Henry Levin’s Night Editor is — to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes — nasty, brutish, and short. Aside from the happy ending, which feels tacked on, it’s the Platonic ideal of a B noir. The protagonist is tough on the outside but weak and conflicted on the inside. The femme fatale is unfaithful not only to her husband but also her lover, and is excited by violent death. In the world of Night Editor, ambulances are “meat wagons,” and dialogue like, “You’re just no good for me. We both add up to zero,” is what passes for pillow talk. And the movie gets the job done in less than an hour and 10 minutes.
I went into Night Editor not knowing anything about it beyond the title and the fact that it was based on Hal Burdick’s radio show of the same name, which ran from 1934 to 1948. The program was a sort of human-interest editorial column on the radio, with Burdick relating a story and providing all the voices. (There were other characters, and an announcer, but once Burdick got going with his tale, it was all him.)
Night Editor takes place in New York City, and opens with a shot of a neon sign that says “New York Star.” It looks more like a diner sign than anything else, but the Star is a fictional rag, so the prop department was probably feeling expansive. A young reporter named Johnny (Coulter Irwin) walks toward the newspaper office like a zombie, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a street sweeper. He hasn’t been home in two weeks. When he stops in the stairwell to take a slug from his flask, we can see by the thermometer on the wall that it’s 94 degrees in the offices of the Star. These were clearly the days before every office building had central air conditioning.
The newsroom at night is presided over by editor Crane Stewart (Charles D. Brown), who sits with a group of chain-smoking, poker-playing reporters who crack wise about death and destruction. At this point, I thought this picture was going to be a hard-hitting drama about investigative journalists chasing down a big story, like Call Northside 777. But it turns out that the scenes in the city room are just a framing device, as editor Stewart reminisces about a tough cop named Tony Cochrane he once knew, who was involved with a story Stewart covered during Prohibition.
From this point onward, Night Editor is a pitch-black noir. Tony Cochrane, as played by William Gargan, is a working stiff with a good job as a police detective, a dutiful wife, and a young son whom he loves more than anything in the world. But Tony made the mistake of falling for a beautiful blond ice queen, and now finds himself lying to his wife and his colleagues just to sustain an affair that seems to bring him nothing but misery. When Tony picks up wealthy socialite Jill Merrill (Janis Carter) in his car, their first exchange sets the tone of the picture:
“Kiss me before you go.”
“I told you I’d be right back,” he snaps.
“Kiss me,” she says.
“What do you want, blood?”
“Don’t boil over yet, Jill, it ain’t time yet.”
Their “sweet talk” continues like this for the entire picture. The only thing they share is lust. Other than that they can’t stand each other. Jill says things to Tony like, “I don’t need you. I can buy and sell you.” Tony tells her things like, “You’re worse than blood poisoning.” In my favorite exchange of the picture, Tony tells Jill, “You’re rotten. Pure, no-good, first-rate, high-grade, A-number-one rotten.” She responds by saying, “Tony, I love you.”
Tony drives Jill down to a lonely stretch of beach. He parks the car and they hold each other tightly, whispering sweet words of loathing to each other. Tony compares Jill to a sickness, then to a nightmare with convulsions. She tells him, “You’ll never get away from me, Tony, I won’t let you. You’re like me. There’s an illness inside of you that has to hurt or be hurt. We were meant for each other, Tony.”
Their tryst is interrupted when another car drives down to the beach and parks near them. Jill and Tony see a man step out of the car. The other person in the car, a young woman, remains inside. The man produces a tire iron, and brutally bludgeons the girl to death with it. Tony flashes his car’s lights. The man runs. Tony draws his revolver but Jill yells at him not to do it, to let the man get away. If he doesn’t there will be a scandal, and Tony could lose everything; his job, his house, his wife, and even his son. With anguish on his face, Tony slowly lowers his weapon. He walks to the other car. The corpse’s stockinged legs are sticking out. He looks down at the body, dejected. He returns to his car, but as he starts to drive away, Jill screams that she wants to see the dead body. “I want to look at her, Tony!” she keeps shouting. It’s clear from her frenzied voice and the maniacal look on her face that her interest in the corpse is prurient.
After the murder, Night Editor really gets going. We’re treated to a relatively realistic depiction of police work, at least in terms of how investigative assignments are distributed (which is impressive for any movie made in the days before Dragnet). The movie also does a good job of showing the symbiotic and cheerfully ghoulish relationship between cops and the reporters on the police beat. For the most part, however, the film focuses on Tony’s interviews with suspects, which is as it should be. Tony is wracked with guilt for withholding evidence, but he’s too afraid of what he might lose if he steps forward.
The performances in the film are great. Frank Wilcox is memorable as Douglas Loring, the bank manager whom Tony suspects is the killer he glimpsed after he interviews him. Their scenes together are fraught with tension. Gargan has the face of an everyman, and believably plays the role of hangdog detective with something to hide. (Interestingly, Gargan is one of the few actors who actually was a private detective in real life. He worked for a New York detective agency for about a year for $10 a day plus expenses, but was eventually fired when he lost track of a diamond salesman he was charged with protecting.) Paul E. Burns deserves mention, too. His character, the Scandinavian-accented, milk-drinking detective Ole Strom, could have easily been a foolish stereotype, but Burns invests the character with a sharp-eyed intellect and a real sense of human decency. Janis Carter’s femme fatale Jill is the most one-note character, but she attacks the role with such sadistic brio that it doesn’t matter.
Night Editor is a must-see for noir fans. Originally it was supposed to be the first in a series, but no other Night Editor pictures were ever made. It’s a shame. I like the idea of a series of programmers based on the kind of stories jaded old newspaper editors tell their reporters during the slow periods of the evening.