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Released during the golden age of film noir, Jules Dassin’s captivating movie about Harry Fabian, a local conman trying to get rich quick, no matter the cost, wasn’t received warmly by critics when it first debuted. Once described as “pointless, trashy,” this movie has since been acknowledged as being an incredibly executed delve into themes of success, masculinity and so much more. It’s Dassin’s first movie after he was exiled from America for communist politics, and has a kind of bite we didn’t see in his earlier work. While I’m hesitant to call the movie cynical, it definitely doesn’t shy away from the fatalist, tragic endings film noir is known for. As we follow Fabian deeper and deeper into London’s wrestling underworld, audiences are forced to look at the true cost of success. With some phenomenal visuals, incredible acting and a great script, this is one movie you must watch!
Richard Widmark’s performance here is one for the ages. He has such a phenomenal range of emotions, which is on full display as we watch Harry’s downfall. His face is incredibly expressive, playing the swindler with a ton of commitment. There might not be much to like about this character—he’s selfish, shortsighted and ruthlessly ambitious—but Widmark plays the role with so much sincerity that audiences can’t help but be on his side. By the end, we feel so invested in this character, which adds that much more gravity to his struggle. When he says “I just want to be somebody,” we can’t help but feel our heartstrings get pulled. The supporting cast is also fantastic, with Francis L. Sullivan playing a fantastic villain, imposing himself on every scene with bone-chilling authority. Gene Tierney’s a fantastic love interest, providing some great moments of tenderness that help color the way viewers navigate the overall film. Through her, we understand just how twisted Harry’s worldview is, how he’s willing to cross anybody for a chance to make it big, and it’s this knowledge that makes the ending so painfully beautiful. Like all of film noir, this great acting is further supported by some stunning visuals.
You can’t talk about Film noir without talking about German Expressionism, which was the first notable instance of cinematographers trying to capture the interior lives of characters. This style had a huge influence on American filmmaking; and as Harry runs through dark, empty alleys, across cobblestone streets awash in shadows brought by high-contrast lighting, we definitely feel a kind of lineage between the two styles. This attention to light and shadow, often called chiaroscuro, both sets the emotional tone, creating a tragic mood, while also speaking to themes within the film itself. The way black and white interact in this film, constantly clashing and blending, reflects Harry’s unstable world, the darkness constantly creeping in. It’s a visual language that deepens our understanding of the characters’ psychological and emotional landscapes, adding yet another layer of humanity and endearing us to him even more.
Thrilling in some scenes, heart wrenching in others, this movie is just as fun to re-watch as it is to see for the first time. The pacing is something to behold; it’s lightning quick, guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. The British version is available here via YouTube, and the American version is available via the Criterion Collection. The cuts are very similar, with only a few scenes cut out by British censors. If you stream one movie this week, I hope it’s this one! Don’t forget to subscribe to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent.