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.