Cast & Crew
Joseph H. Lewis
Parisian Detective Henri Cassin, suffering from overwork, takes the advice of his doctor and goes to the village of St. Margot for a restorative vacation. The inn at which he stays is run by Pierre Michaud and his wife Mama. Although Pierre's daughter Nanette is engaged to be married to farmer Leon Archard, her gold-digging mother urges her to marry the wealthy Henri instead. Nanette takes her mother's advice to heart and begins to woo him with her charms. The scheme works, and Henri soon falls in love with Nanette. In a short time, they become engaged, and at their engagement party, Henri vows never to let another man romance her. Although Nanette's mother is eager to see her daughter marry Henri, Pierre and the inn housekeeper, Widow Bridelle, are opposed to the marriage. When it is discovered that Nanette and Leon have disappeared, Henri wastes no time starting an investigation. Days after Nanette's disappearance, her body is found, and Henri determines that she had been strangled. Having found no clues at the place where Nanette's body was found, Henri's investigation eventually stalls. The case remains shrouded in mystery until Leon's body is found. Beside Leon's body, Henri finds a footprint, of which he makes a plaster cast. The footprint, however, does not match the shoe of any person in the village. Soon after Mama receives a warning that she will be the next to die, she is found strangled. While Pierre, fearing for his safety, decides to sell the inn, Henri returns to Paris and comes up with a sketch of the killer based on information provided by the footprint. To Henri's astonishment, the sketch bears the exact likeness of himself, and when he fits his shoe into the footprint, he realizes that he is undoubtedly the killer. After making a full confession to the police commissioner, Henri is evaluated by a psychiatrist, who determines that he is schizophrenic. Though placed under watch of a guard, Henri escapes back to St. Margot, where he tries to strangle Pierre. However, the police commissioner, who has followed Henri to the village, catches the detective in the act and shoots him.
Joseph H. Lewis
Jean Del Val
M. W. Stoloff
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV on DVD
The aptly titled So Dark The Night is an atypical, ambitious picture from the creative Joseph H. Lewis, who had already scored big with Columbia's sleeper success My Name is Julia Ross. Its leading player is actor Steven Geray, a very non-leading man type perhaps being rewarded for his fine supporting turn in Charles Vidor's Gilda. It's Geray's only starring role but he's excellent as a master detective.
Reteaming with cameraman Burnett Guffey, Lewis makes a minor masterpiece from a script by the mostly underachieving writers Martin Berkeley and Aubrey Wisberg. Inspector Henri Cassin (Geray) is an eccentric but brilliant sleuth sent to a French countryside Inn for a fortnight's rest. There he meets young Nanette Michaud (Micheline Cheirel), a small town girl engaged to local farmer Leon (Paul Marion). Nanette's advances overcome Henri's misgivings about taking a much younger wife, and he allows himself to be swept up by romance. But when their plans are interrupted by a series of murders Henri vows to catch the killer. Despite his inspired sleuthing, he soon runs out of leads.
So Dark The Night sees Joseph H. Lewis directing at his peak powers, making the most of a not extravagant budget: a patch of the San Fernando Valley becomes a credible substitute for rural France. Lewis's camera is always on the movie. He introduces characters with fast details, like feet on a sidewalk, and fingers on clothesline. "Wagon Wheel Joe's" predilection for foreground objects is in full force in many shots composed with dramatic depth indicators. Lewis does a fine job of distributing suspicion between several cast members. Is the killer the unhappy maid? (Helen Freeman) The angry father? (Eugene Borden) The hunchback? (Brother Theodore)
Concentrating on Steven Geray's marvelous performance, Lewis contrasts the man's gentle decency with his dogged determination to identify the murderer, complete with Sherlock Holmes- style clues and theories. Meanwhile, the director adds expressionist touches -- deeper camera angles, strange pauses -- to indicate something unsuspected is amiss. A surprise revelation is accompanied by a radical lighting effect cued by emotion alone. The film presents visual hints of "memory sensations", but no tiresome formal flashback to explain the mystery. A doctor's final theory reminds us of the finish of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. A definite film noir for its dark mood and stress on psychological chaos, So Dark The Night is a bold departure from the Hollywood norm.
A front-rank noir, 1947's Johnny O'Clock is the first directing job by the talented Robert Rossen, who would proceed to the classic Body and Soul and earn the Best Picture Oscar for 1949, All the King's Men. The title character is none other than Dick Powell, who here tempers the tough-guy hardboiled talk as he negotiates a path through various intrigues, including murder. The movie also features a trio of notable noir beauties, each in fine form.
