-Helen Nosseros (Googie Withers) in Night and the City (1950)
I turned in the final draft of the second episode to New York Noir last week, which went out to the actors yesterday. It’s called “The Laundry Room.” I won’t spoil it, but I’m very excited about it and think it’ll be great. The entire Red L team has really worked hard on it to do right by the story and characters, which aren’t mine but you get the point. I’m also working on episode three, which will be a lot of fun. That’s not what I want to talk completely about today, though…
Jules Dassin, one of the all-time great film noir directors, died yesterday. He was 96. His obituary in The New York Times is here. I also highly recommend checking out Jeremy Smith’s commentary on the website CHUD.com.
Richard Widmark, who starred in Dassin’s last major film for Hollywood, Night and the City, which is pretty much my favorite film noir of all time, also died last week. The Times did a great appraisal of him, which is here.
I have some brief thoughts on Dassin, just as soon as I count how many stories there really are in the naked city…
I’m not going to be one of those assholes who tries to pretend he’s been into Dassin forever, as I wasn’t. It was only since this year, in research for New York Noir, that I started watching the noir classics that I should have seen a long time ago. One of those pictures was Otto Preminger’s Laura, which kicks ass, but featured a beautiful actress named Gene Tierney in the lead. I’m not one of those assholes who pretends he’s been into shit forever, but am one of those assholes who will track down other movies featuring a pretty girl he likes. And Miss Tierney is, like the Stones sing, such a pretty, such a pretty, such a pretty girl.
Tierney (beautiful woman, crazy broad with a fucked up life) was the female lead in Night and the City, which was the first Jules Dassin picture that I watched. This is one of those movies that is simply perfect. I have a really hard time talking about the things that I love other than “Oh man, it’s awesome and this part rocks and that part rocks,” but Jesus God, is it ever good. Not only does it feature gorgeous cinematography, a great performance by Widmark as a boxing promoter who has epic fail encoded onto his DNA (the total loser: an under-used noir stereotype), great villains, one of the best fight scenes I have ever seen (it goes on forever and you feel every single punch), and a wonderful sequence near the end where a bounty is put out on a character’s head that feels so fresh it’s like you’re seeing that sequence for the first time, but you get a side order of Gene Tierney singing. And friends, let me tell you, Gene Tierney singing is pretty awesome. I haven’t seen as many noirs as I should, and I fell off major-ly in March, but Night is now not only one of my favorite noirs, but one of my favorite films of all time.
So, we went from Tierney to Dassin, and Night knocked my on my ass enough that I decided this Dassin guy was worth checking out. Which brings us to The Naked City. Fact: this is probably the first police procedural. Fact: it is awesome. Fact: it’s one of the all time great New York City movies.
New York Noir owes a great debt to The Naked City because of one word: location. Dassin, in all of the noir I’ve seen of his, knows how to use locations, and apparently, City was a big deal at the time because it was actually shot on location in New York and not on sets. It shows.
It’s funny how the smallest things can have a big impact on you when it comes to art, and especially film. There’s a scene in City where a cop is interviewing a woman in a resturant on the Lower East Side, and in the background, through the window, a bunch of Orthodox Jews are standing on the corner, waiting for a cab. Knowing what you know about the movie (or what at least the 40s version of Mr. Movie Voice has told you at the beginning), those are real people in real New York. They’re not extras, they’re just standing there, hailing a cab while this movie’s being made. Just another day in New York, just like how you walk by film shoots all the time when you live there. I remember thinking that was cool, buying into the whole of City because of it. Dassin was a Yiddish theatre actor in New York before moving into films, and he was clearly as in love with the city as most people — it’s a very dark movie, but it’s also a movie that shows New York as it is, and I think you have to acknowledge that to really love the city. Or something.
City is also influential because — I’m going to be honest here — I kind of ripped off the whole “second New York” idea from it. The majority of the opening to this movie sets up this idea that there’s a whole other New York, made up of people that commit crimes and the people who try to stop them, people that only come out at night, and each one of them is worthy of their own story. I’m not professing some originality over that idea, but you get the idea. “Rain” is basically a 21st century take on it, in case you hadn’t guessed.
City also features one of the more iconic voice overs in noir, which lives on today in what is probably the Naked City of the modern day, the Law & Order series. Dick Wolf’s more of a Dragnet guy, but there’s a lot of Lennie Briscoe in Barry Fitzgerald’s character, and again, the use of location — Law & Order was, for many years, the only NYC show being shot in New York.
Dassin also did Rififi, which is dark as fuck and features a heist sequence that’s been ripped off since time immemorial, and Thieves’ Highway, which I didn’t like that much, but I did like some of the characters in it (like the bickering rivals), the really tense end sequence which is mostly people sitting around a table, talking, and again, the use of location. I really like how Dassin manages to take noir out of the big city for a film that’s set mostly on the road.
I think, though, the way Dassin uses cities from Montmartre to New York, the way he makes locations feel like actual places and not just sets and the people in the background, the detail of it, is what was the biggest influence on this series. I’m not going to pretend that this is wholy original, but if you’re interested in seeing what I’ll be shamelessly and not so shamelessly borrowing from occasionally during this series, you should check out his stuff. His movies were part of a series of influences that came together during the critical creative development time in writing the pilot and pitch for New York Noir, and I’m grateful that they were, and will continue to be.
Thanks, JD, and sorry that you got fucked so thoroughly by HUAC.
(Dassin was a communist in the 30s who refused to testify before HUAC, but was named in the hearings. He had to leave America after being blacklisted — right as he was working on Night and the City. In the ensuing years, the U.S. government would, apparently, try to block him from even making movies overseas. To which I say: damn.)