guy, eking through by the skin of our teeth.
I think it’s important to note at this time that a major trope of the film noir genre deals with the American Dream, you know the thing that Harry hopes to achieve (despite the whole story being set in London). This trope plays on the promise that if you work hard, and follow the rules, you will inevitably get ahead in life. Now, this isn’t always the case. Imagine it’s the late 40s, early 50s. You’ve just come back from war, and you’re trying to start a life for yourself. You’re playing by the rules, and you’re not getting anywhere. You see people around you with success, but it’s not working for you. You’ve given almost everything you’ve got and the system doesn’t work for you. Wouldn’t you try to break the rules? Try to make life fair for you for a change? That’s the kind of guy that Harry is.
Now, we really don’t get much backstory from Harry, all we know is that he he was probably once decent guy, but now he’s a hustler. We know that he lives in a world marked by war, as he runs through and ducks around in the rubble of the post-war London. We know he wants to be somebody. Just like how Andrew wants to be the best jazz drummer in the world, that’s how bad Harry wants a shot at the big time, and just like Andrew, he’s struggling. He’s been at this so long, no one left in town trusts him. When he finds Gregorius, we know this is his last shot. So, can you hold it against him for trying to bend the rules a little? Well, probably, but at least you know where he’s coming from.
Now, this logic doesn’t just apply to Harry, and that’s why this is such an expertly written film. Everyone wants something, and what they want isn’t evil. It’s the kind of stuff anyone could want. Phil just wants his wife to love him. Helen wants to be an independent woman, free of Phil’s control. Kristo wants his father’s approval and admiration, Gregorius wants to uphold the traditions of Greco-Roman wrestling, Harry wants to be a big shot and can use all of this to his advantage. Mary just wants to lead a simple life with Harry, not hustling, not dancing at the Silver Fox, being respectable people.
All of these understandable wants and desires form a complex web that traps everyone inside, and everyone does their part to twist and knot the web even tighter. And that web is made up of things that are admirable, that are understandable, even if the means to achieve them, and the people who want them, are not. And that’s what makes a movie stand the test of time for 65 years.The film just has good characters, even though they may be bad guys. And it’s okay to like them, maybe just a little bit, because they want the same things you and i do. Who knows, maybe under different circumstances, you’d be bad too.
If you like what you read here about NIGHT AND THE CITY, it might behoove you to check out the discussion I had with someone who knows far more about film than I do, Aaron West, for his Criterion Close-Up podcast (that is unless you were linked there from here, but if you were, go listen to it again). Hopefully, you’ll also stop back again sometime to see what else I’m writing, assuming I have more posts up soon, and thank you for reading.