Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Film Review: NIGHTFALL (1957, Jacques Tourneur)

Stars: 4.4 of 5.
Running Time: 78 minutes.
Tag-line: "YOU COULD GO TO THE MOVIES EVERY DAY FOR FIVE YEARS---BEFORE YOU'D SEE ANOTHER PICTURE WITH SO MANY THRILLS AND SO MUCH SUSPENSE!" Notable Cast or Crew: Aldo Ray (MEN IN WAR, THE GREEN BERETS), Ann Bancroft (THE GRADUATE, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS), Brian Keith (THE WIND AND THE LION, THE YAKUZA, THE DEADLY COMPANIONS), Jocelyn Brando (Marlon's sister, THE BIG HEAT, MOMMIE DEAREST), Frank Albertson (PSYCHO, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), and James Gregory (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE NAKED CITY). Story by David Goodis (DARK PASSAGE, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER) and screenplay by Stirling Silliphant (TELEFON, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, SHAFT IN AFRICA).
Best one-liner: A loving wife to her husband after a long day's work: "What you need is a drink... and some lamb stew, come on."

French director Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST, CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) was a man who thrived on peculiar shadows, a fine mist, and the the realms of the unknown- whether it be in one of those frightening, out-of-the-way places, or somewhere deep within the dark, bracken-carpeted forest of a man's soul. And despite being best known for his accomplishments in horror and films noir, the man had a great affinity for nature, and never shied away from reveling in the grandeur of a majestic American landscape. NIGHTFALL is darkness and light. Neon-bedaubed, ice-rattling-in-a-highball-glass, murderous alleyway thug mystery is contrasted with gleaming snowscapes, the smell of pine, a mislaid bag of dough, and a traumatic memory- the flashback-driven answers. In my review, I'd prefer not to touch upon the specifics of the plot, so instead I'll consider the mood and the characterizations.

Aldo Ray is our protagonist. With a palooka exterior (albeit somewhat of a baby-faced one) and a soothing, gentle voice, it's really no surprise that Bruce Willis was tasked with seeing as many Aldo Ray films as possible in preparation his role in PULP FICTION- though perhaps a more accurate modern comparison would be one with David Morse. Ray can play the sort of big lug who'll admit it when he's scared, but still'll have no trouble serving up a platter of knuckle sandwiches if he has to (which is, surprisingly, almost never in NIGHTFALL).

He's even supposed to be an artist (!), too, which is a slight stretch, but he's a bizarre enough specimen to pull it off. He orders at a bar– "Vodka on the rocks, with a lemon twist." "Lemon twist or a big twist?," asks the long in the tooth bartender. "You look like the big twist type," Ray mildly replies. I love it.

Our female lead is a young Ann Bancroft. Somehow coming across as simulataneously as a more sweet-tempered and edgier version of Joan Crawford, she is pretty damned fantastic. Playing a model (and called a "mannequin" by her higher ups!) she gets a terrific Hitchcockian moment where she must escape goons at her own fashion show, dashing away from the crowd, cape and all! She has a palpable chemistry with Ray, both when they're at odds (wounded and at her apartment, he grumbles "Nice place- I'll try not to bleed all over everything!") and when they're working together (Ray aids her in her fashion show exit by awkwardly carrying and running with her). After their voguish escapade, Bancroft wonders what her boss, Mrs. Lipton, would say- "It's $650 worth of sequins!" Ray responds, earnestly- "Mrs. Lipton's never seen what a .45 can do to a set of sequins."

"Youre the most wanted man I know..." KISSSS

Amidst these great escapes, flashbacks, frame jobs, and misplaced bags of loot, we've got a duo of heavies, played by Brian Keith and Rudy Bond. Brian Keith has always got a sort of 'relaxed-bordering-on-weary,' matter-of-fact demeanor, and here it suits his killer quite well. Rudy Bond is the more unhinged of the two, leering, joking and waving a gun around like an overweight proto-Alan Arkin. ("I got a mind to give you an extra belly-button!") But maybe he just wants to be liked (?!). In one notable scene, they're roughing up Ray upon the shadowy, expressionistic landscape of an industrial park. Between the twirling gears, upright derricks, curling iron arms, seas of gravel, and savage gunmen, the sequence serves to genuinely rattle the audience. As I watched it, I realized it reminded me of something else– when Dennis Hopper perpetrates some lipstick-smeared intimidation on Kyle MacLachlan in BLUE VELVET! (And, as a side note, a suspense scene involving the spinning blades of a snowmobile was a clear inspiration for the flying wing 'propellers of death' sequence in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.)

In all, NIGHTFALL is a taut, moody noir, packed with sharp, clever Stirling Silliphant dialogue; poetic, mysterious Tourneur visuals; and likable, workmanlike performances. It's no OUT OF THE PAST (my favorite noir), but how could it be? Just about four and a half stars.

-Sean Gill

2 comments:

J.D. said...

Love Tourneur and his contributions to film noir and horror genres can't be stated enough. I haven't watched NIGHTFALL in years and your review reminds me that I really need to revisit this one. Great stuff!

Sean Gill said...

Tourneur's one of my favorites. I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen last week (at the Film Forum), and I was damned glad that I did. And I've decided that I definitely need to check out more Aldo Ray.