Director Dassin later confessed that he never read the novel the movie is based upon. In an interview appearing on The Criterion Collection DVD release, Dassin recalls that the casting of Tierney was in response to a request by Darryl Zanuck, who was concerned that personal problems had rendered the actress "suicidal," and hoped that work would improve her state of mind. The film's British version was five minutes longer, with a more upbeat ending and featuring a completely different film score. Dassin endorsed the American version as closer to his vision.
The film contains a very tough and prolonged fight scene between Stanislaus Zbyszko, a celebrated professional wrestler in real life, and Mike Mazurki, who before becoming an actor was himself a professional wrestler, which leads to the death of Zbyszko's character.
Harry Fabian (Widmark) is an ambitious American hustler and con man operating in London, always looking for a better deal. He maintains a fractured relationship with the honest Mary Bristol (Tierney), nightclub owner and businessman Phil Nosseross (Sullivan), and Helen (Withers), who is Phil's estranged wife. While attempting a con at a wrestling match, Fabian witnesses Gregorius (Zbyszko), a veteran Greek wrestler, arguing with his son Kristo (Lom), who has organised the fight, and who effectively controls all wrestling in London. After denouncing Kristo's event as tasteless exhibitionism that shames the sport's Greco-Roman traditions, Gregorius leaves with Nikolas (Richmond), a fellow wrestler. Fabian catches up with the two and befriends them, having realised that he can host wrestling in London without interference from Kristo if he can persuade his father to support the enterprise.
Fabian approaches Phil and Helen with his proposal, then asks for an investment. Incredulous, Phil offers to provide half of the required £400, if Fabian can equal it. Desperate, Fabian asks Figler, a panhandler and unofficial head of an informal society of street criminals, Googin, a forger, and Anna, a Thameside smuggler, but none can offer any help. Fabian is eventually approached by Helen, who offers the £200 in exchange for a licence to continue running her own nightclub, having obtained the money by selling an expensive fur Phil recently bought for her. Fabian agrees, but tricks Helen by having Googin forge the licence. Meanwhile, Phil is visited by associates of Kristo, who warn him to keep Fabian away from London's wrestling scene. Already suspecting Helen of duplicity, Phil neglects to warn Fabian, who proceeds to open his own gym with Gregorius and Nikolas as the stars, and Phil as a silent partner.
A furious Kristo visits the gym, only to discover that his father is supporting Fabian's endeavour. Meeting with Phil, the two plot to kill Fabian, but realise that they can only do so if Gregorius leaves Fabian. Phil meets with Fabian and removes his backing, suggesting that Fabian get Nikolas and The Strangler (Mazurki), a showy wrestler favoured by Kristo, into the ring together to keep the business going, knowing that Gregorius would never allow it. Finding The Strangler's manager, Mickey Beer (Farrell), Fabian convinces him to support the fight, and taunts The Strangler into confronting Gregorius and Nikolas. Gregorius agrees to the fight, convinced by Fabian that it will prove that his style of wrestling is superior. Beer asks Fabian for £200 to cover his fee, so Fabian asks Phil for the money. Instead, Phil calls Kristo, informing him that The Strangler is in Fabian's gym.
Betrayed, Fabian steals the money from Mary, and returns to the gym. However, The Strangler goads Gregorius into a prolonged and brutal fight, during which Nikolas' wrist is broken. Gregorius eventually defeats The Strangler in the ring as Kristo arrives, but dies minutes later in his son's arms from exhaustion. Seeing that both his business and protection are lost, Fabian flees.
In revenge of his father's death, Kristo puts a £1,000 bounty on Fabian's head, sending word to all of London's underworld. Fabian is hunted through the night, first by Kristo's men, then by Figler, who attempts to trap Fabian for the reward. Convinced that her licence is authentic, Helen leaves Phil, only to discover that the work is a worthless forgery. She returns to Phil in desperation, only to discover that he has committed suicide, leaving everything to Molly (Reeve), the club's elderly cleaner and flower stand operator.
Fabian eventually finds shelter at Anna's, but has already been tracked down by Kristo. Mary arrives, and Fabian attempts to redeem himself by shouting to Kristo that Mary betrayed him, so that she will get the reward. As he runs towards where Kristo is standing on Hammersmith Bridge, he is caught and killed by The Strangler, who throws his body into the Thames. The Strangler is arrested moments later, and Kristo walks away from the scene.Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian
Gene Tierney as Mary Bristol (singing voice was dubbed by Maudie Edwards)
Googie Withers as Helen Nosseross
Hugh Marlowe as Adam Dunne
Francis L. Sullivan as Phil Nosseross, Silver Fox Club
Herbert Lom as Kristo
Stanislaus Zbyszko as Gregorius the Great
Mike Mazurki as The Strangler
Ada Reeve as Molly
Charles Farrell as Mickey Beer
Ken Richmond as Nikolas of Athens
Edward Chapman as Hoskins
The film has been noted as ground breaking in its lack of sympathetic characters, the deadly punishment of its protagonist (in the American version), and especially in its realistic portrayal of triumph by racketeers neither slowed nor at all worried by the machinations of law. Critics of the time did not react well; typical was Bosley Crowther's review in The New York Times, which read in part,
[Dassin's] evident talent has been spent upon a pointless, trashy yarn, and the best that he has accomplished is a turgid pictorial grotesque...he tried to bluff it with a very poor script—and failed...[the screenplay] is without any real dramatic virtue, reason or valid story-line...little more than a melange of maggoty episodes having to do with the devious endeavors of a cheap London night-club tout to corner the wrestling racket—an ambition in which he fails. And there is only one character in it for whom a decent, respectable person can give a hoot.
The film was first re-evaluated in the 1960s, as film noir became a celebrated genre, and it has continued to receive laudatory reviews to date. Writing for Slant Magazine, Nick Schager said,
Jules Dassin's 1950 masterpiece was his first movie after being exiled from America for alleged communist politics, and the unpleasant ordeal seems to have infused his work with a newfound resentment and pessimism, as the film—about foolhardy scam-artist Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) and his ill-advised attempts to become a big shot—brims with anger, anxiousness, and a shocking dose of unadulterated hatred.
In The Village Voice, film critic Michael Atkinson wrote, "...the movie's a moody piece of Wellesian chiaroscuro (shot by Max Greene, né Mutz Greenbaum) and an occasionally discomfiting underworld plunge, particularly when the mob-controlled wrestling milieu explodes into a kidney-punching donnybrook."
In Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir film critic Andrew Dickos acclaims it as one of the seminal noirs of the classical period. noting, "... in a perfect fusion of mood and character, Dassin created a work of emotional power and existential drama that stands as a paradigm of noir pathos and despair."
The Academy Film Archive preserved Night and the City in 2004.
The film was released in DVD Region 1 in February 2005 as part of The Criterion Collection and in Region 2 by the BFI in October 2007. Both discs contained the US version only. Criterion reissued their DVD as a 2-disc edition, now containing both the US and UK versions, alongside a new Blu-ray in August 2015. In September 2015 the BFI also released the film on Blu-ray, again containing both versions.