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The Long Night (May 28, 1947)

Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night is a remake of Marcel Carné’s 1939 drama Le Jour se lève. It stars Henry Fonda, Ann Dvorak, Vincent Price, and Barbara Bel Geddes in her screen debut.

Litvak, who was born in Kiev, worked in the Soviet cinema system in Leningrad, in the pre-war film industry of Berlin, in France after Hitler’s rise to power, and finally in Hollywood, where he became a contract director for Warner Bros. in 1937. Litvak became an American citizen in 1940, enlisted in the Army, and worked with Frank Capra on his Why We Fight series of short films. Litvak finished the war with the rank of colonel and returned to directing Hollywood features. Two of his most famous films would follow — Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948).

The Long Night, his first post-war feature, is less well-known. For a long time, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembered seeing it. But thanks to a pristine print on DVD from Kino Video (released in 2000 along with a VHS version), this flawed but worthwhile drama is now widely available. In the special features section of the Kino DVD, there are a couple of side-by-side comparisons with Le Jour se lève — a murder sequence in a darkened stairwell and the first meeting of the two lovers — that show how heavily Litvak borrowed from Carné’s film, at least stylistically. (The ending of The Long Night is radically different from the ending of Le Jour se lève, however, which is a standard practice in Hollywood remakes of depressing European art films.)

Despite the happy ending, Litvak infuses The Long Night with a pervasive sense of doom. After shooting a man in his apartment building in an unnamed steel town somewhere near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) sits alone in his rented room, the door barricaded as police and onlookers swarm the street below his window. Accompanied by a refrain from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Joe tells his story through flashbacks, and we learn what brought him to this desperate place. “How can I explain when I don’t understand myself?” he thinks to himself.

Joe Adams grew up in an orphanage. “Class of ’34,” he tells the pretty young Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he meets her. (We must presume that Joe is younger than the man who plays him, since Fonda was 29 years old in 1934.) Jo Ann also came from the orphanage, and her romance with Joe is simple, childlike, and profound. Fonda plays Joe as a sweet-natured boy with no ability to plan long-term or handle disappointment or frustration. Bel Geddes plays Jo Ann in much the same way, but instead of being petulant she is naïve and unworldly, and open to the manipulation of a slimy magician named Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price).

Maximilian is a congenital liar. His relationship with Jo Ann is nebulous for some time in the film. He first tells Joe that Jo Ann is his daughter, but that he had to go on the road for 15 years and leave her in the company of strangers. After another series of flashbacks, however, it becomes clear that Maximilian and Jo Ann were romantically involved. He took her to see the Cleveland Symphony when she had never been as far west as Pittsburgh, and forced himself on her when she had never been kissed. Jo Ann was uncomfortable with Maximilian’s actions, but she was also lonely, and Maximilian offered her a world of excitement and glamor.

The visual style of The Long Night, its doomed protagonist buffeted by forces outside of his control, and its story told through flashbacks are all hallmarks of film noir, but it also has elements of social realism. For instance, Joe befriends Maximilian’s assistant Charlene (played by the always wonderful Ann Dvorak). He lies on her bed on a Sunday afternoon, reading the funnies, in her crummy room full of clutter, next to a couple of big bottles of beer and a bag of pretzels he brought for them to eat. She provides a stack of toast. She’s in the bath when he arrives, and throws on a slinky silk robe. It’s unclear how close Joe and Charlene really are, but the realism of the setting and the intimacy of the situation push the limits of Hays Code acceptability.

Along with the realism and intimacy of some of the interior settings, there’s plenty of artifice in The Long Night. Unlike the typical Hollywood production in which backdrops were either matte paintings or rear-projection film, production designer Eugène Lourié used elaborate sets with tricks of forced perspective in The Long Night. For example, a factory on a hillside in the distance is really a small model that could be lit in whichever way the filmmakers wanted. Lourié and Litvak intended to achieve a kind of “poetic reality,” and they succeeded. At the same time, the artifice sometimes clashes with the realism, and when it does the film feels aimless.

