Nightfall (1957)

7 11 2011

I really, really want to love Jacques Tourneur, but outside of a few especially impressive efforts (the generally unheralded Wichita and the over-studied Cat People) he really just strikes me as a pretty middle of the road genre Hollywood director that has a few moments where he does something interesting. It seems that his whole visual sensibility is limited to big shadows, which is kind of the laziest trick for an action director of the time whose trying to make something deeper. It looks nice here and in Out of the Past, but it kind of perfectly compliments the simplistic storytelling. Tourneur is very fascinating and he did many things with the camera that should be acknowledged, but it seems that more often than not, film snobs are willing to overlook cliches and conventions for a few moments of “pure cinema.”

The setup  itself works, despite the fact that it’s dragged down by the fact that it just chooses specific elements that were popular “noir” motifs at the time. Some nobody guy gets mixed up with legitimate thugs through a completely bizarre one in a lifetime situation. He’s in over his head because these professionals are after him. Additionally, the police are after. Everyone is against him, except for a girl, of course! My cynicism towards this type of story isn’t a condemnation of the film’s narrative itself, but rather a reflection on the limitations that someone unique as Tourneur was trapped inside.

There’s at least two or three instances in which I had to stop the movie to make sure I hadn’t seen it before, which I guess isn’t too much of a surprise. The argument is generally that these type of films are exercises in style and aren’t meant to be complicated narratives. In that regard, I see eye to eye with this film, but it doesn’t have anything interesting to chew on outside of Aldo Ray’s hoarse voice making him seem more interesting.His character is likable enough, but the problem comes in these movies when they really try to force the martyr element down one’s throat. He’s wrongly accused, he’s in a pickle, he just got back from the war. In a world where something shady is supposedly always going on, why does a film like this restrict its protagonist from doing anything bad? He has a “bad past” is the extent of his backstory and while I don’t mind when writers leave their character’s background open-ended, it seems more like lazy writing as opposed to attempt at being opaque.

Tourneur does bring out some genuine suspense in his picture and it really does look nice. It seems that his style benefits greatly from the widerscreen, since I always thought something in which the shots were manufactured so deliberately should be seen without the limiting academy ratio. Aldo Ray is actually decent enough, and he’s fun to watch with Anne Bancroft, though their romantic connection seems to have been missing about three or four scenes. I don’t mind the direct and “short” nature of Tourneur’s work (it’s actually one of his best attributes) but to believe these two fall so hopelessly in love so quickly is bizarre, especially since Ray is ultimately kidnapping Bancroft. I guess this is where some would give the film points for being transgressive or even surreal, but when such an element in rolled within the confines of traditional storytelling, it really isn’t that groundbreaking. Instead, it’s another instance of lazy writing. It’s not nearly as lazy as the film’s insistence on using a voiceover that literally describes everything that is happening in the voiceover, but it really isn’t much better.

In the end, it’s actually easy enough to overlook the film’s faults, though there are many and although I seem to be focusing almost exclusively on them. It’s a solid genre film, which clocks in under 90 minutes as it should, not  unlike the way a good pop song should (generally) clock in under 3 minutes. Unfortunately, it never really decides if it wants to be open-ended and fractured (which would have been great) or tightly and completely constructed. Not a masterpiece, but not a full on face-plant, either. I’d argue Tourneur wasn’t capable of the latter.

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