this is a great film. it stars richard widmark as a “two bit hustler” who’s always on the brink of something big; and it’s directed by jules dassin (rififi, thieves’ highway), who is rapidly rising in my book. widmark’s latest scheme would have him running all the wrestling in london if he could just get the money and talent in place without allowing the whole thing to fall apart in the process.
widmark is great in the role. his big forehead and toothy smile add to his character’s seedy methodology and personality. on one level the film is about a desperate man with great talent, but without a proper trade. on another level it’s about the struggle between art, entertainment and money. the art is represented by old-school wrestler gregorious the great (zbyszko), the entertainment is represented by the new school wrestler “the strangler (mazurki),” and pitting the two against each other is widmark – the capitalistic promoter. which brings me to the score… there are two versions of the film – one is a british cut and the other is american. franz waxman scores the american cut and that’s the one that i saw and dassin approved. the other is done by some european guy named frankel who was fairly prolific at the time. waxman’s score is big, bold, powerful and dynamic. frankel’s is much more subdued, small and sometimes almost whimsical or mysterious. frankel chooses to not score such scenes as the final chase which gives the film a more docu-drama feel to it – like kansas city confidential or he walked by night. in this chase scene waxman uses fast, repetitive brass to indicate the urgency of the situation, followed by deep, slower brass to indicate the seemingly impending capture. i think that waxman’s score is better for the film since it lends the film a larger meaning which is fitting when you consider the art vs. entertainment motif.
also during that chase sequence we see widmark descending several sets of staircases, which obviously indicates the character’s descent…the chase also occurs on the outskirts of town which further indicates widmark’s exile. one of the more clever shots, though, is when widmark is actually ascending a staircase later in the pursuit. dassin does a brilliant, but simple thing. while widmark ascends the staircase from right to left, dassin slowly turns the camera counterclockwise by 90 degrees so that it looks like widmark is looking down at the ground and is going down the stairs, rather than up.
from this: to this:
the film is also filled with interesting, vibrant secondary characters from phil, the club owner, and his wife who tries to use widmark to get away from her husband, to gregorious the great and his sellout son. it’s a fun film to watch, but it’s also full of typically fateful noir themes. actually, it’s fun to watch in part because it’s so fateful, not in spite of that fact. when the club owner’s wife leaves him she tells him not to worry – “a week will go by and then a month…” the implication being that time treads on and he’ll have gotten over her. he replies by saying something like: “no, you’ll come back and i’ll want to take you back.” as if he knows he shouldn’t, but knows that he’ll have to because he needs her despite his better judgment.
there are some slower moments, but overall the picture has a good flow to it which is buoyed by a solid, deep cast, a vibrant score and a compelling visual style.