"Mixing fear and the ridiculous can be very exciting." -- Jacques Tourneur
Nightfall is a work of striking juxtapositions and tones that by picture end, come off like an unforgettably disarming person -- you’re charmed, discombobulated, even slightly disturbed, and you're not sure what to make of it all. You just know you like it, no matter how bizarre it all ends up. And you know you're gonna follow it, Holly Martins style, no matter how dangerous it all becomes. That's Jacques Tourneur and his beauteous beasts. From cat to zombie to Mitchum to Aldo in the snow, you find yourself falling in some kind of ambrosial, demented love.
Nightfall is love of a rougher sort. We have Aldo Ray to thank for that. And then, Tourneur's terrain. The movie opens at night, in a neon lit Los Angeles jungle shimmering with welcoming Hollywood haunts like Miceli’s, Firefly and Musso and Frank, and ends within the blinding white snow of the foreboding Wyoming Wilderness. It pits an older doctor and his younger, artist friend against two thugs -- one a grinning eager beaver, violence-lusting psychopathic creep, and the other, a cool-as-a-cucumber, clever crook whose relaxed manner makes you wish he was your friend. Never mind he's a murderer. It features an ultra chic fashion show with a modern Anne Bancroft as a “mannequin” followed by a cuddly rural bus ride during which Anne and Aldo express mutual romantic feelings after rising to (decidedly non chic) whiskers. There’s ruthless violence committed against good Samaritans mixed with quippy one liners and deliciously dark humor. And did I mention Anne Bancroft falls in love with Aldo Ray? They seem mismatched, but then, perfect together -- and their moments are exceptionally romantic. In short, Nightfall is a trip.
And what a trip, quite literally, and a noteworthy addition to noir innovator Jacques Tourneur’s oeuvre (which includes, among other splendid pictures, the horror/noir classics Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie and his key noir, Out of the Past).
Adapted by Stirling Silliphant from hard boiled writer David Goodis's 1947 novel (this guy knew how to write a novel as a movie -- dear lord) and exquisitely shot by Burnett Guffey (who also lensed Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece of existential ennui, In a Lonely Place and Arthur Penn’s savage blast of brilliance Bonnie and Clyde, as well as other magnificent movies), the picture is considered by some, a minor film noir -- something that’s always baffled me. Made in the later cycle of the genre (released in 1957), the picture ingeniously weaves a convoluted story, blistering violence, existential angst, naturalistic acting and gentle romanticism without ever feeling forced. And as stated earlier -- it’s very funny -- something Tourneur always intended. And though the theme song seems a bit overheated (Al Hibler crooning “Nightfall…and you!” -- a tune that really ought to grace a Ross Hunter production) even that works. Akin to the startling laughs spiking the movie, it echoes Tourneur’s own sly sense of humor.
The story is structured much like Out of the Past, with our hero (who's not guilty, unlike Mitchum), Rayburn Vanning (Ray) relating his waking nightmare to a woman. Only in this instance, that lovely lady, Marie Gardner (Bancroft), isn't so innocent -- but she means well. Pulling a damsel in distress act for the benefit of two thugs intent on jumping Ray, she sets up the poor lug thinking these jerks are police officers. Vanning is then accosted by Red (Rudy Bond) and John (Brian Keith) and taken to a deserted oil derrick (an unsettling yet amusing scene) where he’s set to be tortured. They want to know where that money’s hidden, something Vanning continually states he does not know. Vanning escapes, finds his way to Marie’s apartment and gives her the skinny. Or rather, the thick skinny.
He explains the convoluted predicament that’s left him understandably paranoid. Shall I repeat? OK...here goes. While on a camping/hunting trip in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with best friend Dr. Edward Gurston (Frank Albertson) during which a rather sticky discussion of Doc’s much younger wife (whom we learn later has a thing for Vanning and sent him letters saying so) commences, their conversation is cut short when a car crashes off an embankment (naturally). Out emerge two shady characters (Red and John), worse for wear but jacked up on crooked adrenaline. Doc fixes John’s arm, soon realizes they’re now unlucky witnesses (the men just robbed a bank) and then, shockingly, Doc is shot dead. Vanning is left injured and the crooks blaze off. But in a perfectly stupid film noir blunder, they make an enormous mistake -- they grab the doctor’s bag instead of their loot. Vanning stashes the dough and high-tails it -- moving from town to town under suspicion that he killed Doc, and ending up in Los Angeles, where the poor, sensitive lug is being tailed by insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory), who can't see Vanning committing the crime. He ain't the type.
And as played by Aldo Ray -- he doesn’t seem the type. One of the more striking aspects to Nightfall is its casting, and the barrel-chested, thick necked Ray, who was a natural born actor (watch his first and largely unschooled leading role in George Cukor’s The Marrying Kind and you’ll see how immediately gifted the man was. Also in Anthony Mann’s brilliant Men in War.) Ray is the consummate good guy in-over-his-head. With his razor blade, yet uniquely delicate voice, masculine, yet boyish appeal (he looked like he literally walked off a football field, which is why Cukor made him take ballet before The Marrying Kind) Ray always exuded a different kind of mystery than say, Mitchum or Ryan or Widmark -- men, with Widmark on exception, who rarely appeared “normal.” Ray, an ex Frogman who fought in Iwo Jima, was a brawny man’s man certainly, but he always looked like he was hiding something -- something nice. That inside he had the soul of a poet or artist -- a man of depth beyond his tough exterior. And perhaps being nice in a nasty world (and I'm talking about Ray on film. Let's put aside his rocky real life for a moment) is a curse. Appropriately, in Nightfall, he’s a nice artist. He's really gonna struggle.
And against Brian Keith, Ray's artistic vulnerability really rises to the surface. Like Ray, Keith feels so real and new school/ old school (if that makes sense). His delivery manages to be both distracted and pithy rather than rat-a-tat. And he’s so agreeable here that the sweeter side of Ray works like Keith's catnip. But he's a meanie. A funny meanie. When he humorously claims that Red’s homicidal kicks stem from his lack of childhood play (“When Red was a kid they didn’t have enough playgrounds. He’s sort of an adult delinquent.”) he’s both revelatory and teasing. All of his banter towards Red is cleverly berating: “The top of your head never closed up when you were a kid. Neither did your mouth.” Cracking wise with Red, the two spar like men fixing to off each other, but who are, quite simply, getting on each others nerves (preceding some of Tarantino’s talky criminals or the Coen's chatty/stoic crooks in Fargo). They talk and argue and Keith is all sexy, fatherly menace, but darker fates await them in white, silent snow, secret snow.
This wild, almost ridiculous fate was something Tourneur excelled at. It was practically encoded in his DNA -- a result of real life trauma. Based on the oddball, mean spirited treatment at the hands of his filmmaker father, Tourneur developed a dark sense of the absurd. As written in John Wakemen’s “Film Directors Vol. 1 1890-1946,” Tourneur believed that the childhood he endured -- one of “grotesque punishment” lied at the root of his cinematic obsessions. Relating that he was sent to a poor school and teased unmercifully for his square suspenders, Tourneau claimed: “I think this is what prompted me to introduce comic touches into the dramatic moments of my films…Mixing fear and the ridiculous can be very exciting.”
Indeed they can. As Red can’t wait to torture a terrified Vanning, he sinisterly and bizarrely sings: “The tougher they are the more fun they are tra-la.”