I’m not much a fan of sports films. Neither touching tales of team triumph nor moody athletic biopics move me — though I did love Blades of Glory (2007). Film noir is no bastion of athletics, although it does have its share of dark stories of boxers — e.g. Body and Soul (1947), The Set Up (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956). But the boxing film is not at all my favorite subgenre (sorry Rocky).
I much prefer films in which sports are part of a larger thematic, an illustration of issues or tensions dealt with on multiple levels. And that’s why I’ve chosen to discuss Night and the City (1950), Jules Dassin’s unforgettable masterpiece, for Once Upon a Screen’s Athletes in Film Blogathon. In particular, I want to pay homage to the character Gregorius.
Like most fans of the film, I find many of its facets outstanding, from setting and style to amazing performances:
- The way the underside of London is both setting and mood
- Crisp yet shadowy noir cinematography
- Richard Widmark’s compelling portrayal of Harry Fabian, a small-time crook who wants to be a big man
- Googie Withers’ Helen Nosseross, a low-class femme fatale who has to come crawling back to her husband
- Francis L. Sullivan’s slimy Philip Nosseross
The film centers on struggle, with every character trying to get ahead, often at one another’s expense. Among the grifters, gangsters, and cheats, there’s a dark economy of scarcity. No one will admit it, but everyone is playing a zero sum game that means, in the end, that everyone loses.
The character who seems to recognize this most is the one I want to focus on: Gregorius, a legendary Greek classical wrestler, played by US professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko. Gregorius is the father of gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom), who seeks to prove to his father what a big man he is by building a modern wrestling empire, featuring his hot-headed main attraction, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). Gregorius is disgusted by the WWF-style free-for-all his son champions. Widmark’s Fabian steps in between the generations, claiming he will bring classic wrestling back with Gregorius’s prize pupil Nikolas (Ken Richmond) as his star.
The wrestling match we finally see occurs, however, when The Strangler and Gregorius fight, but not in the arena when they’re meant to. Old World fights New World and the result is the destruction of any notion of fair play, with the proud old man winning the battle but losing the war…aka his life.
I love Gregorius’s pride, the way he inspires his son to seek independence yet be appreciated by this literal and figurative mountain of a man. Kristo can’t appreciate his old-world perspective, however, and Fabian lies and exploits Gregorius to a lethal end because of this. Gregorius has to die in this bleak noir world, but only after he has shown himself triumphant in the ring.
Ultimately, Night and the City shows us that the game of life may be rigged at every level, but everyone has to play it out — in whatever arena they can.