Posts Tagged ‘Gene Tierney’

Night and the City (1950)

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Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is often noted as a seminal noir, an early example of the British version of a classically American genre that pits bad guys against worse guys. It’s an extraordinarily pessimistic film, its central character just as unlikable as the villains who surround him.

Richard Widmark is Harry Fabian, a small-time hustler who works at the Silver Fox Club, where his girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) is a singer. Fabian’s main purpose is to find a way to live a “life of plenty,” which to him means slowly conning his way up the criminal social ladder. To this end, he decides to become a wrestling promoter, taking business away from the local magnate Kristo (Herbert Lom) by enlisting the latter’s father to train wrestlers. Subterfuge piles on subterfuge: Harry obtains his start-up money from his boss’s wife Helen (Googie Whithers) by promising to help her get a license to start her own nightclub and leave her husband Phil (Francis L. Sullivan, doing his Sidney Greenstreet impression). But all of Harry’s machinations threaten to destroy him, as he sweet-talks one dangerous criminal after another and places himself, and everyone connected to him, in harm’s way.

Night and the City‘s complex plot belies its fairly short running time, with a lot of plot development packed into a very small space. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it film: one minute Harry is on top of the world, the next in the gutter trying to talk his way out again. It’s hard to root for anyone here except perhaps Mary, who suffers mightily at the hands of a man who refuses to see that he’s always going to a failure. Just as Harry is supremely unlikable, the other villains have levels of pathos: Kristos is tortured by his father’s abandonment, Phil passionately in love with a wife who hates him, Helen desperate to escape from a loveless marriage. The film’s climax is inevitable without being predictable: Harry is doomed and everyone but him knows it from the start. There is no hope underlying Night and the City’s pessimism: the criminals have almost no fear of the law, but each of them is trapped in their personal hells of ambition.

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One of the most striking and brutal scenes occurs between Kristos’s father Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). The two competing wrestlers tussle together for an extended sequence that is fascinating and painful to watch: this is real wrestling, not the staged matches that Kristos specializes in. The camera documents their fight with an unflinching gaze, bringing us so close that you can almost smell the blood and sweat. If this film has an argument, it’s present in this one climactic moment. Forgotten are Harry’s fancy word games and Kristos’s gangland posturing; the melodrama that has been played out for most of the film falls back in the face of a brutal match between two men who are treated as animals. As with the rest of the film, there’s no one to root for: it’s violence without purpose, compelling and meaningless.

Night and the City’s reputation has certainly been earned: it’s an influential film with a strong cast and striking images that will be played out, in different forms, across cinematic history. It’s not one to end an evening on, though: few films are as hopeless as a European film noir, and in this one it’s hard to even cry for the loss of innocence. This is a film where innocence does not even exist.

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In case you missed it, I’ve got a bit of thing going on with Vincent Price. It was entirely unintentional, but whenever I want a movie that is guaranteed to be delightful without being too terribly serious, I go for something starring Mr. Price.  Because Vincent Price is cooler than you or me, and he knows it.

So imagine my excitement when I realized that I had not sene THE movie that more or less made Vincent Price into Vincent Price. That is to say, up until Dragonwyck, Price had been a standard supporting player, appearing mostly as second-class villains or smarmy pretty boys (Laura). Despite a pretty creepy turn in Samuel Fuller’s Shock, a non-villainous part in The House Of The Seven Gables with George Sanders, and a few minor villain roles, Price had not quite become the gothic creeper we all know and love.

dragonwyck großartigThen along came Dragonwyck.  Price plays Nicholas Van Ryn, a New York landlord with medieval sensibilities who falls (kind of) for his distant cousin Miranda (Gene Tierney). But Van Ryn’s wife (Connie Marshall) is in the way, so he’s got to get rid of her before he can marry his pretty cousin and ruin her life too.  Meanwhile, the tenants of Van Ryn’s land want out of their rather feudal contract with their master – and are trying to get there with the help of the hunky local doctor (Glenn Langan), who’s also falling for Miranda.

Dragonwyck represents Price’s first real foray into the realm of the gothic villain.  His Van Ryn is charming and frigid, a vindictive head-case with delusions about his place in society. He’s a snob, a vicious landlord, a classist, a suppressor of men’s rights, and an apparent believer in the droit de seigneur.  He’s also positively gorgeous in a way that I did not really think Vincent Price was capable of being.

But although I watched Dragonwyck for Price, the movie really belongs to Gene Tierney, who plays a sympathetic and remarkably strong young woman.  It’s understandable how the daughter of a Connecticut farmer and minister (played, by the way, by Walter Huston, just because) could be seduced by her handsome, wealthy cousin.  But at no point does Miranda fall into the common position of gothic heroines.  She stands up to her autocratic husband, despising and loving him at the same time.  As her illusions are stripped away, she does not become less powerful but more so.dragonwyck

Dragonwyck is a surprising film.  It could very easily have fallen into a typical gothic tale of innocence assaulted and corrupted.  But none of the characters are stereotypes.  Miranda’s father preaches at her, then softens, saying, “Indulge me.  You won’t have to put up with me much longer.”  Huston plays him as a decent, God-fearing man who wants very much to give his daughter what she desires, even if it does not tally with his beliefs.  He is in direct contrast with Van Ryn, who does not believe in God but in himself.  This is not just hubris – it is a fundamental aspect of Van Ryn’s character that is more tragic than dangerous.  He’s a man imprisoned by his ancestors and wholly incapable of escaping them.

So Dragonwyck exceeds its gothic underpinnings. While there are the requisite secret rooms, creepy servants and haunting portraits, the film produces a complex tale of power and religion, love and possession, the sickly past and potential for the future.  It’s a fascinating film, and not just because Vincent Price is beautiful.  Although, there’s that too.

1946 Dragonwyck [El castillo de Dragonwyck] - Joseph L. Mankiewicz - [DVDrip] [XviD 640x480x30] [[01-34-05]