Human Flower Project

Harry Fabian’s Carnation

Director Jules Dassin used a white boutonniere to reveal Harry Fabian, the dapper, desperate protagonist of his 1950 film Night and the City.

imageHarry Fabian (Richard Widmark) with his gentlemanly white carnation prepares to run a scam at the Cafe Anglais

Night and the City gets pegged as film noir. Yes, there are fedoras and grime, lots of cigarette smoke, a shady lady, and mean streets (London’s). But Jules Dassin’s 1950 film shocked us out of all those “she done him wrong” expectations. Scenes are too peculiar and the characters too diverse, original and vivid to fit any genre.

“Character study,” we think, comes closest: the movie is the most accurate depiction we’ve ever seen of the compulsive gambler. There are no suspenseful card games a la The Cincinnati Kid,  no plots around the match-up of rivals as in The Hustler, or Karate-Kid-style relationships, like the Paul Newman/Tom Cruise pairing of The Color of Money. Dassin understands that gambling addiction isn’t a function of money, games of chance or skill—it’s a head trip.

Richard Widmark gives us the crazy truth: his Harry Fabian lives, like all gambling addicts, in a dreamworld of his own doomed schemes. Over-the-top? We don’t think so. Widmark’s childishness and fever, eyes bugged out with sleeplessness, are real. This is what gamblers look and sound like, when hostage to their own ambition (or is it lack of ambition?).

Harry’s unable to see himself or anyone else because he’s always looking for angles, calculating the next shortcut to nowhere. In the film, his every failure hatches a new, more grandiose fantasy of success—it’s just that Harry needs money to get his sure-bets off the ground. He comes on like a big shot but is always on the mooch – begging a crime boss to stake him, stealing money from his girlfriend’s purse, even helping himself to another boutonniere from the street vendor. “Put it on my account!” Harry calls out, swaggering into a nightclub.

imageThe opening scene of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, featuring Richard Widmark and a white carnation

Photo: via Youtube

The white carnation punctuates Dassin’s dark film, making Night and the City, with all its greater designs, a human flower project, too. In the opening scene, we see a lone figure scampering through the London night. Harry is escaping from one of a thousand ruses. Emerging from an alley, he sees his boutonniere drop in the street; he scuttles back to retrieve it. Reaching down and poking the flower at his lapel, straining to see if his pursuers have gained on him, Harry then slithers up a dark entry way. Safe again, for now…

“I always thought his stopping to pick up the carnation was meant to show how misplaced his values were!” wrote one commenter on youtube (You can watch the whole opening scene here.)

Well put. It’s another way of saying that compulsive gamblers lose all sense of proportion—of reality. Eventually, they aren’t in it for the money. Their drive is to stay in action and, despite everything, maintain the image of “a winner.” (Late in the film, Harry will fondle a brass name plate and lay it lovingly on the desk in his new “office,” a little gray room off a boxing ring.)

imageHarry tries to run a deal with vixen Helen Nosseross, played by Googie Withers

In scenes sprinkled throughout Night and the City, director Jules Dassin has Widmark sport the white carnation: as he tries to wheedle more money out of a weary Gene Tierney, makes excuses for a late loan repayment, haggles with a potential ally—the marvelous and cobra-like Googie Withers.

The white flower is this gambler’s spot of dreamlight—Harry’s affectation of success—and he’ll do anything to keep it aglow.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/27 at 02:27 PM


Brilliant piece, Julie! Carnations are ‘tightly packed’ and ‘closed’, a perfect metaphor for the compulsive gambler on a highway to nowhere. Boutonnieres are the only truly acceptable decoration for male characters in movies (and in life) though floral neckties do occasionally creep in, and Clint Eastwood wears a very gorgeous floral shirt in a number of scenes in ‘Play Misty for Me’.

Usually, the flower in the buttonhole is a carnation but Fred Astaire sports a cornflower in ‘Top Hat’ (the ‘Isn’t It A Lovely Day’ number) and Bogart favours a daisy when he toasts Bergman (“Here’s Looking At You, Kid’)in ‘Casablanca’.

And speaking of daisies, Maureen Delaney, who appears belatedly but memorably as Anna in ‘Night in the City’ was the greatly Abbey Theatre actress known to one and all as ‘Daisy Delaney’ and I think a daisy or two is visible in her scenes, as they were in her equally stunning performance as the duplicitous brothel madame in ‘Odd Man Out’three years previously.

I can’t wait to take another look at N&C this weekend. More floral movie history, please, Julie.
And did you know there is a new book out on Movies and Nature?


Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/07 at 02:19 PM
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