So Dark The Night is certainly a bit of an oddity functioning as Columbia’s attempt at a Parisian noir before being transplanted to the idyllic countryside. Linguistically, it’s a strange hybrid dominated by English with stylistic sprinkles of Francés.
Regardless, of any discrepancies, Joseph H. Lewis follows up My Name is Julia Ross with an equally befuddling little drama imbued with his usual elan, freely breaking through the obvious economy.
Some of the compositions are mesmerizing. For one thing, they often draw a moderate amount of attention to their near artificiality. Take, for instance, a tracking shot moving from outdoors to an interior in one fell swoop. There’s no fourth wall — real or invisible — to get in the way of the camera. You also cannot help but notice the very deliberate and rather ostentatious zooms applied throughout to emphasize character entrances.
He has other visual tricks too. One is reminded of the moment he introduces his taciturn heroine (Micheline Cheirel) hanging up laundry on the line. All we see are her hands as they move down the line as her head pops shyly over the articles of clothing. Then, noticing a fancy car rolling into the courtyard, she’s busy eyeing all the shiny grills and nobs with a mesmerized fascination. She barely notices the famed policeman Henri Cassin (Steven Geray ), nearly starstruck, staring at her before he’s snapped out of his own reverie.
Most, if not all of the cast, are all but forgotten today. They are a homely crew, stilted at times, while still obliging with their own brand of blushing charm. Given the prerequisites, Geray, a chipper Austrian-American with a vaguely foreign accent, earns center stage. The quibbling mother and father are played by a pair of veterans, Eugene Borden and Ann Codee. However, it is the relationship between Gerray and Cheirel giving rise to this slightly perturbing psychology — not to mention a budding romantic connection.
The ensuing courtship feels like Lewis’s own artificial Hollywood-style take on the scenery of a Renoir movie, and it’s not meant to be as dismissive as it might sound. Because given his greatest successes — all low budget crowd-pleasers — he somehow makes the aesthetic work in his favor.
However, a threat is injected into the storyline with the jealous, near-suicidal obsession of Leon (Paul Marion), the young man she’s been pledged to be married to since adolescence. He makes it very clear he doesn’t want to see his Nanette with Cassin anymore and his brute jagged edges effectively disrupt the picture’s cornballish jauntiness with high-strung dramatics. It’s one extreme replaced with a new normal on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.
However, it remains to be seen where our sights are set. We can do little more than observe what is before us. Surely, someone will make a move amid the prevailing uneasiness. There must be an initiation of rising action. Soon enough we get an answer.
Nanette goes missing and all roads point to Leon. A crime of passion perhaps? Except he’s nowhere to be seen either. The local commissioner calls on the expertise of Mr. Cassin and the kindly man sets aside his vacation to investigate the troubling events.
Driven by empirical evidence, he nabs his man — under quite extraordinary circumstances — and his conclusions verge on the ludicrous. Given the little amount of time it’s allotted, So Dark The Night quickly spirals from a mere mystery to a tension-infused time bomb of anticipation. It’s a matter of knowing what’s coming: Murder!
Still, far from stripping the movie of its intensity, it lends the finale a Hitchcockian flair even in its abrupt denouement around the shattered shards of a window frame. This intermittent sense of spectacle is what will draw some viewers to an otherwise unassuming noir, which might be easily forgotten. Couched between the evocative cinematography of Burnett Guffey and this odd strain of psychological extrapolation, we have a most peculiar curio on our hands.
The one implausibility I cannot forgive is how Gerray could have been such a prolific policeman for such a long time and yet he nor anyone else picked up on the imminent warning signs swirling around. Otherwise, it’s idiosyncratic enough to enjoy without too much reservation.