Film Noir Review: Night And The City (1950)

Soundtracked by the echoing footsteps of its desperate protagonist, Night and The City is Jules Dassin’s masterpiece.


Soundtracked by the echoing footsteps of its desperate protagonist, Night and The City is a Film Noir masterpiece. Adapted from the 1939 novel by Gerald Kirsch, the film was shot in London because Director Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City) had been added to the McCarthy-era blacklist. Richard Widmark stars as American expat Harry Fabian, a hustler with more ambition than brains. Enabled by the generosity of his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney), Fabian has become the laughing stock of London’s underworld, a flaky dreamer who bounces from one failure to the next, each time believing his lucky break is just around the corner.

Night and The City (1950): Spoiler-Free Synopsis

The film accelerates from a running start, offering few breathers as it moves toward its inevitable climax. We catch up with Fabian as he embarks upon another get rich quick scheme, a series of con jobs he thinks will result in a career as an event promoter in London’s lucrative entertainment scene. But Fabian gets in too deep, and his only choice is to hatch an even bolder scheme—one that carries deadly consequences.

Plotting is tight and simple, a logical chain of events in which the stakes are gradually raised. Nothing gets lost. No cheap devices are employed. No scenes are wasted.

Characterization is as efficient as the plot. Motivations are clear. Decisions make sense. Dialogue seems natural to the environment, with minimal exposition. Everyone is conning everyone. Everyone is chasing the American dream in a cynical post-war London where the rules haven’t caught up with the game.

Like all good genre fiction, these characters embody their actions.

The beautiful Gene Tierney as Fabian’s doting girlfriend, Mary.

Visually, the Film Noir aesthetic is on full display. Silhouettes in doorways. Long black shadows on dark empty streets. The London city skyline set against an ominous evening sky. Its brilliant conclusion is reminiscent of the classic sewer scene in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), except longer and more exhausting and mostly outdoors.

Although the narrative point of view is from the third person, crucially, we are in Harry Fabian’s shoes as his world unravels. While he’s on the run, we sense the conspiracy, we glimpse the gangsters lurking in the shadows. When his seedy pals sell him out one by one, we feel the noose tightening around his neck. As dawn finally breaks and Harry must accept his fate, we mourn his ruin with the same bleak sense of relief.

Night and The City (1950): Full Plot Summary

American expat Harry Fabian is a con-man in postwar London. He frequents the city’s lively bar scene, fleecing tourists and re-directing to night clubs, gambling joints and brothels, all in exchange for his share of the cut.

We see Harry at home with his doting girlfriend Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney). We learn about Harry’s impetuous nature through a conversation between Mary and her platonic friend, Adam (Hugh Marlowe).

Harry and Mary

We watch him smooth-talking various marks, working the room and doing his thing. We’re privy to the details of his tenuous business relationship with Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), shady owner of the Silver Fox Night Club. Most importantly, we see the way Fabian is treated by the people in his orbit compared to how he’d like be treated. Harry views himself as a tycoon in the making, a business dynamo foiled by bad luck and a lack of resources. He could be a huge success if only “someone would give him a chance.”

We also encounter Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers), Phil’s wife and the closest thing to a femme fatale the film has to offer. As a character, Helen’s function is that of a “Chekov’s Gun.” Her inclusion in the film’s opening scenes indicates her importance to the overall plot.

In Helen, the film also presents us with a female mirror of its ambitious protagonist Harry Fabian. As audience members, we glean that somehow, their fates are tied.

Harry attends a professional wrestling match, during which he witnesses an argument between local mobster Nicolas Kristo (Herbert Lom) and an older man (Stanislaus Zbyszko) that turns out to be his father.

Their dispute hinges on the authenticity of the event itself. It turns out that the older man is none other than “Gregorius The Great”, a famous Greco-Roman wrestler who disapproves of professional wrestling in general.

Kristo defends the endeavour and suggests that his interest in promoting the event is a tribute to his father’s greatness. But Gregorius wants no part of the spectacle, and after an angry back and forth, he storms off in disgust.

Harry is struck by a sudden flash of entrepreneurial zeal when he realizes the family rift may present a unique business opportunity. Although Kristo has a monopoly on professional wrestling, a Greco-Roman style event, featuring Gregorius, would be next to impossible for Kristo to shut down.

Harry could stage the match and cement himself as a major London event promoter—but only if he acts quickly.

Kristo, Nikolas of Athens and Gregorius The Great

Fueled by maniacal ambition, Harry Fabian springs into action. He befriends both Gregorius and his young protege, Nikolas of Athens (Ken Richmond). With them on side, he sets out to secure the necessary funds.

Phil Nosseros agrees to invest £200, which amounts to only half of what Harry needs to start his business.

