Nightfall (1957): Jacques Tourneur’s 50s Noir

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To begin to compare Nightfall with Jacques Tourneur’s Out of The Past (1947), his film noir masterpiece from a decade earlier is a deeply unfair proposition from the outset. One could argue the films feel nothing alike — like apples and oranges — and they came into being in two very different environments. The former is in the world of gumshoes and femme fatales, what we consider now the archetype of noir and it’s true the picture, known as Hang My Gallows High, is a landmark with its photography from Nicholas Murucacas, iconic even on its own merit.

Nightfall is certainly a B-picture but that in itself is a delight. Put it together with a fledgling group of underrated classics like The Burglar (1951), Crime Wave (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Lineup (1958), and Murder by Contract (1958) as showcases of how exquisite this genre can be in its very gritty economy. Because we have moved on from the expressionistic facades of the ’40s into a period of more authentically hewn pictures, which were ultimately blessed not simply by the low lighting of studio sets but on-location exteriors.

The script itself by Stirling Silliphant, who consequently would also pen The Lineup, is not altogether extraordinary but it hones in on one man who was caught up in a very unfortunate moment of fate and now has it following him wherever he goes. So we can concede that it shares that same cloud of darkness following Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.

But for Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray), from when we first meet him on an L.A. street corner, it becomes apparent that other stories are being grafted in with his and it starts long before we meet him. He steps into a bar and on pretense is introduced to the working model Marie (Anne Bancroft) sitting next to him.

We wonder where their conversation will end. A good bet is some sort of romantic tryst or at least a future date, except, instead it’s into the grasp of two thugs who seem like they’ve been waiting for him. Eventually, we learn through a flashback what happened.

He was having a quiet weekend away with his good friend, a doctor (Frank Albertson). The scenery around them is gorgeous, the snow peaks of Teton country poking up behind them in their white-capped winter majesty extending as far as the eye can see. But against that, a truly harrowing development arises.

They see a passing car careen off the road and they go over like any decent citizen to provide aid only they are met by a pair of bank robbers who have a cutthroat mentality seeing as they ran off with $350,000  worth of cash. Almost instantaneously Jim’s reverie is shattered by the worst reality check he’s ever been stabbed with.

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By some miracle, a fortuitous piece of counter fate, he escaped with his life. However, despite a change of location, name, and even occupation — he’s an advertising artist now — like clockwork John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond) caught up with him.

He thought Marie was in on it as well and confronts her about it but the romance blooming between them and the fact she’s an oblivious bystander throws them back together. Jim’s resolved to take a bus ride back out to Wyoming to recover the money because his hand is forced. He knows the two robbers will be after it. He doesn’t realize at first they’re not the only ones. A personable insurance investigator (James Gregory) has some vested interests of his own.

Nightfall is generally more fascinating for its locations and elements of style and atmosphere than its actual plotline but sometimes with B noir that’s admissible. The stark contrast is stunning taking us through ’50s era Los Angeles and providing an excellent time capsule juxtaposed intermittently with the snowy scapes of Wyoming.

In a particularly terrific moment, we watch as the noir world seeps into the refined elegance of a ladies’ fashion show where Marion is working the runway. It’s this lovely collision of peoples and settings we are not used to seeing together in the same frame. Meanwhile, the continually dueling voices of Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft prove a simple pleasure in their own right with such rich tonalities of character that distinguish them fully. Perhaps it’s a mere consequence of cigarette smoke.

Not terribly unlike Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), the picture goes back to the powder of the Wyoming winter and climaxes in a snow plow finale, which is invigorating as much for its backdrop as it is for the action. Some will note the character arcs have been much revised from Out of the Past and we get our hero’s happy ending. Nevertheless, it traverses a brutal road in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

God’s Little Acre (1958)

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If there was an atypical even offbeat Anthony Mann picture, then God’s Little Acre would probably fit the bill. Based on the wildly popular and vehemently decried Depression-era work of the same name by Erskine Caldwell, it essentially serves as a second outing for much of the cast and crew involved with a picture from the year prior, Men in War (1957).

We have Mann reteamed with his favorite, Robert Ryan, and young Aldo Ray. Then, most prominently, we have cinematographer Ernest Haller and composer Elmer Bernstein returning. Even Phillip Yordan once more fronts for blacklisted Ben Maddow. And yet the actual results are oil and water.

The opening notes of a folksy title ballad sound off, seemingly more at home in a live-action Disney classic than a mainstream drama such as this. In truth, it’s an outmoded brand of melodrama. We just cannot hope to look at the pedigree the same way with its southern gothic and a hint of hillbilly.

That’s right. It’s part Jed Clampett, the other section Tennessee Williams, edgy and sweaty as any 50s film at its height. But what leaves an impression is not only the raciness for the day but the unadulterated playfulness. This is real Georgia down-home entertainment and it benefits from these qualities.

Ty Ty Walden (Ryan) is a slightly scatterbrained matriarch, who resolutely believes that his daddy left behind gold on their property. He’s hellbent on getting him a piece of the wealth and he’s pursued his aspirations by leaving his family acreage dotted with holes.

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He’s dragged his two sons into it too (Jack Lord and Vic Morrow), who are both a bit neurotic in their own right. The jealous Buck is constantly at the throat of his ravishing bride Griselda (Tina Louise in a sweltering debut) believing she still has the hots for their brother-in-law Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), a man married to the eldest Walden gal (Helen Westcott). He’s not altogether wrong but he’s not helping the situation any either. Then there’s Shaw. He just repeats everything his older brother says. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. They take after their father.

