The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - NIGHTFALL (1956) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - NIGHTFALL (1956)

nightfall review
A photographer and a model go on the run when the former's past catches up with him.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith, Jocelyn Brando, James Gregory

nightfall arrow bluray

Director Jacques Tourneur is best known for his work in the field of horror (Cat People; I Walked with a Zombie; Night of the Demon), but throughout his career he plied his trade in a variety of genres. I'm a particular fan of his westerns Canyon Passage, Stranger on Horseback and Wichita, but his name rarely comes up in discussions of that genre. Outside of horror, Tourneur's greatest impact came in Film Noir, courtesy of his 1947 thriller Out of the Past, a movie that contains practically every Noir trope you could think of.

Tourneur returned to Noir in 1956 for Nightfall, an adaptation of a novel by David Goodis. On the surface, it's a movie that falls firmly in the Noir camp, but it subverts the genre's expectations in some interesting ways.

In a Los Angeles bar, commercial photographer Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray) is approached by a glamorous young woman, Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft), who asks is she can borrow five dollars to pay for her drinks. This initially awkward meet cute leads to the revelation that Marie is a model, who agrees to pose for Jim the following day. Leaving the bar, Jim is abducted by two hoods - John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond) - bundled into a car and taken to an ominously deserted area.

nightfall review

Through a series of extended flashbacks, we learn how Jim and his friend, Dr. Edward Gurston (Frank Albertson), were enjoying a hunting vacation in the remote snowy wilds of Wyoming when they came across John and Red, whose car skidded off the road. Through circumstances I won't elaborate on here, Jim flees with a bag of cash, the proceeds of a robbery committed by the heavies, but after losing consciousness he misplaces the bag in the snow. Jim's plan since has been to wait for the roads to the location to be cleared so he can return and retrieve the bag, but John and the trigger happy Red have turned up quicker than he expected, leading himself and Marie to hit the road, fleeing for their lives while also hoping to find the bag of cash. Also on John's tail is insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory).

On one of the bonus features on Arrow's new disc, critic Philip Kemp mentions the upbeat theme song, crooned by Duke Ellington acolyte Al Hibbler, as failing to reflect the tone of the movie. I have to disagree with the venerable Mr Kemp on this point, as aside from a couple of shocking offscreen deaths, Nightfall is otherwise quite a breezy romp, as much a chase adventure as a crime thriller.

nightfall review

Goodis unsuccessfully attempted to sue the producers of hit '60s TV show The Fugitive, which he claimed was a ripoff of his 1946 novel 'Dark Passage' (famously filmed a year later with Bogie and Bacall). Sure, the novel and the show both feature a protagonist attempting to clear his name of murder, but it's a stretch to accuse the latter of plagiarism. If anything, Nightfall has more in common with The Fugitive than Dark Passage does. Ray's affable performance, with his crooked winning smirk, certainly made me think of the great David Janssen's vulnerable turn as the tormented Richard Kimble, and when the narrative relocates to Wyoming it very much feels like the sort of locale where Kimble so often found himself in trouble.

Think of Noir and you think of cities of night, a notion Tourneur turns on its head here. In the opening scene, Jim is lurking in the shadows of a dark street when all of a sudden a variety of neon signs flicker into action, momentarily blinding his eyes. It's an early suggestion of what Tourneur has in store for us here, taking Noir out of the dark alleyways and into the great white yonder of Wyoming. The movie's most suspenseful sequence takes place on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon, as the villains track Marie down to the outdoor fashion show where she is modelling. Marie is forced to watch as the pair sit and stare at her as she nervously walks the catwalk. Later, Jim has a monologue where he tells Marie how he has been stagnating in his crummy apartment, growing tired of watching the same shadows fall in the same way every evening. Through their protagonist's words, Tourneur and his screenwriter Stirling Silliphant seem to be telling us that Noir has become a clichรฉ, and by 1956, filmmakers and filmgoers alike probably felt the same way about the sub-genre.

nightfall review

Perhaps the most interesting subversion within Nightfall is the dynamic between its male and female leads. When we first meet the seductive Marie, she seems for all the world like the classic femme fatale, but we soon learn that's not the case. Rather than the classic Noir story of a woman bringing trouble to the man who falls for her charms, we get the reverse here, with Marie being willfully dragged into Jim's dire circumstances. For Marie, Jim seems to represent an escape from her own humdrum life. "You're the most wanted man I know," she purrs before snogging him on a greyhound bus.

In this sense, Nightfall owes more to Hitchcock's great 1930s chase thrillers, Young & Innocent and The 39 Steps, in which women find themselves tethered to handsome, mysterious men who take them on a wild, dangerous and invigorating adventure. Ray and Bancroft have a playful chemistry together, which makes them an easy couple to root for. Neither is digging up any trees with their performances, but there's a naturalism to both, particularly Bancroft. Look out for the moment when she asks Ray to light her cigarette in the middle of an argument, or when she breaks out in a goofy smile during a conversation on the bus. In that moment of giggly girlishness, she's as far from a femme fatale as the female lead of a Noir could get, a ray of sunshine in these dark, mean streets.

Commentary by critic Bryan Reesman; video essays by Philip Kemp and Kat Ellinger; trailer; image gallery; collector's booklet with new writing by Amy Simmons.

Nightfall is on blu-ray June 3rd from Arrow Academy.