Jules Dassin understood cities. Like a number of his contemporaries whose background was in film noir, he knew how to shoot urban environments to make them both enticing and menacing.
Being blacklisted during the purge of dissident voices in Hollywood during the late 1940 and 1950s meant that Dassin worked increasingly in Europe until his death. Luckily, at the time he was blacklisted, the film he was working on was Night and the City (1950), a vital portrayal of London on screen that required extensive location work away from the Hollywood backlot. It would be his last production for several years before returning with his classic French heist film, Rififi (1955).
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Night and the City follows an American in London, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark). Fabian is a club promoter for Phil (Francis L. Sullivan) and his waspish partner Helen (Googie Withers). But he’s down on his luck, his dreams in tatters. Mary (Gene Tierney) is desperate for him to settle down, but a chance encounter at a wrestling match allows him to hustle his way up the wrestling circuit as a promoter for a new club. With wrestling in the city controlled by the mobbish Kristo (Herbert Lom), how long can Harry’s luck hold out before the pressures and betrayals of his life catch up with him?
Seventy years after the release of this classic British noir, I went to track down the London locations today. Here’s how they compare.
St Martin’s Lane
An array of London locations feature from the off in Dassin’s film but the most prominent one early on also features as a famous promotional still. On his way to work hustling customers into The Silver Fox club near Covent Garden, we see a shot of Harry running casually down a busy street. The street in question is St Martin’s Lane looking down towards the spire of St Martin-in-the-Fields and illuminated by the extravagant ornamentations of the London Coliseum. The road is little changed architecturally though is now mostly dominated by fast food chains.
Great Windmill Street
When Harry finally gets the money he needs to open his wrestling club, he sets up straight away. Though the premises feature extensively from this point on, we only get a glimpse of outside, and a brief sense of where it’s supposed to be, through a short shot of Harry’s sign being lowered proudly over the new venue. This shot seems to be taken from a high angle at the southern start of Great Windmill Street looking north towards Shaftesbury Avenue. Today, the venue is a Five Guys restaurant while the building directly to the right is Picturehouse Central.
For a meeting in which all seems set to go awry, Harry is about to prove his malicious boss wrong by successfully fixing a fight between two very different wrestlers. For the meeting place, they choose the fountains at Trafalgar Square. St Martin-in-the-Fields can again be seen in the background.
Later in the film, Harry is desperate for money and knows that Mary has enough hidden in her flat for his latest venture. He tricks her into going out in search of him via a phone call from the phone-box outside where she lives. We subsequently see her hailing a taxi. The building she lives in is likely to have been demolished, being next to the Shaw & Kilburn car services behind Berkeley Square. However, the road she finds a taxi on is Dean Street in Soho. Although undergoing massive redevelopment, the spot is just about recognisable thanks to the turret of the building now occupied by Pizza Express. Everything else about the street is sadly changed beyond recognition.
The film’s brilliant finale takes place around Hammersmith Bridge. Having finally exhausted himself fleeing from the vengeful Kristo and his mob after the death of Kristo’s father (Stanislaus Zbyszko), Harry takes refuge in the boat of a friend on the Thames. We see many different shots of the bridge but a few stand out. The first is after the final tragedy of the film when we see Mary grief-stricken and crouched by the wall of a pub. The pub is The Blue Anchor and, though spruced up with potted plants, the view is largely unchanged today.
Another interesting shot shows the police arriving on the scene along with Mary’s neighbour Adam (Hugh Marlowe) to look for her. The shot is taken nearer the bridge, looking up the road of Lower Mall parallel to Hammersmith Bridge. Everything is virtually as it was, even the lampposts, though it’s now a car park for the neighbouring flats.
For such a dark film, Dassin chooses to end on a surprisingly optimistic note. In the final moments, Mary and Adam walk away from the tragedy, perhaps to start a new life. They stride along the bridge as the sun rises over London, their troubles washing downriver and beyond.