Somewhere in the Night

Somewhere in the Night (1946), that title alone is imbued with all the uncertainty and ambiguity that is such an essential ingredient of film noir. Add in the theme of amnesia and it’s tempting to imagine this movie might be the classic example of the form. Well, it doesn’t quite get there; the plot is twisty, the characters even more so and their motives are buried deep in a half-remembered past. Everything looks right, and at times sounds right too, but maybe there is too much going on, too many strands to follow with the result that the viewer is left to navigate the kind of fog our protagonist must battle his way through.

No time is wasted in the opening, a field hospital where all manner of wounds and injuries are being treated by stressed and weary medics. George Taylor (John Hodiak) is lying in bunk drifting in and out of a morphine induced haze, his jaw wired up and his memory wiped after a close encounter with a grenade. The fact is George Taylor isn’t even sure that’s his real name, the doctors call him that but he doesn’t really know, and he’s both puzzled and uneasy by the letter he finds among his belongings. It’s incomplete but there’s enough there to tell him it’s from a woman, one who is consumed with bitterness and recrimination, and all of it directed towards him. Well he eventually gets shipped back to the States and so begins his fumbling efforts to establish his identity, efforts which hint at large sums of money awaiting him, but few friends if any to guide him along. Conversely, the more he learns, the less he appears to know, and the more nonplussed he becomes. A letter from a guy called Larry Cravat tells him there’s cash in the bank in his name, but this only increases his suspicion. Who is Larry Cravat, and why does every question asked about him lead to further suspicion and violence? Taylor’s world is reduced to a stumbling quest through night clubs and slums, peopled by hoods and chiselers, where swank businessmen rub shoulders with dubious fortune-tellers and a convoluted trail involving Nazi loot and murder leads to a sinister sanatorium and a final showdown on the waterfront.

The films of Joseph L Mankiewicz have a tendency to be stylish but wordy, and I think that’s true of Somewhere in the Night. Norbert Brodine’s cinematography drapes the 20th Century Fox studio sets in very attractive shadows while Mankiewicz’s script (with uncredited contributions from Lee Strasberg and Somerset Maugham) and direction are characteristically polished. For all that though, the plot is packed tight and is of a density that hinders rather than helps. For every morsel of slick, hard-boiled idiom, there’s a side order of undercooked exposition to be dealt with. This kills the pace at vital moments, the complications unnecessary and the detours involved only sporadically interesting. While a predatory Margo Woode offers a masterclass in would-be sophisticated patter and burnished brass, her presence and interactions with a slippery and proudly amoral Fritz Kortner feel like they have blown in from a different movie.  In fact, the entire Nazi loot subplot has an air of pastiche to it, channeling elements of The Maltese Falcon to such an extent that by the time the confrontation in Kortner’s dingy flat rolls around I was half expecting Hodiak to lean over to Ms Woode and mutter: “Six, two and even they’re selling you out.”

I can’t help thinking tales of amnesia and 1940s movies seem to go hand in hand, a feeling that’s perhaps been heightened by the fact I watched another variation on this the other day in William Dieterle’s Love Letters. In that case, however, the loss of memory is suffered by Jennifer Jones’ traumatized heroine as opposed to Joseph Cotten’s returning veteran. Nevertheless, that tumultuous post-war world, where everything has been upended and all the old certainties swept aside, provides fertile ground for stories of recollections lost and the consequent pros and cons presented by the unknown and the uncharted. John Hodiak is a personable hero, getting across the self-doubt of his character, that need to learn more about the man he once was while also fearing what he may discover in the process.

Nancy Guild is fine as his Girl Friday, but her role is a touch bland and she makes only a limited impression compared to Margo Woode’s flashy turn.  Where Hodiak is necessarily cautious, Richard Conte is typically sharp and assured, rapping out his lines with a confidence that dares the world to challenge him. Lloyd Nolan is hugely enjoyable as the cop in the case, unflappable and unfazed by the deceptions and betrayals all around him, representing a beacon of sorts amid all the shifting currents. A word too for Josephine Hutchinson; hers is a small part and arguably not really essential in advancing the plot yet that one scene she has remains memorable. The movie makes a number of points about the effects of the war on those who have come back as different men to a radically changed society, but the effect on those who were left behind is no less important. That brief interlude which says so much about loss, loneliness and the hurt of missed opportunities is deeply touching, and Josephine Hutchinson’s sensitive and restrained work opposite Hodiak is quite wonderful.

