I'm always up for a good noir, so when this one floated to the top of my queue I didn't fight it. I had long heard of it, and when I saw it's released by Criterion Collection I got set for something good! And I wasn't let down.
We open with Richard Widmark as Harry running through London, being chased by shadowy men. He hides out at the house of Mary, the typical noir woman who loves shiftless cads and ignores good solid men. He's rifling through her purse for cash when she catches him. He says he was just looking for cigarettes, at which point she lifts the cigarettes in plain view on the table next to her purse. She takes down a picture of the two of them and recalls happier days, and begs Harry to do right, like some other men do. Harry needs five pounds (this is all happening in London) to pay the guy outside, at which point Mary goes upstairs and borrows it from the guy with DECENCY written all over him, who loves her and who she's clearly much happier with, then returns and gives it to Harry.
So Harry goes to work, which consists of him using shifty methods to convince guys to leave whatever nightclub they're at and go to that of his boss, Phil. Harry gets thrown out as a grifter more times than he succeeds. His boss, Phil, is a large man in the Alfred Hitchcock mold who is married to saucy and much younger Helen. She is seen admiring a fur coat in the closet, then Phil has to force himself on her to get a kiss. Mary works at this same club, by the way. One night Harry encounters Gregorious, the most famous Greco-Roman wrestler ever, now retired, and befriends him. This precipitates his brand-new sure-fire scheme: he's going to open. His own club and "control wrestling in all London."
SPOILERS > > >
Now wrinkles start coming fast--so fast I had trouble writing them down. Harry makes a deal with Phil that if Harry can get half the money, Phil will kick in the other half. But Harry can't get anyone to kick in the money. Finally someone appears: Helen, Phil's wife, who burns a flame for Harry, and sees this as her chance to dump Phil and open her own nightclub. And THEN... thugs for Cristo, the guy who CURRENTLY controls wrestling in all of London, stop by and tell Phil to relay a message to Harry: Stay Out of wrestling. Phil notices that Helen is missing about the same time that Harry is, as is the fur she was wearing earlier. In a kind of low-burning but fairly electrifying moment, he puts together what's going on. When Harry shows up, Phil doesn't tell him the thugs stopped by, and gladly gives him the money to GO into wrestling!
So Harry thinks things are finally working out for him, and he opens his own gym and starts training with Gregorious' son. Meanwhile Phil is advised by Cristo's men to get Harry out, at which point he hatches an additional plan. He will force Harry to take on The Strangler, a rival wrestler, and get him to fight Gregorious, which will offend Cristo's control of the scene and result in Harry's doom. Harry is forced to go along, and hatches an ingenious plan to get the two wrestlers to want to fight each other to resolve a grudge. But Harry needs money to stage this fight, and this is when Phil reveals that he's arranged all this to screw Harry over for stealing his woman. He tells Harry that "He's got it all... But he's a dead man."
A desperate Harry breaks into Mary's apartment to steal her savings. She catches him, but he doesn't care, and steals it right in front of her. He goes to his gym, where The Strangler has shown up, furious that Gregorious has boasted against him. The wrester's macho posturing amps up, and they start going at it right then. Harry and others try to stop them, but they can't, it's on, and the match of the century is going to happen right then, in private, before any of them can make any money on it. And it does... In one big electrifying scene, the two men have a massive grudge match, Harry watches helplessly as his big fight goes right down the tubes in front of him, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. It's a knock-down, drag-out fight, and Gregorious finally wins! Then staggers out of the ring... and... DIES! It is over in a huge way for Harry, and word immediately gets out of how Harry arranged it all. Now Gregorious' son is out to kill Harry to avenge his father.
Phil gets the news, turns around and takes a deep breath of satisfaction. He sits down and lights a cigar to savor his moment. You have to love such bald-faced schadenfreude. Then Helen walks out on him, being quite nasty and cutting, sure that everything is working out for her. She's not long into her new nightclub before she discovers that the license Harry got for her is a fake. Now she's looking at crawling back to Phil with her tail between her legs. And as for Harry... He can barely move about in public, as everyone is out to kill him or turn him in.
< < < SPOILERS END
I've already spoiled too much, so I'll let you discover the ending yourself, which excellently wraps everything up in a way determined by all the inescapable circumstances Harry has created for himself.
It was brilliant! This is not a noir in the sense of private eyes and double-crossing dames, but it certainly is in the sense of a man doomed by his nature and inability to go straight, rearranging his circumstances, but ultimately all leading to his own doom. Not to mention the gorgeous and beautifully-composed black and white photography. It reminded me of another standout noir, Pickup on South Street, because of its intricately intertwined mix of compelling characters, all with their own clearly-delineated motivations that weave together into a pattern that can only result in Harry's doom. What this one has, and makes the most of, is that random element of the centerpiece fight, this out-of-control event that blows away all the best-laid plans and leaves everyone devastated. That's an ingenious device, because whereas most noirs are tightly controlled and we watch the elements lock into place, here, at a certain point, everything just EXPLODES and the characters are left to scramble in the wreckage.
Jules Dassin is famous for Rififi and Topkapi, Gene Tierney is best known for for her leading role in the romantic noir Laura, and Widmark is famed for his roles in Pickup on South Street and Judgment at Nuremberg. He is cast perfectly here, and the movie takes marvelous advantage of his terribly expressive face, which easily conveys blind stupidity and desperate belief that his schemes will work out THIS time. It's an amazing showcase role, and a smart actor out there should be arranging a remake right now and clearing space for his eventual Oscar. If you like noir, want to see the best ones, or just want to plan on a sure-fire night with the old movies, put this to the top of your list.
YES! It's a justified and worthy noir classic.