Saturday 26 January 2008

Nightfall (1957)

Aldo Ray is not a name I know too well. I've seen him in a few films but he's never really registered with me, just another supporting actor while I'm paying far more attention to someone else. Here he's the lead, appearing above Brian Keith and Anne Bancroft, and he's playing a character with a hidden past. He's Art Rayburn, who we first meet hiding under the name of James Vanning because he seems to have lost $350,000 of someone else's money, Brian Keith being the someone else.

He looks pretty good in the role, world weary with a little huskiness in his voice and completely believable as a real person in a film noir. Characters like the ones Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith and James Gregory play are archetypes, deliberately fashioned in particular ways to progress the plot, but Ray's is just real. He doesn't even look like a star and in some ways that's really refreshing. On the flipside it helps the story to become a little forgettable. As a character he's bright but not too bright, tough but not too tough, charming but not too charming. He's not too anything.

The story is a simple one. Rayburn/Vanning had a large sum of money but he lost it. Both the good guys and the bad guys want to recover it and he's the only lead they have. Naturally none of them believe him, but they have no other way of tracking the money without following him around and hoping. The bad guys are John and Red, played by Brian Keith and his thuggish sidekick Rudy Bond. The good guy is Ben Fraser, an insurance agent who's been shadowing him for three months, played by James Gregory. His goodness is highlighted by scenes at home with his wife, played by Jocelyn Brando.

The film is dark, way beyond the dark required for a film noir which generally plays around with the contrast between light and dark. This is just dark, hard to see what's going on half the time. It isn't just the outdoor scenes either, like the one where John and Red kidnap Rayburn and take him to some industrial plant to threaten him, it's the inside ones too. The scene after that has Ben Fraser talking with his wife and they don't even seem to have the lights on. Only when we get to Wyoming in flashbacks do we really see any light, so maybe it was a conscious decision: back before anything went wrong there was light, but no more.

Wyoming is where we find the background to the story and I really enjoyed this part of it. Jim Vanning is real in many ways and his part in all this comes through real things like accidents and mistakes. It also explains why he has to keep running but can't go to the police. He's camping out with a friend when a car crashes not far from them. It's a couple of bank robbers with $350,000 of loot. They kill the friend, whose wife has written him indiscreet letters, and set it all up as if Vanning did it. They think they kill him too, but he's still alive. They leave but take the wrong bag, leaving Vanning with the money and he loses it in the snow. It's one of those stories so stupid it has to be real.

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