Somewhere in the Night is a movie which has always felt like a bit of a companion piece for The Crooked Way. They do not tell the same story but there are definite points of similarity, enough to tie them together in this viewer’s mind at least. I think the latter is the more successful film due to its pared down nature and tighter focus overall. That said, Somewhere in the Night is entertaining, classy and has enough positives to offset its weaknesses. Perhaps it isn’t the quintessential film noir that the title alludes to, but it’s still a solid genre piece.

So, that brings me to the end of 2021. All that’s left to say is Happy New Year to all those who have spent time here. May 2022 bring only good things for all of us.

Red Canyon

Redemption – have I mentioned that concept before? Well, it would be practically impossible to maintain a site which has devoted so much space to the consideration of the classic Hollywood western for so many years and not do so. After all, that was one of the main drivers of the genre, the cornerstone on which everything else rests, and we cannot even approach the western in an intelligent way, let alone attempt to pin down its essence, until we acknowledge the primacy of this core ingredient. One of the more compelling attractions of the western is its multifarious nature, those layers and variations which are woven into the fabric of the genre. George Sherman’s Red Canyon (1949) offers yet another of those spins on the theme of redemption.

Many a movie has been built around the notion of the outlaw seeking to outrun his past deeds, the gunman grown weary of the endless challenges and the fame or notoriety which has come to be a curse. Yet what about a reputation foisted upon a man not through his own actions but second hand? What about the idea of guilt by association, or in this case as a result of one’s bloodline? This is the central theme of Red Canyon, the tale of a man looking to break loose from the shadows cast by his disreputable family. Such a task requires not only grit and resolve but money too for new beginnings come with a hefty price tag. To that end, Lin Sloan (Howard Duff) has determined to catch, break and race a famed wild stallion known as Black Velvet. This is the secondary thread running through the picture, the hunting and taming of this magnificent force of nature. And it is that quest which brings Sloan into contact with Lucy Bostel (Ann Blyth), the romantic angle which then develops forming the third plot strand and acting as a bridging device of sorts. That relationship starts out out in a lighthearted manner – Sloan’s arrogance results in Lucy temporarily losing face and losing her prized thoroughbred, while she seizes an unexpected opportunity to pass on some indignity by way of repayment – but folds into the main narrative when it deepens. It is complicated by the fact that Sloan’s family is responsible for the death of Lucy’s mother in a raid and her father (George Brent) has consequently sworn vengeance against the entire clan. A situation is thus set up whereby all the main players have no alternative but to defy their past histories, and one of them might perhaps earn that coveted redemption for his family name if nothing else.

Red Canyon ranges widely in tone, the lightness of the early scenes should by rights contrast sharply with the action of the finale and the deep-rooted schism which provokes it. It is a credit to George Sherman’s assured direction that all the tonal shifts which occur feel so smooth. Working from a Maurice Geraghty script which is an adaptation of a Zane Grey novel, Sherman seamlessly blends all the ingredients in this tale about breaking a horse and breaking with the past. Ultimately, Lin Sloan does redeem his family name by decisively cutting the bonds that have tethered him all his life. The movie celebrates the restoration of harmony and balance, in nature, relationships and in life itself. By reclaiming his identity, Sloan also ensures that the Bostels, both father and daughter, are freed from the shackles imposed by long held grudges. Of course the stallion is set free too, this symbol of unfettered nature has been instrumental in restoring the emotional equilibrium but it is patently clear that such a potent and primal force could only ever be tamed temporarily.

