Saturday 23 August 2008

Nightmare (1956)

The early sequences fit the title well. The credits unfold over swirling psychedelia, which looks even more surreal in black and white than it would have done in conventional colour. Then it's disembodied heads and mirrored rooms and Stan Grayson murdering someone in some sort of out of body experience, ripping a button off his suit and locking him in a closet. The soundtrack is jazz and it aids the mood no end. Naturally it's all a nightmare and he wakes up safe and well in his hotel room, but just as naturally he finds the button and the key and the blood on his wrist and he realises it's all real.

Kevin McCarthy, the same year as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plays Stan Grayson like Bruce Campbell would play him, and I don't just mean his big chin. The role is initially silent but with his thoughts audible via narration, a device that I never liked but which works a lot better here than in, say, Strange Interlude. He's seriously rattled, as you can imagine, and can't work out what's going on, so he rambles round New Orleans for a day and goes to see his brother-in-law, Rene Bressard. And that's where Edward G Robinson comes in, and Rene Bressard is a cop, though one who initially believes that the nightmare is just that, a nightmare.

Robinson literally couldn't give anything less than a superb performance and McCarthy is solid. Beyond them and a quality supporting cast that includes Virginia Christine, Gage Clarke and Marian Carr (surprisingly in her last film) there's a highly appropriate soundtrack. The story is set in New Orleans, for a start, so the city is a character all on its own: having travelled through thirty states plus DC, I've found three cities that feel like people and N'awlins is one of them, one that is never quiet. Grayson is a musician and there's music everywhere here, both on screen and off.

Stan plays in Billy May's Orchestra, for whom his girlfriend Gina sings, and Billy May is played by himself. Gina herself is played by a real singer, Connie Russell. Stan has a musical theme stuck in his head from the nightmare and when he asks his fellow musicians all along Bourbon Street what it is, some of those musicians, such as Meade 'Lux' Lewis, are real. The musical accompaniment decreases as the film goes on, which is a little disappointing but perhaps appropriate if it's meant as a parallel to Grayson's disassociation from his reality. Even the one musical number late on doesn't quite work as it should, because Grayson has changed.

The story is intriguing, as it should be given that it's based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich was a major crime writer, whose work was adapted by a number of major film directors, not least Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. Rear Window, one of the greatest films of all time, was based on a Woolrich story. Even lesser films like this one and my last Woolrich, Witness to Murder, are fascinating and involving. It's been said that his was the fourth name in American crime fiction, behind Hammett, Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner. While films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep can't be ignored, neither can Rear Window and Woolrich is certainly better represented in film than either Hammett or Chandler, at least by numbers.

This is my fourth film called Nightmare and it's the best and earliest of them. Romano Scavolini's 1981 version, better known as Nightmare in a Damaged Brain is a sleazy slasher that has a few high points but doesn't live up to its reputation as a notorious video nasty; Ahn Byeong-ki's 2000 horror movie was one of the lesser Korean films I've seen lately; and Brent Nowak's 2007 short was an intriguing little film with an amazing depth for its quarter of an hour running time. This though is the best yet with, according to IMDb, only another 23 more Nightmares to go.

1 comment:

Gonzalo Saavedra said...

Hi, Hal:

I was five or six when I saw this movie on TV with the name of "Pesadilla" (I was born in Chile) and it has been in my memory all these years. A couple of months from now, I don't know exactly why, I have been developing an obsessive desire to watch it again, so I made this search on the Internet, to find that there is available one movie by Shane—"Fear in the Night" (1947)—with the same plot, but not the same which I recall. The cars I remember had sort of sharp silhouettes that were not in the minds of the designers in the late forties. So it has to be the other one, from 1956, with the exactly translation of "Nightmare", "Pesadilla". Then I found your commentaries in your blog—sharp silhouettes, too—and one devoted to this movie. Since it's apparently not available (Amazon, etc.), the question is where and/or how did you were able to see it? Did you buy it? If not, would you be so kind to take me out from this pesadilla and share a copy with me?