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Night and the City (1950)
Night and the City is a gripping psychological crime-drama in the best film-noir tradition. The taut, fast-paced plot takes us to the seedy back streets and dingy night-clubs of post world-war two London, where two-bit street hustler Harry Fabian scrounges for a, "life of ease and plenty." Richard Widmark brings a frenetic energy to his role as Harry. He plays Fabian as a high-strung bundle of nerves, never missing a beat as Harry's mood swings run the gauntlet from giddy hysteria to suicidal despair.
Harry impresses with his sharp sports coats and slick banter, but the big score always seems to elude his grasp. He stumbles into a scheme to succeed as a big-time wrestling promoter, but can't swing the deal for lack of cash. Girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) is a jaded barmaid still longing for a decent life. She's heard it all before, and refused to help. Double dealing business partner Phil (Francis Sullivan) sees Harry as a foolish but dangerous rival - one who must be stopped. Phil's wife Helen (Googie Withers) plays the seductive vamp, planning to use Harry for her own purposes. Fabian finally meets his nemesis when he runs afoul of Kristo (Herbert Lom), the local wrestling king-pin.
While there is no gun-play, we still get plenty of action and suspense. The theme of the film is summed up in a brutal wrestling match, where the "truth and beauty" of Greco-Roman wrestling is pitted against the cheap and phony modern style. The finale sees Harry lurching through the urban landscape, unable to out-run his pursuers or his self-loathing. For one brief moment he teeters on the edge of redemption, but in the end he can't avoid his fated destiny.
Night and the City is notable for its wonderful noir mood and atmosphere. Director Jules Dassin sets the tone right from the opening credits, where flickering titles printed in tiny neon lights blink out from the fog-shrouded London night. Shot on location in moody black & white cinematography, the movie exudes a hard and gritty realism. Tilted camera angles and shadowy lighting place us smack in the center of Harry's corrupt and desperate world.
A recent DVD release should result in more exposure for this seldom seen gem. Night and the City stands as a fine introduction to the film-noir genre, as well as a must-see for the hard-core fan. Recommended.
Song jia huang chao (1997)
Highly entertaining Asian Cinema
Modern Chinese History forms the backdrop for this sweeping portrait of the Soong Sisters, three siblings who married powerful men and used their positions to influence the politics of early 20th Century China. The film spans the period from the formation of the Chinese Republic in 1911 to the take-over by the Communists in 1949. The details of history take a back seat to the real focus of this movie, however, which delves into the intricate and intimate relationships these women have with their husbands, their parents, and each other.
Lushly photographed and superbly acted, the movie showcases the talents of three veteran actors of Asian Cinema. Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Vivian Wu play sisters Ai-ling, Ching-ling, and May-ling Soong. All three seem well-cast and bring the full weight of their skill and experience to their roles. The move sizzles with electricity when these three beauties appear on screen together, as they do in several scenes. This is definitely a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Wen Jian gives an outstanding performance as father Charlie Soong, despite dying off half-way through the story. The death-bed scene, where he passes away in the presence of his wife and three daughters, is especially moving. Winston Chao and Hsing-Kuo Wu take sold turns as Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek.
The story explores a number of themes in both a personal and social/historical context. Conflicts between father/daughter, old values/new values, old China/new China, and East/West all figure prominently in the plot. A shoe metaphor runs through-out the film, depicting the step-by-step movement of Chinese history, bringing to mind the old Chinese proverb, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." This motif also reflects the increased role of women in Chinese social and political life, as they are liberated from the foot-binding that hobbled previous generations.
The movie is slow-moving at times, with some abrupt plot transitions. Director Mabel Cheung occasionally hits us over the head with that shoe to get her point across, and the script seems to contain some hints of political propaganda. Nevertheless, I found this to be a well-made and highly entertaining piece of Asian Cinema. Sadly, this movie is not likely to reach a wide North American audience because it's in Mandarin with English sub-titles. That's too bad, because it is just as accomplished as anything coming out of Hollywood these days, and well worth seeing.