The Long Night was a commercial and critical failure, and lost approximately $1 million, but it was also the springboard for Barbara Bel Geddes’s long onscreen career. After seeing her performance in the film, RKO signed her to a seven-picture deal.

Nocturne (Nov. 11, 1946)

Edwin L. Marin’s Nocturne is close to being a great film noir, but not that close. It’s an entertaining mystery thriller with plenty of clipped, hard-boiled dialogue that’s fun to listen to, if not particularly credible.

George Raft plays Lt. Joe Warne of the Los Angeles police, and it’s a role that seems designed to play to the public’s perception of Raft as a gangster and a thug. Warne conducts his murder investigation with the subtlety of a steamroller, pushing a mustachioed Lothario into the pool when he gets in his way and ripping up the roll of a player piano in a diner when the owner won’t cooperate with him.

And when was the last time you saw a hard-boiled detective who lived at home with his mother? It’s the kind of oddball detail that feels as if it would be more at home in a gangster movie starring James Cagney.

Raft’s first big role was as Paul Muni’s sidekick in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932). After that he starred in a string of gangster pictures, and was one of the most popular actors in crime melodramas, along with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. His boyhood friendship with gangster Owney Madden and association with men like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky aided the public’s perception of him as a hard man who didn’t just “talk the talk.”

By the ’40s, however, his star was beginning to fade. Turning down the lead roles in High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Double Indemnity (1944) didn’t help matters. (Raft was reportedly functionally illiterate, which may have made choosing scripts difficult.) It’s safe to say that by 1946, he was getting the scripts that Humphrey Bogart used to line his birdcage.

Raft wasn’t a very expressive actor, and he had the range of a T-bone steak, but his tight-lipped acting style was perfect for B movies like Nocturne.

A flamboyant pianist and composer named Keith Vincent (Edward Ashley) is murdered, presumably by one of the nine brunettes he was running around with. He has glamour shots of all of them lining one wall of his living room, and it’s clear they were all interchangeable for him, since he called them all “Dolores.” (This may seem like a clever device to hide the identity of the murderess from the viewer, but it’s not.)

Lt. Warne investigates with ham-handed glee, and his investigative technique is as sloppy as the filmmaking. For instance, in one scene his chief (Robert Malcolm) bawls him out for bothering a character named “Mrs. Billings,” but apparently her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. This is fine, but why leave references to her in the film? Similarly confusing is the fact that Warne’s chief gives him two days to investigate Vincent’s murder on his own, but we only find this out after the two-day period is over. And it’s only after this two-day investigative blitz that Warne goes back to Vincent’s house and notices that one of the pictures is missing, since the pattern is disrupted, and there’s an enormous nail hole in the wall. Looking at the stamp on the back of one of the other pictures leads him to a sleazy photographer named Charles Shawn (John Banner). Wouldn’t a detective worth his salt have noticed all this immediately?

The most enjoyable thing about this film is the atmosphere. Lt. Warne spends a lot of time in smoky nightclubs, including the unique Keyboard Club, in which a hulking man-child named Erik Torp (Bern Hoffman) pushes a pianist named Ned “Fingers” Ford (Joseph Pevney) and his upright around on a rolling platform so they can take requests, table by table. When they get to Warne’s table, he hands Vincent’s unfinished piece “Nocturne” to Fingers to play. When he reaches the end of the handwritten sheet music, Fingers asks, “What did your friend do, run out of notes?” Warne responds, “More or less.”

Plenty of sex and sleaze run right below the surface of the picture, but it’s all pretty lighthearted. There’s a funny scene in a dance studio in which Warne can’t learn even the most basic steps (it’s mostly funny because Raft was a professional dancer), and his romance with his prime suspect, Frances Ransom (Lynn Bari), doesn’t carry much sense of danger or menace.

Nocturne is a really fun picture, despite its shortcomings. It has some of the snappiest, most hard-boiled, least naturalistic dialogue I’ve heard since I watched The Dark Corner (1946). Fans of B noirs are encouraged to seek out this picture.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.

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