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Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Long Night (1947)

Director: Anatole Litvak
Stars: Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price and Ann Dvorak
The Long Night seems like a pretty appropriate title for a film noir, especially when that has Vincent Price in it. It's an RKO picture directed by Anatole Litvak, with music by Dmitri Tiomkin and the inevitable but welcome presence of film noir veteran Elisha Cook Jr, it has all the credentials, and it starts as it means to go on with the corpse of Maximilian the Great tumbling down the stairs from the top floor where the only witness is a blind former serviceman called Frank Dunlap. That's Price and Cook respectively, and when the cops go up to the top floor to talk to the only man who he could have gone to see, Henry Fonda shoots at them through the door.

He's Joe Adams and he's a trapped rat who really has no idea what to do, so decides to stay put even though he has no way out of his apartment and the cops are more than happy to kill him if they can't get him out. It seems highly unlikely that he isn't the killer but he's set up as the hero and the gathering crowd want to give him the benefit of the doubt. He won't come out though because he doesn't know what to tell the cops. As he says, how can he explain what he doesn't understand? Of course the only way we can understand is to head off into a flashback, which we promptly do after the cops litter his room with gunfire shot from across Allegheny Square.

He works at the plant, doing some sort of sandblasting, and falls for a fellow orphan called Jo Ann who turns up one day to deliver flowers for the assistant manager's birthday and takes a wrong turn into his part of the plant. She doesn't look like a femme fatale, given that she's played by Barbara Bel Geddes in her film debut, a full eleven years before Vertigo. If anything she comes across as a professional victim but Joe is smitten, so much so that he proposes marriage after three weeks. Unfortunately there's something she's not telling him. She has someone else's picture on her mirror and a string of postcards and on the night Joe proposes she almost breaks his heart by heading out to keep an appointment, one that she won't tell him anything about.
Of course he follows her, given that she's on the bus and he has a car, and she leads him all the way to the capable stage magician Maximilian the Great, who Price plays like a game show host. He's good at what he does and everyone seems to respect him, even though he has dark hair on top and blonde at the sides, making him look somewhat look a stretched version of the Comedian from Watchmen. He's just as sleazy, as we soon find out, with a flair for the theatrical that he doesn't keep for the stage and a convincing line in fabrication. He's not even repentant about it. 'Good heavens, do I have to apologize for superior imagination?' he cries.

And he's telling the truth. Manual worker Joe Adams can't compete, so gets caught up in every little game until he doesn't know which way is up. Tiomkin's striking score aids that, as does the way that Fonda and Price play off each other, one all basic and down to earth and the other high faluting and weaving his webs. Quite a few scenes between the two were shot as if they weren't in the same room to highlight that distance, every line of dialogue followed by a cut to the other character. It's obviously deliberate but I wonder if the web would have drawn tighter if the scenes had become closer and more claustrophobic as Adams loses his grip.
Fonda is OK as Adams but while Price should run rings round him mentally, he seems a little weak in other attributes, especially for a manual labourer. He'd only had one role since the war, as Wyatt Earp in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, but obviously had a way to go to get back to what he did before it: his last film before he enlisted in the Navy was the stunning The Ox-Bow Incident. Bel Geddes is fine as the young lady both men are in love with but she got better roles later in her career. It would be another 31 years before Dallas. Ann Dvorak is suitably sassy as Maximilian's former assistant who quit him and fell for Adams, but is left on the sidelines both as a character and an actor. Cook gets even less to do, which is a shame.

My only problem was that I could see the next couple of twists that never came, though I don't believe it's from memory. I think they just weren't in the story and should have been. I have seen Daybreak, the French film made by Marcel Carné six years earlier with Jean Gabin and Arletty, among others, but it was back in 2005 and I honestly can't remember how it went. I rated it good but not excellent, but that still leaves it a notch above this American remake, regardless of the cast.

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