Harry Fabian from Night and the City: Friend or Foe?

Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian from Night and the City
Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian from Night and the City: would you befriend this guy?
About my relationships with fake people:

I have good friends and bad friends.  And worse friends.   They fill different needs in my life – people to encourage me, people I’m glad to know but even gladder not to be, and people I end up not liking whatsoever.   These are all people I have some connection to, something in common with, even when they do something I would never do.  

When I watch crime, noir, or thriller movies, I often wonder if I would have found myself in the same situation as the protagonist.  Would I have made the same decisions—usually mistakes—as the protagonist?  Would I have believed the charismatic villain?  How much of a patsy am I?  Would this guy have been my friend?

Examine Harry Fabian in Jules Dassin’s 1950 noir, Night and the City, (based on novel by Gerald Kersh) played by Richard Widmark.  Here’s a guy who cheats and lies and steals. He hurts everyone around him. But he’s trying, always trying, even if it means failure.  And it always, always does.  There are hundreds of things I never follow through on for fear of failure, or a belief that it’s too complicated to pull off.  I have stacks of bar napkins with really good, beer-fueled ideas, but I do nothing with them.  Harry doesn’t have the same laziness.  Instead he’s mostly all talk, aggressively so. (Here's the trailer.)

But dammit, I like the guy.  Here’s someone that exists among the scum of the city.  His cohorts are low-class swindlers, forgers, and frauds.  His enemies are well-groomed, powerful men with crisp British accents and sinister names like Kristo and Fergus Chilk.  And Fergus Chilk is just the bad guy’s lawyer!  But he never judges any of these people—not even the ones trying to kill him. Harry may act irresponsibly and rashly, but he’s always keenly aware of what the responsibilities of failure are.  And that’s pretty honorable, I have to say.   

He’s got no money, he’s got no morals, but he has ideas.  Lots of ideas.  And a relentless optimism that one day, one of these ideas will hit. Like me with my bar napkin ideas.  He knows he can do it.  He knows his idea can pay off if the right piece falls into place.  And who really believes that anymore?  Here’s a guy who always and only needs just one thing—one little thing—to go right.  Sadly, it rarely does.

Kristo, Nikolas, and Gregorious from Night and the City
Family photo: Kristo, Nikolas, and Gregorious from Night and the City
Now, I often am pretty/overly optimistic in the potential success of many of my ideas.  For instance, creating a shipping business next to the airport TSA lines at Christmas for fliers to mail home the snow globes they forget they can’t carry on the plane.  But I don’t even know where to begin to implement that kind of thing.  Harry, on the other hand, has a willingness to act that is simply breathtaking.  In the split second that Harry sees an opportunity, he formulates a plan and executes.  When he’s about to be ejected from the wrestling show for a minor con, he happens to overhear the famous wrestler Gregorius complain about the fraudulence of the match.  In the time it takes Gregorius to make it to the lobby—maybe 30 seconds—Harry has formulated a plan and put it into action.  And it’s a plan that truly could have worked, truly could have made him the rich man he sought to be.  Harry acts.  If I had half, or even a fifth, of Harry’s drive, maybe I’d be a shipping magnate like Rutherford Fedex or whoever is the head of that company.  Either that or maybe I’d also end up manhandled to death and dumped in the Thames.  But my life would be (or have been) more exciting.  Oh, spoiler alert two sentences ago.

I like an underdog, and Harry is an underdog.  No scheme ever hits for him, but this one, his last big one, nearly does.    He’s so goddamn close.  I mean, really.  He plays it smart overall. All he needs is a tiny bit more time and a tiny bit more cash.  And as he himself recognizes, “So close.  An accident.  Just an accident.  And then…everything fell apart.  Harry Fabian.  Stop running.”

Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian in Night in the City
Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian in Night in the City: Harry, it’s time to face the demons.

If I’d been able to front him that money, maybe things would have worked out.  But I’d probably have given that money a time or two before and got burned.  And so maybe I’d have passed.  But still, I’d have loved Harry for being the perennial underdog.  Maybe seeing Harry come so close, but fail spectacularly, lets me think my life isn’t so bad with what I’ve got.  In the end, I can look at Harry’s story and be glad I’ve got a little more sense in my head, a little more integrity in my word, and a little less risk in my life.  It’s nice to have people in your life who make you feel that way, even if they’re fictional.

So what of me and Harry?  I’m sure he’d get something from me—a couch to crash on for a few nights, a few beers at the bar on my tab, a dram of quid—but I don’t think I’d ever feel cheated.  I’m not some big shot with a bankroll he’s going to sweet talk all to hell.  And an octave of shillings or whatever seems like an okay loss to me on a guy who has such big ideas that one must hit unless he dies first.  And though he does die first, I enjoyed how lively he was in the meantime. 

Friend or Foe?  Friend, definitely. I’d invite him to my bar nights and walk away with even bigger stacks of napkin ideas.  But I’d warn my other pals in advance that he’d probably hit them up for cash.

Images courtesy of Noir Repository

Brady Richards is a writer, event planner, and general freelancer.  His latest endeavor can be found at www.beerbuckles.com

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