"Harry's an artist without an art . . . That's something that would make a man very unhappy . . . groping for the right lever, the means with which to express himself." This is how Richard Widmark's character, Harry Fabian, is described at the beginning of 1950's Night and the City. As a supreme example of film noir, Harry and other characters are always presented with choices but they inevitably lead to disappointment and a doom rendered sharper by the guilt attendant upon the choices they made to get there. It's a beautifully shot, anxious film about what happens to people who aren't lucky in socially or culturally acceptable ways.
Harry's an American living in London as is his girlfriend Mary, played by Gene Tierney. They both work for a night club called The Silver Fox where Mary sings while Harry roams the town hustling people into visiting the club. Harry's art might simply be talking--again and again throughout the film, we watch him manipulate people into voluntarily doing exactly what he wants them to do, whether its people going to The Silver Fox or two wrestlers deciding to fight despite having sworn never to fight each other. The only two people Harry can't seem to manipulate are Phil, owner of The Silver Fox, and Kristo, a gangster who controls all wrestling in the city. When Kristo's father, a famous wrestler, is offended by his son's use of modern wrestling gimmicks, Harry sees an opportunity to take over the racket and convinces the old man to work with him.
Of course it all ends in disaster but not before Harry compromises what few morals he has to try to avert it. Shot with gorgeous, expressionistic darkness, the film features a lot of location shooting in London. The film was directed by Jules Dassin, who directed The Naked City a couple years earlier, a Hollywood film unique for its time in being almost totally shot on location in New York City. There's plenty of scenes shot in studio in Night and the City, but the film nonetheless features a remarkable amount of footage of the actors in London, usually Harry running through back alleys or across large, familiar spaces marked by shadow. But Night and the City surpasses The Naked City in character and performances. The only decent performance in The Naked City was given by Barry Fitzgerald, and his character wasn't especially interesting. The people in Night and the City are vivid, sometimes ruthless, but never inhuman.
One of the negative critical reactions cited in Wikipedia says, "there is only one character in it for whom a decent, respectable person can give a hoot." Presumably referring to Mary, who's not actually in the movie very much and is essentially a saint. So often the complaints against "unsympathetic" characters seem to come from people who think people who never do anything they might later be ashamed of are sympathetic characters. One of the great accomplishments of film noir is that it shows just what a wrong, and kind of scary, point of view that is. Such people are either really good at mentally blocking their own transgressions or they're people who have lived lives of such good fortune they've never been forced to make hard choices.
Two people in the film remark on how Harry's brilliant plans and actions are futile because he's effectively a dead man already, and the shadows in the cinematography visually help emphasise this. He's a dead man because of Kristo's gang chasing him, but that's just detail. The fact is, as everyone knew, Harry had no way to go from the beginning. He's a piece that doesn't fit in the city's puzzle and mostly he's the only one who sees any reason for him to exist at all, as he's acutely aware. Eventually his desperate struggle ends, but not before he takes actions in his desperation that lead to him hating himself. He's an imperfect man, brought brilliantly to life and death in this dark, insightful masterpiece of a film.