What follows is a montage of short scenes that act as a visual tour of London’s criminal underworld. We meet Figler (James Hayter), a petty thief and beggar. We meet Googin (Gibb McLaughlin), a crooked artisan who specializes in counterfeit documents. And we meet Anna (Maureen Delaney), a robust woman who runs a dock-side business on the River Thames.

These scenes also illustrate the nocturnal landscape of post-war London. With re-construction still in progress, the ashen rubble these downtrodden characters inhabit takes on a Dickensian quality that reinforces the desperation of the city’s displaced under-classes. We almost expect Fagin or Bill Sykes to show up next.

But Fabian’s efforts to raise capital turn out to be in vain. And when none of his fellow degenerates agree to front him any cash, he’s forced run another scam. Only this time, the mark is Helen Nosseross.

Driven by a lust for success that seems to mirror that of Harry’s, Helen sells a fur coat and raises enough cash to finally leave her husband Phil and open up her very own nightclub. All she needs is a liquor licence, which in post-war London, is hard to come by.

Phil and Helen Nosseross

In exchange for £200, Harry offers to use his political connections to obtain Helen’s liquor license. The only problem is that he doesn’t actually have any connections. He’s also running short on time. His solution is to hire Googin, the counterfeiter, to fabricate a liquor license he can sell on to Helen.

Meanwhile, Kristo confronts Phil and tells him to keep Harry away from any future wrestling events. Phil agrees in principle, but purposely fails to pass along the message. The second act comes to an ominous end, and we glean that Phil may have figured out what Helen has been up to.

Harry goes on to open his gym, complete with Gregorius, Nikolas and a troupe of other wrestlers. With a new business, new clothing, and an office with his name on the door, Harry’s ambitious energy now seems polluted by a cloud of arrogance.

When Kristo and his thugs arrive at the gym uninvited, Harry counters the intrusion by presenting his star wrestler and business partner, Gregorius the Great. A bitter argument ensues in which Gregorius repudiates his own son in favour of Harry.

Furious, Kristo pays Phil another visit. The two men conspire to kill off Harry Fabian, but only after they somehow convince Gregorius to exit the operation.

Phil sets a daytime meeting with Fabian, at which he ends their partnership. Hoping to drive a wedge between Harry and Gregorius, Phil suggests a financially lucrative match between young Nikolas and shady wrestler “The Strangler” (Mike Mazurki). But Phil’s pitch is by design: Gregorius and The Strangler are mortal enemies.

Harry meets up with The Strangler’s manager, Mickey Beer (Charles Farrell), who agrees that such a fight would be commercially viable.

After Harry manipulates The Strangler into joining the deal, Mickey says he needs £200 up front to make it official. Harry agrees, however without Phil’s investment, he has no way to cover the fee.

Deeply in debt and beginning to unravel, Harry pilfers Mary’s savings and hurries back to his gym to finalize the deal.

Just as Fabian arrives, so too does The Strangler. He drunkenly taunts Gregorius into fighting an impromptu match, pitting classic against contemporary style. A dust-up at the outset results in Nikolas falling from the ring and breaking his wrist. The two men battle until they’re totally exhausted, with Gregorius emerging as the winner as Kristo appears in the doorway.


But Gregorius the Great’s epic win comes at a cost: the tremendous exertion proves fatal. And as Kristo watches his beloved father wither and die, Harry watches his dreams die too.

In heavy debt, both moral and financial, Harry Fabian’s only choice is to flee.

Kristo puts a bounty on Fabian’s head and London’s criminal machine roars to life. Fabian runs from one spot to the next, seeking safety or at least a decent place to hide. Figler briefly offers refuge, a safe haven that turns out to be a trap. Harry manages a narrow escape and retreats into the darkness.

With no remaining friends and nowhere left to run, he dons a disguise and heads for the river.

Harry Fabian on the run.

Over the course of Harry’s plight, we catch up with Helen. She leaves her husband Phil, only to have her new club shut down by a policeman who’s unpersuaded by her counterfeit licence. Mirroring that of Harry’s, her story comes to its inevitable conclusion when her husband Phil commits suicide and names the cleaning woman as his only heir, leaving Helen alone and penniless.

Fabian staggers into Anna’s dockhouse moments before dawn. She offers him a cup of tea and a place to sit, but a creeping sense of fate hangs as thickly as the fog, and we soon learn Kristo is aware of Harry’s whereabouts.

Kristo on the bridge

With local thugs closing in, a distraught Mary arrives on scene.

Harry heads for the bridge, shouting to Kristo that it was really Mary who turned him in. This is Harry’s last ditch attempt to redeem himself—if he’s killed, at least the cash bounty will go to her.

But Harry never makes it across the bridge. As Mary looks on in horror, The Strangler appears and throws him to his death.