Womanizing Johnny O'Clock (Dick Powell) lives a risky life. His partner in a swank nightclub is Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez), and a crooked, ambitious detective is trying his best to elbow Johnny out. Worse, Pete's wife Nelle (Ellen Drew) still has a yen for Johnny, and recklessly displays her affections. One murder leads to the apparent suicide of Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), the club's hatcheck girl. When Harriet's sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes) arrives, Johnny finds himself seriously falling for her. Meanwhile, Detective inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) is sizing up Johnny as a main suspect in the deaths, and Pete Marchettis finds evidence that Nelle and Johnny are a secret item. No matter how Johnny looks at it, he's in a solid frame. His only choice is to try and get Nancy free of the trouble.
Suave and unflappable, Dick Powell's Johnny does daily business with crooks and knows better than to be totally honest with anyone. Catching a poker dealer stealing money, Johnny lets him stay on with the reasoning that the next man hired might be smarter with his thievery. Johnny's personal assistant Charlie (John Kellogg) is an ex-con who otherwise wouldn't have a job; we can't tell if Johnny has a soft heart or likes having somebody willing to break the law for him. Johnny makes a strong contrast with his partner Marchettis, an unschooled brute frustrated that he can't hold on to Nelle, his trophy wife. Given his poor standing with the police, Johnny is surprised that the intelligent and caring Nancy should choose to stick with him. Women are O'Clock's stumbling block, but also his salvation. The film builds to a suspenseful finish.
Johnny O'Clock benefits from fine low-key B&W cinematography by Burnett Guffey, a true noir stylist. Guffey and director Rossen manage a moody tone even in bright cafes and swank sitting rooms. Evelyn Keyes never looked lovelier and Ellen Drew is irresistibly seductive. Nina Foch's role is much smaller, yet she makes a sympathetic impression. In his second film appearance, actor Jeff Chandler has a nice bit as a gambler from out of town.
Columbia must have liked the title Walk A Crooked Mile as they later released a noir entitled Drive a Crooked Road. But it plays like a re-run of Fox's wartime classic The House on 92nd Street, in which FBI agents infiltrate a Nazi spy ring and discover that they are smuggling top scientific secrets. Now Russian spies are stealing newer formulas out of the high-security Lakeview Laboratory by hiding them in oil paintings. F.B.I agent Dan O'Hara (Dennis O'Keefe) and Scotland Yard 'exchange agent' Scotty Grayson (Louis Hayward) infiltrate the spy network. They barely escape from the murderous Krebs (Raymond Burr), before sorting the innocent from the guilty back at the lab.
The film affects a semi-documentary style that's constantly on the movie, hopping from city to city and from surveillance stakeouts to places as mundane as a laundry service. Director Gordon Douglas gets good footage on the streets of San Francisco. He also manages an exciting FBI shoot-out of the kind that never happened in real Cold War confrontations. The scene reminds us of John Dillinger's mob caught in the fishing lodge in the 1935 Cagney movie G-Men.
The frequently repeated message is that only dedicated F.B.I. agents can save us from the communist conspiracy menacing us from all sides. One loyal immigrant woman sacrifices her life to protect our heroes, as she'd do anything to help America crush the evil she witnessed back in Eastern Europe. The movie also considers scientists as potential enemies. One is an outright traitor and another (Carl Esmond) is blackmailed into espionage work. Curiously, the movie seems to find a woman who did the physical smuggling (Louise Allbritton) innocent because her motive was love. Walk A Crooked Mile's impersonal semi-docu style, with narration constantly explaining everything, prevents us from getting too involved in the characters.
The poetically named Between Midnight And Dawn is really just a straightforward police story. The original title Prowl Car better describes a pro-police storyline that sees two cops on the graveyard shift take on a dangerous underworld figure. Director Gordon Douglas delivers a handsomely assembled thriller, filmed on permanently wet nighttime streets. But the script's idea of a compelling conflict is to make one cop a softie and the other a cynic about criminals and women.
Policemen Dan Purvis (Edmond O'Brien) and Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) go after the slimy racketeer Ritchie Garris (Donald Buka) while romancing Kate Mallory (Gale Storm) the dispatcher whose voice they hear on their squad car radio. Kate's cop father was killed on the job, so she avoids romantic attachments with them. But her mother purposely rents an apartment to the eager Romeos. Intuiting that a gang war is beginning, Dan and Rocky are able to arrest Garris and make the charge stick. But one jailbreak later, the gangster takes bloody retribution, and threatens innocent citizens. Only Danny is in a position to stop him.
