Jacques Tourneur is one of those filmmakers who was perhaps wasted by ‘Studio Hollywood’. He made some excellent films and some less good ones but nearly all show an understanding of techniques, a real imagination and a great feel for composing and choreographing scenes. Nightfall is a shortish feature (78 mins) adapted from a David Goodis novel by Stirling Silliphant. That’s a good starting point. Goodis was a noir novelist, arguably as well-known in France as the US, perhaps even more so with adaptations by Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960) as well as René Clement and Jean-Jacques Beineix. Silliphant was a prolific writer for TV and cinema from the 1950s until the 1980s, mainly for ‘tough guy’ action narratives. Nightfall was the first of his film scripts and the casting adds to the feel of the film which would sit well with some of his 1970s scripts. Aldo Ray is a distinctive figure and he is matched by Brian Keith as the lead villain, although Rudy Bond as the almost psychotic ‘Red’ eclipses Keith at times. The surprise for me was Anne Bancroft who had been appearing in films and TV for five years already, but this is the first role of hers that I’ve noticed and she is very good, even if underused in what is primarily a male action picture.
The set-up is classic film noir with Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray) introduced to us as a man perusing newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles. It’s one of those long newsstands with papers from every major city in the US. When the cashier turns on the overhead lights as dusk approaches, the sudden brightness seems to really disturb Jim. A man asks him for a light and starts up a conversation before heading off to catch a bus. Jim goes into a bar-diner on the corner and meets a young woman, Marie (Bancroft). She wheedles $5 out of him and then they have a drink and he buys her dinner. In a parallel cut we see the man who caught the bus arrive home to meet his wife. Does he know Jim? Outside the bar Jim and Marie part and immediately two men bundle Jim into a car. Who are they? Was Marie set up to trap him? What has Jim done? It’s a brilliant start to a narrative and in a short while we’ll get a flashback that reveals the incident in which the wholly innocent Jim found himself caught up in the kind of story that only a noir writer could devise.
Without describing the plot outline in detail, I’ll just point out that Jim was on an innocent trip to the hills in winter when he became involved with a pair of violent men. Fortunately Jim escaped and by chance discovered the men had left a briefcase of money. Jim hid the money and went into hiding. But now he has been found by both the two violent men and the third man – an investigator tracking the stolen money. The narrative is clearly going to return to the hills and it will become a matter of who gets there first and finds the hidden money. We know Marie must be involved further because she is a leading player. Other than that it’s all up for grabs.
There has been some discussion about the film as to the noir label. I’m certainly not a purist in these matters. The night-time opening sequence certainly suggests noir. The sequences in the snow in the hills might seem less so but there are certainly precedents in, for example, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1949) in which a ‘disturbed’ cop (Robert Ryan) and an angry father (Ward Bond) hunt for a young man across the snowy hills. There are also some parallels with Tourneur’s own classic noir, Out of the Past (1947) – including a scene where two urban heavies turn up in the peaceful mountain community where Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is trying to escape his past. And in turn we wonder if Marie will prove to be a femme fatale like Jane Greer’s Kathy in Out of the Past. Paranoia (and terror) can be represented in snowy and sunny landscapes just as it can in dark urban streets.
Jeff has been in the forces but he makes his living as a commercial artist which is an interesting idea for an actor as physically distinct as Aldo Ray. (Ray was best known for military roles.) Similarly, Ms Bancroft is a respectable fashion model and one of the film’s showpiece sequences is a fashion show in the open terrace of a famous LA department store watched by the two heavies and an anxious Jim Vanning. This sequence feels ‘modern’ – in fact the whole film seems to have moved on from the earlier noir world – though the slight story doesn’t have the complexity of some of the major 1950s noirs. But what it does have is the suspense and paranoia. Another reference might be Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) – two men on a fishing trip who inadvertently give a lift to a serial killer. There is also something of the same realist feel of Lupino’s films shot around LA. Overall the film is lean and mean. The closing sequence has been controversial and I won’t spoil it but the reference here might be a ‘looking forward’ to crime thrillers which bring city violence into the agrarian community like the later films North by Northwest (1959) with its crop duster plane chasing Cary Grant and Prime Cut (1972) with its chase featuring a combined harvester. Other films which have some of the same flavour include Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Ray has a similar presence to Ralph Meeker and Anne Bancroft even looks a little similar to maxine Cooper who played Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda. Nightfall features some excellent camerawork by Columbia house lensman Burnett Guffey who was well versed in noirish crime thrillers (e.g. Human Desire 1954 and the Ida Lupino-produced Private Hell 36 (1954)). I enjoyed the film very much and would recommend it. Anne Bancroft is a revelation and Aldo Ray’s casting works for me. Nightfall can easily be found online but I watched the Blu-ray from Arrow in the UK which includes analysis by Philip Kemp and other contributors less familiar to me, but each offers something extra on a film that deserves to be re-discovered. I hope to feature more of Jacques Tourneur’s work on the blog, so watch this space.
Here’s the scene where Jim meets Marie for the first time.