Howard Duff made a number of films with George Sherman and had a pretty good run in general up until the mid-1950s without ever breaking through to the very top rank of stars. He had that tough persona which made him a good fit for crime movies and westerns and Sherman gets good value from him in Red Canyon. An exuberant and vigorous Ann Blyth (who turned 93 earlier this year) plays off Duff’s ruggedness and deals credibly with both the romantic and more tomboyish aspects of her role. I guess she will be best remembered as Joan Crawford’s ungrateful daughter in Mildred Pierce but she did plenty of varied and interesting work well into the following decade.

As is the case with so many studio productions of the era, the supporting cast is positively crammed with talent and familiar faces. John McIntire gives one of his memorably mean performances as Duff’s no-good father while Denver Pyle and a rather vicious Lloyd Bridges are his siblings. George Brent, who is not an actor usually associated with westerns, is suitably stern and implacable as the head of the Bostel household. Among all the drama there is welcome comic relief provided by Jane Darwell, Chill Wills and the wonderful Edgar Buchanan as a delightfully self-aggrandizing windbag.

Red Canyon has had a Blu-ray release in Germany via Koch as part of a George Sherman collection also containing The Last of the Fast Guns and a DVD of River Lady. I still have to pick up a copy of that set but I should imagine it is a strong transfer as even standard definition copies of Red Canyon are hugely impressive with Irving Glassberg’s  stunning Technicolor cinematography looking terrific. Comparatively speaking, this movie will be regarded as a minor western. Sure there are bigger, bolder and unquestionably better films to be found in the genre, but it does have a great deal of charm and that attractive sensibility typically found in Sherman’s work.

While this might not be my final post of 2021, it will definitely be the last one to be published before Christmas is upon us. With that in mind, I want to take the opportunity to wish all the visitors here, both the regulars and those who have just come across the site, a merry and peaceful Christmas.

Clash by Night

“People have funny things swimming around inside of them. Don’t you ever wonder what they are?”

It’s odd the way casual, essentially throwaway pieces of dialogue have a habit of penetrating right to the core of the issue. Good dramatic writing will always seek to discover how and why  people react to certain circumstances, certain stimuli.  In melodrama, those reactions are by necessity heightened and may appear nonsensical or even contradictory when viewed with a cool, detached eye. Yet these contradictions and intensities are actually what validates the melodrama, the heightened feelings serving to draw all the illogicality of life itself into sharper relief. Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) is an example of a successful blend of film noir and melodrama in this adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play.

Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) is back home, back in Monterey after a decade in New York and points east, dressed up in disenchantment and drinking whisky for breakfast. She had been a dreamer once, setting out eagerly in search of her personal pot of gold labeled fulfillment. Time and disappointment have taken their toll though, leaving Mae long on regret and short on options. In fact, the only door remaining open to her, and it’s no more than ajar at best, is the one of the home she grew up in and then ran away from. Her younger brother (Keith Andes) offers a grudging welcome but there’s interest stirring in other quarters. Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) is a fisherman, and her brother’s employer, all muscle and heart, and quickly smitten by Mae. However, there is bound to be a fly in the ointment and this one turns up in the shape of Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan). Where Jerry is clumsy in his simplicity, Earl is brash and overbearing. Crucially though, his is a restless spirit, one which is drawn irresistibly to Mae, but she professes to be unimpressed by his shallow braggadocio and instead accepts Jerry’s heartfelt proposal. Nevertheless, just as those massive seas mercilessly pounding the coastline in the opening credits have foreshadowed, great emotional tumult lies ahead.