The story plays as if it were written in 1935. The police force is predominantly Irish in makeup. The cops marry cops' daughters and an independent girl who wants to break the pattern is humored and harassed until she gives in. The sexism is complete when Kate's meddling mother refuses to let her make her own choices. Dan is secretly angry when Kate chooses the handsome Rocky, but tries to be magnanimous.
The attitude toward organized crime is equally dated. Two lowly patrolmen on the night shift are the spearheads of a major anti- organized crime bust, without really reporting to anyone. What's more, they parade their favorite girl in front of the gangsters, oblivious to the obvious notion that the criminal might strike back at them through her. Interestingly, the woman most threatened is Garris's own girlfriend Terry Romaine (Gale Robbins).
A fresh pace, lively acting (Edmond O'Brien could get any film up on its feet) and sharply directed action make Walk A Crooked Mile an exciting show, even if little or no noir content is evident. The only real concession to postwar thriller conventions is an uptick in violence. The final confrontation sees the rotten Ritchie Garris dangle a young girl from a high window, and threaten to drop her unless the cops back off.
Walk East On Beacon! is a second anti-communist spy drama, released near the end of the cycle in 1952. None of Hollywood's twenty or so contributions to Cold War propaganda were big successes. This one was sourced from an article by J. Edgar Hoover himself, and shapes up as a semi-documentary account of yet another spy ring using an overly complicated system to steal atomic secrets. The noted atom spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg found it so easy to spirit secret formulas away from the U.S. that the aggressive government prosecution of their case can be attributed to a need to cover up gross deficiencies in the F.B.I.'s security policies. Hoover's account of a different case makes it look as if the F.B.I. has battalions of crack agents in reserve, ready to watch and track hundreds of suspects on a 24-hour basis. The story also stresses the importance of informing on one's friends and relatives in the name of National Security.
F.B.I. operative James Belden (George Murphy) handles a major spy investigation mostly by telephone. An anonymous phone tip soon leads agents to a Soviet spy ring. The ruthless mastermind Alex Laschenkov (Karel Stepanek) secretly directs dozens of deep-cover agents, two of whom steal information that leads the gang to math genius Dr. Albert Kafer (Finlay Currie) of a secret government scientific think tank. They motivate the old man into coughing up secrets relating to a special project called Falcon, by kidnapping his son Samuel in Berlin. The loyal Kafer instead informs the F.B.I., putting in motion a slow process to identify and capture all of Laschenko's many embedded spies.
Columbia's film hews closely to the semi-documentary form but director Alfred Werker isn't as adept as was Gordon Douglas at instilling ordinary street scenes with drama and tension. With its many locations and dozens of characters (some with double identities), the film's twisting plot must have left many audiences behind. Characters are seen just once or twice and disappear, but their names keep popping up later. One of two deep-cover husband and wife teams runs a florist shop, and an undertaker is also useful because he has a small printing press. There are far too many characters to keep straight.
British actor Finlay Currie's brave old professor becomes an unlikely double agent for our side. He takes a personal risk to deal personally with Vincent Foss (Jack Manning), a thuggish taxi driver working as a courier-spy. Foss turns out to be an anguished fellow coerced into spying "because of his foolish earlier associations with student radicalism". His own wife informs on him, as do many people in J. Edgar's version of events. Hoover's 'true' story also manages to finish with a standard action scene as the Navy helps nail the atom spies on the high seas.
Obscure trivia hounds take note: future director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and his wife Louisa Horton play husband & wife traitors, but have only a few seconds of screen time together. Director Alfred Werker is credited on the superb docu-noir He Walked by Night. He actually left that film early to work on a film for producer Louis de Rochemont, who produced Walk East On Beacon! as well.
The title, by the way, is part of Dr. Kafer's instructions when he's sent on foot to turn over documents to the Soviet blackmailers.
The TCM Vault Collection's Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV DVD set gives each title a separate disc. As with most all Sony transfers, the films are immaculate and have beefy, clear audio. The only drawback is that TCM discs normally do not carry subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired. The viewing public for these 60 year-old movies skews a little older than that for contemporary films, and many older folk need the subs.
TCM's good extras include galleries of film stills and posters and occasional text essays. Martin Scorsese offers a relaxed video introduction for the collection, while Eddie Muller's essay dodges definitions of film noir by encouraging that we debate the status of films not immediately recognized as part of the style. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV presents two top-notch thrillers, a good police drama and two unusual Cold War relics. Fans of the noir style will definitely want it.