Meanwhile, their youngest sister, the bodacious southern belle Darlin’ Jill, is quite the looker herself. Buddy Hackett is just about the same as we remember him in all his pictures. That voice. That blubbering. That rotund lovable girth. His character, the aptly named Pluto, comes looking to court Darlin’ Jill who strings him alone as is expected.

Otherwise, the cast also features a criminally underused Rex Ingram as a farmhand and Michael Landon in a thoroughly unique role as an albino. Though only a minor player, he proves a crucial component of the plot since Ty Ty is convinced that albinos have an impeccable radar for gold and he pressgangs the boy to use his remarkable abilities. The beauty is that no one seems to outrightly question such a notion. They just move along like normal. In the meantime, Darlin’ Jill has fun tantalizing her rotund suitor and making eyes at the intriguingly pale Dave Dawson.

The latter half of the story follows lusty looks and passionate clenches as forbidden love is rekindled between Will and Griselda. It seems like just about everyone is being pawed over by everybody else. Tremors are going through the household with Ty Ty putting it upon himself to bring his family together and keep them on amicable terms. It’s not such an easy task with so much dysfunction at hand.

Will’s wife is beside herself as her man gets drunk and has some vague notion of turning the power at the old plant on so work can commence again for all the impoverished locals. But Ty Ty’s also in a scrape for cash and relationships have only deteriorated into fiery hell between Buck and Will — a woman still caught between them.

What are the main takeaways from the picture? It’s a rather incredulous piece that’s provocative and dull and maladjusted all at the same time. Ryan once more shows his capability at ably anchoring an entire film. However, all I could think of was the fact that if God’s Little Acre had been a bit more conventional and garnered a few more accolades for hard-hitting drama, we might be remembering Tina Louise as a cinematic sex symbol instead of a “Movie Star” from Gilligan’s Island. Maybe some movies get buried serendipitously.

3/5 Stars

 

Men in War (1957)

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“Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I’ll tell you the story of all wars.”

The date might seem arbitrary but we are told that this story takes place over the course of one day: Sept 6, 1950. Robert Ryan might as well be the stand-in for a Bill Mauldin G.I. as he leads a battalion cut off and deep in enemy territory. He’s got the 5 o’clock shadow and most other prerequisites. There’s a sense that he’s just trying to live through the day and keep his men alive for as long as possible — hopefully to see their way back home or at least to their brethren on the other side of the next hill.

But in order to get there, they must survive a line of snipers, a hailstorm of enemy artillery, and terrain laced with mines. If I had never seen The Steel Helmet (1951), Men in War would easily become one of the most crucial war movies for me. Because it dares to tell a narrative of war that rings fiercely resonant not simply because of cynicism or even pure authenticity. It has to do with a story stripped down to its bare essentials. Men in War is just that. It comes down to the semantics of what you think that actually means. But for the average soldier, it’s a moment by moment struggle to survive. It’s not about heroics at all. Instead, it entails methodical and level-headed action in the face of constant stressors verging on the absurd.

Though Hollywood might have suggested otherwise on various occasions, war was never about the glut of combat. It’s always lean and mean — proving to be disillusioning even to the victors and far more so to those who must stand defeated or draw a truce.

The best way I can find to describe this particular experience is through the influence of negative space. Because Mann’s film, in showing us less manages to evoke the exact inverse, suggesting what is not shown to be as vitally important as what is left in the frame. Far from lowering the tension, it only succeeds in making it all the more unnerving. There’s an ongoing sense of isolation and the enemy is left all but unseen.

Then, in a single moment, we realize they’re as afraid of us as we are of them. Actually, the adversary is only shown on a couple of brief occasions, most visibly with a surrendering Korean Soldier (played by Bonanza support Victor Sen Yung).

Aldo Ray is a soldier at his most cynical and insubordinate. The only thing more exasperating about him for Ryan is the fact that in most cases he’s right and more important still, he’s too ornery to be knocked off. But it’s almost odd how fiercely loyal he is the catatonic colonel (Robert Keith) who made it away from the lines with him.

James Edwards offers another obvious link to Fuller’s Korean War picture while serving up his usual foray in minor though intelligent portrayals of African-American soldiers. Men in War is devastating in how unsentimental and unsensational it is. The scenes with machine guns, flamethrowers, bazooka, and grenades feel palpably real. These are not infallible killing machines. Just men who are doing their best to stay alive and fight another day. Again, it’s about mere survival.

Here we have Mann’s earlier explorations in noir more fully externalized with a sense of psychological torment made visible in an environment of continuous unease. The action is taken outdoors while maintaining what we might call even an intimate interaction with its characters if it weren’t so harrowing. It’s likewise an extension of the director’s Western landscapes, though the palette is muted, it consequently plays a crucial role in shaping the drama as Mann usually takes particular care with his atmosphere.

Phillip Yordan’s involvement, whether the true author or only a frontman, might be slightly up for debate but what’s not is the fact that the script keeps the action clean and unfettered by strains of patriotism or similar endeavors. Elmer Bernstein, best remembered for his western scores of resplendent glory, nevertheless, delivers a piece with the right amount of understatement to compliment such a picture as this.

Again, Men in War is unassuming, even unspectacular, but that’s what makes it all the more deserving of discovery. By going against the grain with a few similarly formidable titles, it gave us a far more mystifying portrait of The Korean War. Because reconciling with that conflict is far from a straightforward task — as it is with most any war.

3.5/5 Stars