Film noir trades heavily on disillusionment, detachment and the ever-present threat of despair. Clash by Night taps into all of these, most especially a kind of gut wrenching disappointment and the awful sliding sense that all the positive things life might have to offer will forever remain just beyond reach. It’s like a head-on collision of post-war ennui and middle-aged malaise. Even as the protagonists sweat and struggle in the balmy atmosphere, on a personal level the first chills of autumn are already making themselves felt. I’ve no doubt the disenchantment and uncertainty over what direction to take in life would have struck a chord with a contemporary audience less than a decade after the end of a major global conflict, but the movie has a relevance beyond those immediate concerns. The idea that one can be tempted and seduced by superficiality isn’t confined to any particular era after all. At first, the material might seem atypical for Fritz Lang, but the idea of individuals trapped or restricted by (poor) choices and circumstances is entirely in keeping with his other work. Nobody is really free in this movie – even those who would have us believe they are free spirits are just as hemmed as everyone else – and practically everybody is straining against their respective bonds. Visually, Lang and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca impress on the audience the claustrophobia felt by the characters first in Mae’s family home and then later in Jerry’s house, both of which are slightly elevated and therefore have a sense of remoteness about them. Consistent with the overall tone of the piece, however, there is at least a suggestion of an out, of an escape from the stifling ties that bind in the occasional shots of a moonlit sky or indeed of the vast ocean.

The casting works well, a trio of forty-something actors in the principal roles have that combination of a vaguely shopworn air, a burgeoning realization that time is not on their side, and enough of a spark and appetite for living to make their desperate snatching at the half chances flitting by appear credible. Robert Ryan always seemed to be the epitome of edgy, his characters existing on the periphery of society and civilization, like an interloper in his own home. Earl Pfeiffer is boastful, abusive and bullying; it is impossible to like a man who builds himself up by bawling out put upon waiters or forcing himself on women, but Ryan’s skill lay in his ability to add layers and dimensions to such boors, and his frustration at and awareness of his own flaws fleshes out the character and dismisses the caricature. Stanwyck is every bit as versatile in her own way, moving from pride to defiance, bitterness to fear, and all the time grounded by a frank admission of her character’s own weakness. Her role is both defined by her interactions with Ryan and Douglas and simultaneously creates a meaning and motivation for those two co-stars.

“Don’t say anything. Don’t make no promises. I’d have to trust you, that’s what the terrible thing is. You’ve got to trust somebody, there ain’t no other way.”

When Paul Douglas utters those lines right at the end of the movie there’s no doubting the essential truth of the words, for Jerry D’Amato and for the audience at large. This, coupled with the notion that a form of redemption could be attained by confronting and acknowledging the less savory aspects a person carries within, hints that the fatalism commonly regarded as being irrevocably wed to film noir may not be entirely insurmountable. Paul Douglas’ portrayal of non-judgmental decency, unbowed before loneliness and betrayal, is key to making this work. His scenes with Stanwyck range from the supercharged and fiery to the downright mundane, and the climactic one strikes a satisfyingly hopeful if not quite happy note. For all that, the one which lingers longest in my memory is an earlier interlude aboard his boat. He’s proposing, all awkward and shambling earnestness, and she’s resisting. There is some terrific screen acting on display from those two in that moonlit sequence, a pair of fine performers affording a glimpse of people teetering on the brink of temptation and trepidation. A magical moment of cinema.

While the three heavyweights in the leading roles naturally dominate proceedings, there is depth further down the cast list too. Marilyn Monroe was a rising star, just a year away from breaking through to the very top tier, and was billed fourth, just above the title. Even though she’s not the focus of attention she does get a few moderately memorable scenes, mostly sparring with a surly Keith Andes. This young couple are prey to some of that restiveness that plagues their elders; the shifting dynamics of post-war relationships, that realignment of social mores and roles, suggest that there is likely to be a good deal of friction, or even worse, ahead. J Carrol Naish was one of the most accomplished character actors of the classic Hollywood era, an instantly recognizable presence. As the wastrel Uncle Vince he occupies a small yet pivotal role, a Iago-like hobgoblin sowing unrest out of spite and whispering poison in his nephew’s ear at every opportunity.

Clash by Night was released on DVD long ago by Warner Brothers but I think it may have drifted out of print. It’s a pretty good transfer of the movie, and has a Peter Bogdanovich commentary track as a supplement, but any future upgrade to Blu-ray would be welcome. Fans of Lang’s work, and that of the leading players too, should find this an absorbing movie. It certainly earns a recommendation from this viewer.