By Glenn Erickson
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV on DVD
So Dark the Night
The following year, Lewis attempted to achieve the impossible a second time with So Dark the Night (1946), based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg (The Man from Planet X ) that had appeared in Reader's Digest. Under similar budgetary constraints, Lewis this time endeavored to recreate a rural French village (and a few scenes in Paris, just to make it challenging). As with Julia Ross, Lewis was given a twelve-day shooting schedule and whatever props and locations he could glean from the Columbia backlot.
Steven Geray stars as French super sleuth Henri Cassin, who is known for his absolute determination. "He would go without sleep endlessly, day after day, when he's engaged in a chase," explains an officer of the Paris Prefecture of Police, "He is the most relentless machine I have ever known. His mind is so single-track at times he even seems stupid and sluggish. And he's so utterly fixed in purpose, he would turn in his own mother if he was convinced of her guilt." Not surprisingly, Cassin is a workaholic, and his superiors insist that he take some time off the job, to relieve the mental strain, his first vacation in eleven years.
He ends up in the rural town of St. Margot, at the inn Le Cheval Noir (The Black Horse). Cassin is welcomed by the Michauds, the owners of the inn (Eugene Borden and Ann Codee), their daughter Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), and the widowed barmaid (Helen Freeman). Knowing that the influential detective would make a fine catch, Mama Michaud tries to engineer a romance between Cassin and Nanette. This doesn't sit well with Nanette's longtime paramour Leon (Paul Marion). When Leon spies them taking a moonlight stroll, he warns Nanette, "I'd kill you rather than lose you to anyone else." In spite of the persistent flicker of Nanette's old flame, Cassin proposes to the girl and a wedding is planned.
Cassin is wracked by guilt, but the situation is resolved when Nanette and Leon disappear. "I knew it was too good to be true," Cassin laments, "That much happiness... just wasn't meant for me." Soon after, the village hunchback (Brother Theodore) reports that Nanette has been found dead in the river. The authorities are about to rule it suicide when Cassin quickly unravels this theory and indicates that Nanette was murdered. Leon is the prime suspect, until his body is discovered, also the victim of homicide.
Then, So Dark the Night becomes a labyrinthine whodunit, of hidden clues, anonymous notes, a town full of potential murderers. But the longer Cassin studies the case, the more the evidence indicates the guilt of one particular suspect -- a most unlikely suspect -- a suspect that will test the limits of the detective's notorious determination.
In a 1968 interview, director Peter Bogdanovich asked Lewis if he had ever been to a rural French village. "Well," Lewis replied, "I can only put it to you this way: I have to answer yes, but not in person. When I came to this film, I knew more about a French village than anybody who'd ever been born in a French village. I went to the research department. I got photographs and more photographs, and read and reread. I took photographs, had them blown up into eight-by-tens, and I would say to the art director, 'I want to match this -- I want this row of trees -- I want this countryside. Find it for me.' To the location department, I wouldn't say, 'Let's find a location," I'd say, 'Find this location.' It was simple -- I was doing my homework, that's all. And -- no, I've never been to a French village."
Lewis scouted the other studios for sets. "There were no French towns," he told Bogdanovich, "there was one at 20th Century-Fox and I think they wanted twenty thousand dollars' rental for the day." Lewis examined the Columbia backlot from every angle, trying to conceive of some way to transform it into the French countryside. Eventually, he looked the right way at the remains of a village that had been bombed out in a war picture. "Now this was just a field -- no sets, nothing -- and way in the background is [a demolished church steeple]. I looked at the art director and said, 'If you took a bulldozer and you made a winding road here -- a dirt road that led past that steeple -- and you put a thatched roof in the foreground, to cover up all the burned-out buildings and everything, you had another flat -- and down this winding road I saw a little donkey cart or some French villager or automobile, would I give you the impression of a French village?' By the time I finished, the sketch artist had drawn a French village for me...That's the French village you saw."
The settings of So Dark the Night are quite convincing. The only thing that strains the credibility of the European setting and remind us that the production was firmly rooted in Hollywood are the wildly varied ersatz French accents that are used to "sell" the exotic locale.
Just as Lewis was beginning to shoot So Dark, he was called into the office of studio head Harry Cohn. Due to the success of My Name Is Julia Ross, Lewis was being promoted to A-class director and would immediately take over the helm of a multi-million-dollar project: The Jolson Story (1946). Rather than being overjoyed, Lewis responded that he would be interested in reading the script and considering its possibilities. "What the hell are you talking about?" Lewis remembered Cohn exclaiming, "You mean to say you'd prefer to make that little thing, that So Dark, that 'B' picture?...Okay. Go back to your 'B' unit. Finish your little Reader's Digest story and then come back to me, ya hear?"
Lewis didn't prefer low-budget movies but he, like Cassin, focused all his attention on a current project and was determined to see each one through to a proper conclusion.
