Greed, deception and unrequited love. What more could you want? Richard Widmark leads as an American wide-boy trying to get rich quick in post-war London, hustling friends and strangers alike with the promise of “a life of ease and plenty”. His success in the role is patchy, his manic desperation as the film progresses is of pivotal importance but he doesn’t convey charm anywhere near as well as Machiavellian quick-wittedness.
The speed with which the story moves is amazing considering the depth which is achieved. The film opens with Harry Fabian (Widmark) running and seems to move at the same relentless pace right through to its climax. He even says at one point “I’ve been running all of my life”. It is a very Graham Greene-type story filled with impressive minor characters- Figler the King of the Beggars, Googin the Forger, Anna O’Leary and Molly the Flower Lady- and teems with anger and frustration (expressed in every Widmark moment) and a resignation that the underworld will proceed with little obstruction by the force of law. There is no-one in the film to root for, they’re all bad. Even the non-criminal characters, Mary and Adam (Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe) are sappy and unappealing. At least the hoods have a spark of life in them!
The film, by Jules Dassin- a personal favourite of mine, features a number of memorable scenes including a tremendously realised wrestle between Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), a wonderful sequence from the rear of an open-topped car as one of Kristo’s hoods spreads a message to street dwellers and the final chase through the dimly lit and foggy backstreets of London is perfect noir. The narrative is clear but never condescending and the mood is consistent throughout with great performances and really well designed and exeuted shots.
In the supporting roles, Herbert Lom (brooding magnificently as Kristos) and Francis L. Sullivan (Mr Jaggers from David Lean’s wonderful Great Expectations) are crucial as counterpoints to Widmark. His unchannelled ambition and enthusiastic self-promotion are contrasted nicely by the men who he wants to rival, intimidating and ruthless with the quiet confidence of men with power they show Fabian up for the callow chancer that he is. That Sullivan’s character (the bizarrely named Nosseross) is also in a loveless marriage of convenience that he desperately wants to transform into a real love affair simply adds further depth to his performance.
Unrequited love and the exploitation of it is another theme which Dassin depicts in all it’s sordidness. Nosseross, as I’ve said, loves his wife- though he does describe her at one point as “bought and paid for”- and she exploits this with no kind feelings. When she leaves him he says to himself “No, Helen, you’ll come back. And I’ll want to take you back”. Fabian exploits Mary’s love for him and even she in turn doesn’t share the feelings that Adam has for her. This is an uncompromising and bleakly cynical film full of unsympathetic characters without scruple or conscience. A great uncovering of a very real underworld culture.
The bleakness inherent in this film- and perhaps all great noirs- is beautifully expressed in its expressionistic use of dramatic monochrome staging. A tremendous picture- 8/10.