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FEBRUARY 1, 1999: 

1950 -- a great year for Hollywood, but most people only remember Sunset Blvd., All About Eve, and Born Yesterday. Here are a couple other reasons why it was a great year for film.

-- Jerry Renshaw


Night and the City

D:Jules Dassin (1950)
with Mike Mazurki, Richard Widmark, Googie Withers, Gene Tierney, Francis L. Sullivan, Herbert Lom


Gene Tierney plays Richard Widmark's girlfriend in Night and the City
The opening frames of Night and the City show Harry Fabian (Widmark) running through the streets of London, pursued by an unknown man, heading toward his apartment. Fabian is on the run through the entire movie; he's an American petty hustler and con man setting out to make a name for himself in the London underworld. Years of clipping customers in bars and pulling two-bit scams are not enough for him; true to the American way, he's consumed with the urge to be somebody, to "live a life of ease and comfort," as he tells his girlfriend (Tierney). He strikes on a scheme to become the top wrestling promoter in London, and befriends a traditional Greco-Roman wrestler, Gregorius, convincing the old man to become partners with him. His boss at the clip joint, Nosseross (Sullivan) agrees to put up financial backing for the venture, but the boss' wife (Withers) has a different angle. She wants Harry to come up with a liquor license for a nightclub she wants to open, at which point she'll ditch Nosseross. Fabian uses the old man as a lever against his son Kristo (Lom), the top wrestling promoter in town. (Lom later played The Pink Panther's Captain Dreyfus).

He goads Kristo's top wrestler, the Strangler, (Mazurki) into a match with Gregorius; after a brutal struggle, Gregorius defeats the Strangler, but dies of a stroke after the fight. Soon, all of the London underworld is mobilized against Fabian, with a £1000 bounty on his worthless hide. Director Jules Dassin infuses a great deal of noir style into Night and the City. Dassin had been blacklisted during the Hollywood Red Scare years (after being fingered by fellow director Edward Dmytryk), and Night and the City was his first film after his exile from Hollywood. He uses the alleys, slums, and factories of London to full advantage to create a world where outsiders like Fabian don't stand a chance. In keeping with the traditions of the genre, no one really possesses a moral high ground in the story; the people who want Fabian eliminated and want his little house of cards knocked down are no better a set of losers than he is himself. Dassin often frames Fabian's gaunt features in bars and jagged fragments of light that serve as visual metaphors for his isolation and hopelessness. Widmark, riding a career high that would continue for several more years, turns in a great performance with his hyena giggle and nervous energy. Fabian only wanted to be somebody, but at the same time he had everything, he was a dead man, running and running as the web in which he enmeshed himself slowly strangled him.


Union Station

D: Rudolph Maté (1950)
with Barry Fitzgerald, William Holden, Nancy Olsen, Lyle Bettger, Jan Sterling

This unsung noir classic features Holden (who starred with Nancy Olsen in Sunset Blvd. that same year) as Lt. Calhoun, the chief of railroad police in Chicago's Union Station. He gets wind of a kidnapping scheme involving a blind heiress, using the station as a drop point for the money, and sets out the police dragnet in the vast building. Calhoun must contend with the crisis without setting the station building into a panic, however. The city police, headed by Inspector Donnelly (Fitzgerald), are brought in when the kidnapper slips through station security with the victim. One of the kidnapper's accomplices is chased into the Chicago stockyards, where gunfire sends cattle into a stampede that tramples the crook. Another henchman is apprehended on one of the station's concourses and dragged onto a deserted platform to be roughed up by detectives. A sharp punch to the kidneys doesn't bring about the desired results, so the police simply threaten to throw him in front of an oncoming train, pulling him back at the last possible moment. The police arrive at the gang's hideout moments too late, as the crooks have already made off with the girl. The kidnapper's girlfriend tells the cops of the plan to murder the girl after the ransom is paid, raising the stakes and earning the girlfriend a bullet for her treachery. The chase winds up in the maze of tunnels that crisscrosses downtown Chicago, amid electrical cables and puddles of stagnant water. On the surface, Union Station is a fairly routine action film for 1950, with its high level of suspense, strong-arm police procedural tactics, and caper-film trappings. However, a definite noir outlook is belied by the fact that the police play as rough as the bad guys, blurring the lines of good and evil. Audiences are used to seeing Barry Fitzgerald as a kindly Irish priest in most roles; during the scene on the empty platform, though, Fitzgerald's Inspector Donnelly tells the cops in his most charming Father O'Flaherty voice, "Make it look accidental." That's one of the more chilling moments of noir, more suited to James Ellroy than Fifties Hollywood. Director Maté also helmed the classic D.O.A in 1950.


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