Saturday 24 February 2024

The Long Night (1947)

Director: Anatole Litvak
Writer: John Wexley, based on a short story by Jacques Viot
Stars: Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price and Ann Dvorak

Index: The First Thirty.

I’ve seen The Long Night before and I’ve even reviewed it at Apocalypse Later, but I didn’t remember my 2009 viewing at all. Watching again, I find that it starts to fade quickly from memory, not because it’s bad but because it’s weak. It’s a Hollywood adaptation of a classic French film, 1939’s Le jour se lève, or Daybreak, but with much of its palpable edge removed.

It opens neatly, with Vincent Price tumbling down a staircase with bullet holes in his body, the only witness a blind former soldier played by Elisha Cook, Jr. Of course, we saw it too and we know that he emerged from the front room on the top floor, which we soon discover is Joe Adams’s apartment.

Bill Pulaski has a room behind him, but he’s working a swing shift, so Henry Fonda is the one and only suspect in the death of Vincent Price. Of course, it doesn’t help his case when the cops knock on his door and he greets them with more bullets. He even comes out to look around, with his gun still in his hand. This has to be the easiest murder to solve in the history of the movies!

Of course, it’s not meant to be a mystery. It’s meant to be a drama, with scenes of Joe Adams in the present, gradually besieged by insanely triggerhappy cops while the neighbourhood is gathered outside to watch, alternated with an array of flashback scenes of Joe Adams in the past to explain how he got to this sorry state.

It turns out that Adams is a manual worker, a sandblaster, and he seems nice enough, if a little dense. He’s also an orphan, as is a young lady who shows up at his work to deliver some flowers for his boss’s birthday party. They hit it off over their shared experience at the Good Shepherd orphanage and time moves on. Only Three weeks in, he suggests marriage and kids, which seems fair, given that Jo Ann is played by the ever likeable Barbara Bel Geddes.

However, she has an appointment one night and he follows her to a club, Al King’s Jungle, where he sees Price on stage. He’s a magician who goes by Maximilian the Great and we get some clever exposition from a lovely assistant, Charlene, who quit partway during a show and so chats with Joe at the bar instead.

She’d like to do a lot more than chat but Joe only has eyes for Jo Ann, so they fall into mere friendship. The catch is that Max is a lech. He tried it on with Charlene in her flashback in a way that we would call stalking today and he’s trying it on with Jo Ann now, even claiming to be her father, which nobody believes. And that all escalates to Max showing up at Joe’s place with a gun but ending up on the receiving end of its bullets and we’re right back at the start.

Clearly this was an attempt by Hollywood to capitalise on a highly regarded French film but without the ability to actually do so because of the restrictions of the Production Code. What makes that even more galling is that RKO, who had bought the distribution rights to Daybreak, actually tried to buy up all the available prints of that film to destroy them, so that their take on the story would be the only one that people could see. Fortunately, they failed and we can see that far superior version today, with every one of the edges that this version lacks.

Henry Fonda does a pretty solid job, but his work is hamstrung by the Code’s requirements and so is restricted to a few excellent scenes. A particular gem is the showcase scene with him leaning out of his third floor window to shout at the crowd, but his admirable acting is aided to no small degree by what the crowd shout in response. They’re on his side and that makes for the most emotion we experience here.

Barbara Bel Geddes is infuriatingly cute and naïve, perfectly cast as Jo Ann, but Ann Dvorak has far more to do as Charlene, a character of depth and experience who’s lived a life, even if she’s still young enough to live another. I liked her immensely and found her far more worthy than simple eye candy like Jo Ann.

As was becoming a trend though, Price is an absolutely joyous villain. Maximilian the Great is a real cad and he knows it and relishes in it. That he appears to be a talented magician too is merely a bonus. Price is playing older in this film than I believe he had thus far, with black hair on top but white hair at the sides. He has a distinguished looking suit to wear on stage, of course, but he continues to wear bow ties in scenes off it too, with wildly checked outfits.

Frankly, while the film obviously wants us to call out Fonda’s window scene as the acting highlight of the picture, I’d go for Price’s work in the final scene in Joe’s apartment, Max full of himself to the degree that he goads him far too far. Unfortunately, that leads to the most disappointing aspect of the movie, which isn’t just that it doesn’t follow the original ending from the French film but that it seems to set up a twist that never arrives.

Regardless of how well Price plays Max, he’s a magician and this final scene screams to be a setup, where he gets a serious one over on his rival and thus gets the girl while Joe is stuck in jail. We’ve even watched him perform a whole bunch of capable tricks in his stage act, so we know that he has it in him. Surely his actions at this point have a misdirection purpose and we just need to figure out how he’ll wrap up a powerful real life trick, but no. It remains just as straightforward as we saw it at the outset.

And so this picture ends up a misfire, even if the bullets Joe puts into Max aren’t. However, there are moments when it truly shines, as we ought to expect from actors of the calibre of Fonda and Dvorak.

Fonda had started out in 1935, he found his stride with 1938’s Jezebel and 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln and hit the big time a year later in The Grapes of Wrath, which landed him a much deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor. By the time he made The Long Night, he’d added a couple of other classics in The Lady Eve and The Ox-Bow Incident.

Dvorak was six years younger but beat him to the screen by two decades, starting out as a child actor credited as Baby Anna Lehr at age four. She’d racked up legions of credits by the time Fonda debuted, finding a real presence in the precodes in the original Scarface, The Crowd Roars and Three on a Match. Sadly, she was close to retirement at the ripe old age of thirty-six.

That Price, far newer to the screen, was able to match them effortlessly, magnetic in every scene and generating highlights just as often as them, speaks volumes as to how established and reliable he’d become, even as the villain billed after the debuting Barbara Bel Geddes.

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