Thursday, February 21, 2008

Noir City Northwest: Night and the City (1950)/Road House (1948)

A pair of movies starring Richard Widmark screening just before the Oscars serves as a reminder that the actor is still with us at age 93, and still deserving of a lifetime achievement award. Need proof? Watch Kiss of Death, Panic in the Streets, Pickup on South Street, Madigan. Or either film featured on Noir City day six.

Night and the City received the full Criterion DVD treatment two years ago. I revisited the movie back then, but was still eager to see it again. So was Rosemarie, even though “it’s so hard to watch.” That’s because Jules Dassin’s film distills noir to its essence: failure. People struggle to make a name for themselves, to stake a claim to some small part of the world, only to be foiled by forces larger than they are, or by the indifference of others, or by their own weakness. It’s as bleak as movies get, and strangely beautiful.

Much of that beauty comes courtesy of Widmark’s performance as Harry Fabian, whose only wish in life is “to be somebody.” He’s a hustler down to his bones, always looking for an angle. But years of disappointment have made him desperate. There are few moments as heartbreaking as when girlfriend Gene Tierney tells him he “could have been anything. You had brains, ambition. You worked harder than any ten men. But at the wrong things. Always the wrong things.” Gets me every time. And Widmark’s response ... extraordinary.

A U.K. print was screened on Wednesday night. It’s not Dassin’s preferred cut; it’s several minutes longer and felt like it. But Harry Fabian registers in any version.

An audience needs to be talked off a ledge after Night and the City, and Road House is the movie to do it. It’s a confection of pure Hollywood hokum. Ida Lupino, the not-so-secret star of this festival, is a chantoosie brought to the title establishment by rich boy owner Widmark. He’s got his sights set on more than a six-week engagement, but Ida goes off and falls for his best friend Cornel Wilde. Road House has everything you want in an overheated noir romance. It’s a swillin’, smokin’, singin’ ‘stravaganza. The singin’ is the only problem, as Ida does her own and has a somewhat limited range. To quote Rosemarie again, “It’s like she’s both Kiki and Herb.”