So Dark the Night had been slated for a two-week shoot, but Lewis allowed it run into three (twenty shooting days, by his account). He was emboldened by his youthful determination and his knowledge that he had become something of a hot shot at Columbia, and decided to spend some of that newfound political currency on his little "B" picture.
In his early years as director, Lewis had a fondness for creative, in some cases obtrusive, camera angles -- shooting through the spokes of wagon wheels and other foreground objects. This practice -- in its more awkward form -- is evidenced here when Lewis shoots one scene from the ceiling's perspective, through the blades of a rotating ceiling fan. Most of the time, however, his use of foregrounds and inserts is much more subtle and meaningful. One of the film's most memorable directorial flourishes is when Cassin pulls up to Le Cheval Noir and Nanette is momentarily dazzled by the sophisticated urbanite. Lewis cuts to a quick succession of closeups of the chrome accents of his touring car (hood ornament, grille, hubcaps), at which Nanette gazes in small-town amazement. It reveals something of both their characters, without the need for a single word.
In his essay "Joseph H. Lewis: Tourist in the Asylum," Myron Meisel comments upon this earmark of the director's style. "Lewis also displays his penchant for objects in hard focus in the foreground while the action takes place farther back in the frame. The death of the girl's mother is evoked through the metaphor of a dripping faucet and a steaming teapot, our view of them obscured by the clutter of various other kitchen objects. All of these visual devices converge in the stunningly designed climax, in which the complex motifs of framing, objects in the foreground, reprised bells on the sound track, deep focus, mirror images, and ratcheted light are orchestrated to the theme of realization."
Not everyone appreciated the stark visual storytelling in which Lewis was engaging. Variety complained, "Paradoxically, the film seems to collapse under the weight of its technical niceties as director Joseph H. Lewis continuously takes time out to make his points through the indirection of cinematic imagery rather than directly through the spoken word."
Overall, however, Variety appreciated Lewis's eye for detail: "A tight combination of direction, camerawork, and musical scoring produce a series of isolated visual effects that are subtle and moving to an unusual degree...Despite the obvious budget limitations, the layout of the streets, interior decorations, and landscape shots define France as it exists in our imagination."
Meisel takes it a step further: "[So Dark the Night] reveals Lewis at last as a filmmaker of astonishing complexity...From this point on, although he would continue to helm his share of clinkers, Lewis fully assumes his most congenial creative role, wending his way through permutations of obsession with the bemused decency of a tourist in an asylum."
Similarly, film historian Robert Keser, in Senses of Cinema, insists that So Dark the Night, "announces Lewis' maturity and fully realised ambition, a breathlessly directed outburst of expressionism."
Largely overlooked in Lewis's canon, So Dark the Night has been steadily gaining an appreciation among film aficionados. Upon the director's death in 2000, Ed Grant, in Time magazine, singled out the film as one of Lewis's more notable achievements, calling it, "a masterful little whodunit about a French detective who faces the biggest puzzle of his career. The denouement of this forgotten gem is so potent that it was later used as the climax to Agatha Christie's last Hercule Poirot novel, Curtain (Christie never said whether she'd seen Lewis's film)."
A few years later, Tony Rayns wrote in an updated edition of the Time Out Film Guide, "This is what Joseph H. Lewis is all about. The script is a perfunctory and frequently silly murder mystery...However, none of this matters. The film is directed like a million bucks [with] more cinematic ideas and effects per square foot of screen than any number of contemporary 'A' features."
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Producer: Ted Richmond
Screenplay: Dwight Babcock and Martin Berkeley
Based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Production Design: Carl Anderson
Cast: Steven Geray (Henri Cassin), Micheline Cheirel (Nanette Michaud), Paul Marion (Leon Achard), Frank Arnold (Antoine), Eugene Borden (Pierre Michaud), Helen Freeman (Widow Bridelle), Ann Codee (Mama Michaud), Egon Brecher (Dr. Boncourt), Gregory Gaye (Commissioner Grande).
by Bret Wood
So Dark the Night
Love has its place -- but it puts no butter on the table.- Mama Michaud
Leon thinks only of his farm. But we, we could have a wonderful time in Paris, you and I.- Nanette Michaud
A man your age isn't meant for marriage.- Pierre Michaud
I knew it was too good to be true. That much happiness just wasn't meant for me.- Henri Cassin
Henri Cassin is no more. I caught him. I killed him.- Henri Cassin
According to a December 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item, some filming took place at the Columbia Ranch in Burbank, CA. For additional information on "The Whistler" series, consult the Series Index and see the entry below for The Whistler.