Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nightfall (1957)

Jacques Tourneur is mostly known in film noir circles because of his classic movie 'Out Of The Past' from 1947, and rightfully so. But that's not his only contribution to film noir. One of his other contributions is 1957's 'Nightfall', which while very much a film noir, could very well be called a 'film blanc' or a 'film neige' as key parts of the movie take place during the daytime in the snow-covered mountains of Wyoming. 'Nightfall' was adapted into a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant after the novel by David Goodis. Burnett Guffey ('In A Lonely Place', 'Johnny O'Clock' and a ton more noirs) was the cinematographer and George Duning scored the music. The title song, a rather boring laidback crooner sung by Al Hibbler, makes it sound like the city scenes take place in Las Vegas, but it's Los Angeles.

The story is a take on the oft-used 'innocent man on the run' story. Aldo Ray plays Jim Vanning, this story's man on the run. His real name is Art Rayburn but he's changed his identity and whereabouts several times after a hunting trip he made with his best friend, Doc Gurston (Frank Albertson). During that trip, in the mountains of Wyoming, and right before snowfall is expected to render the area they're in inaccessible, they see a car skid off the road. They go over to help out, but it turns out the men in the car are 2 bankrobbers, John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond), who are on the run with a bag filled with $350,000. They kill Gurston and leave Vanning for dead, making it appear like Vanning shot Gurston, and take off in Vanning's car, but with Gurston's medical bag instead of the bag with the money. Vanning comes to and takes off with the bag before John and Red discover their mistake and return to the campsite. During his flee Vanning loses the bag but afterwards has no idea where exactly that happened. He manages, through a few odd jobs, to make his way to Los Angeles where he works as a commercial painter for ads and such. There he waits for the day that the snow is cleared from the Wyoming mountain area so he can go back and try and find the bag of money. Of course John and Red are trying to find him, to tell them the location of the money, as well as insurance agent Ben Fraser (James Gregory) who has been assigned to the case by the bank's insurancy agency to retrieve the money. The night before the snow is supposed to be cleared Vanning meets model Marie Gardner (Ann Bancroft) in a bar/restaurant and they hit it off. But as they are leaving John and Red have finally caught up with Vanning, setting off a chain of events that ends up with Vanning, Marie, Red, John and Fraser all travelling to Wyoming in search of the bag of money.

There's a suggestion of a possible affair between Vanning and Doc Gurston's wife Eva, who's 20 years younger than him. During a heart-to-heart conversation at the campsite (well, Gurston's heart to Vanning's 'meh') Gurston thanks Vanning for not treating the age difference between him and his wife any different than had it been 1 year and respecting their marriage. Vanning doesn't really answer it and walks away, suggesting things are maybe not as innocent as Gurston thinks. This possible affair is again hinted at later on as Vanning explains to Marie that Gurston's wife had written him some indiscreet letters, which he kept in his apartment rather than threw away, which the police found after Gurston was found murdered and searched his apartment, making him at the very least a man of interest to the police. Add that to the way Gurston's murder was set up, with Vanning's fingerprints the only ones on the gun that killed Gurston, and there you have your typical innocent man on the run.

What sets this movie apart from most other noirs is obviously the outdoors setting. The snow-covered mountains give it a distinctive and different look to the usual shadow-filled darkness of film noir (much like Tourneur's 'Out Of The Past'). Even so, this movie still feels like a film noir. Besides the landscape, the real stars of this movies are Jacques Tourneur and Burnett Guffey, their visual direction and cinematography are outstanding. Not flashy or elaborate, but highly effective, beautiful and clever, and much slicker and more stylish than the movie's low budget would suggest. Around the 20 minute mark where Vanning is roughed up and interrogated by Red and John there is a clever transition to Ban Fraser and his wife having a nighttime conversation about Vanning, and then another clever transition back to Vanning and the robbers, both transitions happening so smooth and seamlessly, you don't really take notice of them until you realize you're in a completely different scene again. It's small things like that that make this movie so great to watch.

Aldo Ray gives a bit of a weird performance as Vanning. He shows hardly any emotion and while he has the perfect gruff husky voice and physical build for a great noir protagonist, he's simply not very believable to me here. Rudy Bond as Red also didn't do much for me, he tries to give his character a crazy and maniacal edge but it's not done very well in my opinion, an actor like Timothy Carey could have done this far better. There's also a lack of sparkle and electricity between Jim Vanning/Aldo Ray and Marie Gardner/Ann Bancroft, who is pretty good here however like most of the cast. Bancroft is beautiful here, in an understated, almost serene, way. Apart from Ray and Bond's not-so-impressive performances, the rest of the cast are solid here, I particularly like Brian Keith as the obvious leader and brains of the bank robbery, he has a great menace-filled aura around him.

The dialogue should be addressed too. When Vanning first meets Marie Gardner and they strike up a conversation, there's a perfect description of a noir protagonist:
Gardner: You sound like a man with a problem.
Vanning: [..] Yeah, I got problems. Who hasn't?
He doesn't say it in a hard-boiled, tough manner but more so in a matter-of-factly, almost defeatist, way. Gardner later on has some more great lines that touch on the building blocks of film noir:
Things that really happen are always difficult to explain.
I'm always meeting the wrong man. It's a talent, forming what the psychiatrists call "doomed relationships". 
Having said that, the dialogue does come off as staged and fabricated at times. I didn't mind it, but it did strike me as such a few times, which is never a sign of greatness.

But don't let that keep you from watching this movie. Overall, it's a pretty good and entertaining movie which is beautiful visually. It's got its flaws but in my opinion they're outweighed by the good parts, so it is still a recommended noir in my book.

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