Nightfall (1956): “An Unsung Noir by one of the Great Unsung Directors”
Jacques Tourneur is the kind of director that has been consigned to the history books, the RKO-man was well known for his many low-budget horror films (including the pre-Romero, I walked with a Zombie), he also did many noir, westerns and epics. Filmmakers just aren’t allowed that level of liberation, the way movies are financed in 2010’s Hollywood means directors tend to be consigned to one box and stay there; modern eclecticism is the mightiest of Unicorns. There is more to Tourneur than his ability to bounce from one style to the next as evidenced by his status becoming more prominent over the past two decades. A great deal of that acclaim comes from Cat People and Out of the Past, still, his movies are being reintroduced to the world via the bluray revolution. The late era noir, Nightfall (1956), is the latest recieve the full Blu treatement (from Arrow Academy).
Based on a novel by David Goodis, Nightfall sees Aldo Ray trying to escape his past as two mysterious violent men turn up from his past and throw his life into turmoil. There’s also a scene stealing performance by Anne Bancroft as love interest and model, Marie, and James Gregory as an insurance investigator trying to discover the truth behind James Vanning (Ray). After a pleasant scene in which Ray and Bancroft meet, they are interrupted by Brian Keith (John) and the grinning sociopath, Rudy Bond (Red), where the two demand the $350,000 that they claim is in Ray’s possession. Late period or no, there are all the telltale hallmarks with mistaken identities and flashbacks leading to a snowy field in Wyoming that had a clear influence on Fargo.
The noir was prominent from 1944 to 1954, and, as cinema history has taught us movies that come after a movement has finished tend to be the most derivative. Everything that a style can say has already been, so what is left? And on some levels that is true, as a narrative exercise there is little remarkable about Nightfall beyond some violent implications. At the same time, there are some pleasing deviations from convention.
The very idea of romance in the style of film is built upon doomed foundations, there are very few films in this cycle where a romantic relationship doesn’t end in betrayal, a prison sentence or death. That isn’t the case in Stirling Silliphant’s (love that name) script, while just as dark and dangerous as any other touchstone you could evoke, it gets a great deal of mileage from keeping the inherent nihilism of 1940s and 50s crime cinema at bay. It’s funny that Arrow Academy should release the Big Clock and Nightfall so close to one another as they both use the stylisation of the noir as a point of deviation rather than an anchor. They would also make a fabulous double bill, too.
David Goodis wrote Nightfall first, so it isn’t massively different from noir’s bread and butter, however, it does differ in another key way – narration. From the over the top narrator in Detour or Kubrick’s The Killing to more thoughtful ones in the likes of Sunset Boulevard or In a Lonely Place, whether reliable or not there is always a disembodied voice describing events from either an emotional or narrative standpoint. The narrator is an artefact of these stories origins on the page. There is very little in Nightfall. This is an extension of Ray’s characterisation and performance being very protective of who he is, hiding his past and keeping his secrets from being rediscovered. Consequently, it uses the framework to create a distance occupied by Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. It is in that distance that the theme of lost souls finding each other is found. Through these differences, Tourneur’s film becomes a noir mood piece. All the usual scenes and touchstones are there, but instead of a voice dictating the experience, there is the typically striking chiaroscuro cinematography from Brunett Guffey (My Name is Julia Ross & Birdman of Alcatraz) and the achingly romantic strains of George Duning’s score.
Film Noir is a lot like the Italian violent murder mystery’s, the Giallo. Both are prominent styles of genre cinema in their respective countries and both have rabid fans, however, the films themselves are much too strict in their adherence to a rulebook of styles, ticks and tropes. Not that there is anything wrong with subscribing to a rulebook as both noir and the gialli have produced some of the finest films, nonetheless, those that deviate and find those small ways to stand out are the films that burrow their ways into the hearts of fans. Now, if that isn’t emblematic of Jacques Tourneur’s position in the film world, I don’t know what is.