The police arrive. The Strangler is arrested. Harry Fabian is dead.

Kristo retreats into the early morning fog.

Analysis: My Review of Night and The City

An autobiographical reading of this film centers on director Jules Dassin’s contentious relationship with the government of the United States. A victim of McCarthy-era communist witch hunts, Dassin was forced to continue his career in Europe after he was added to the Hollywood blacklist. In the film, Harry Fabian’s demise seems to mirror that of Dassin’s. Both worked in fields controlled by rackets. Both were banished from their respective industries because they challenged the existing order.

A historical interpretation views Night and The City as a film that foreshadows America’s challenges in defending the democratic global order on behalf on its European allies. From this perspective, it seems to say: eventually, America will have to go back home.

A Marxist/Feminist reading interprets Harry and Helen as oppressed workers trapped in an exploitative economic system. Their actions are therefore justified, regardless of the moral implications of their choices. They are ultimately punished for those efforts and brutally prevented from ascending to the ruling class. In death (a literal death for Harry and a figurative death for Helen), they become symbolic scapegoats, sacrificed by their bourgeois masters to preserve the status quo.

Gregorius battles The Strangler.

A viewer response critique frames Night and The City as a film that explores the quest for self-actualization. No scene exemplifies this battle more than the classic “wrestling scene”. The epic match signifies Harry’s struggle for success, but also foreshadows his ultimate demise. Like Gregorius the Great, even when Harry wins—he loses.

In this regard, the film expresses a contemporary ethos: get rich, or die trying. Except Harry doesn’t get rich. For him, there is only death.

This execution is not delivered by the police or the state or even nature itself, but by the very people who should understand him the most—his friends.

At first glance, Night and The City seems peculiar in comparison to other Film Noir classics: it lacks a true antagonist, as well as a decisive femme fatale.

Yes, she’s a lounge singer, but Mary bears little resemblance to other Film Noir femme fatales. Her character has nothing in common with Rita Hayworth’s roles in films like Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947), or Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947).

Mary’s simply far too pure. Her relationship with Harry is barely explored. She’s given very little time on screen and when she’s present, she’s more like his mother than a scheming harlot, more like a Madonna than a whore.

While Helen Nosseross has the right characteristics, she’s already the femme fatale in someone else’s story. Namely, her shady husband Phil.

My suggestion is to analyze the title.

“The City” is the femme fatale, the source of Harry’s deluded dreams and motivations, the fix that keeps him coming back for more.

“Night” is the antagonist, thwarting Harry’s rise at every turn.

Beyond these details, I think what I like most about Night and The City is the way it plays with time.

The story begins in the middle. We know very little about Harry’s past, his family or his girl. We learn about him through his actions. We see him hustle drunken tourists. We watch his glib interactions with the shady people in his orbit. There are no flashbacks. We infer what we can from our observations.

This is a deliberate choice by the filmmaker. There’s no point in telling the audience where he came from. Harry Fabian has always been a hustler. Period.

Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) becoming unhinged.

Beyond Harry’s personal chronology, the film also plays with our temporal perceptions. Logic tells us the film takes place over many weeks or months, as Harry’s activities are far too numerous to happen in a condensed period of time. And yet, despite that, the film is structured to resemble one very long night.

Only a few scenes occur in the daytime, and the film lacks temporal signifiers like calendars, seasons or well known historical events. Viewers can interpret this in different ways.

Once again, my suggestion is to pay close attention to the title.

The movie seems to tell us that in “The City” of the film, morning only comes for those who make it. Those who can’t climb up and join the bourgeoisie are doomed to toil away in the endless night of the working-class.

Is Night and The City worth watching?

Night and the City comes with my highest recommendation.

A mid-century pre-cursor to movies like Frantic (1988), Snatch (2000), Blow (2001), Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019), this film depicts the seductive power of easy money and the folly of a character who doubles down instead of getting out.

Having said that, take heed: there are two different versions of this film!

The UK cut was given a less ambiguous ending, a softer tone for a nation still rebuilding after WW2.

The US version contains darker music and also the “real” ending: ambiguity, paradox, futility, and the essential lose/lose ending that defines Film Noir. Without these characteristics, this film and many others from the period would have drifted into flaccid melodrama.

You can watch Night and The City for free on YouTube and The Internet Archive’s Film Noir Collection.

Film Noir enthusiasts should check out The Criterion Collection’s Special Edition Blu-Ray DVD

A re-make starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange was released in 1992 by 20th Century Fox.

If you enjoyed this article about the classic Film Noir period, be sure to read Somewhere in The Night (1946) and our Book vs. Movie post about The Third Man (1949).


Tod Molloy is a freelance writer from Toronto. His first novel, Port Lands, was published in 2022. His second novel... Read more