Monday, January 10, 2005

Somewhere in the Night (1946)

Posted by Don Malcom

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Noir pedigree: House of Strangers (1948), No
Way Out (1950), 5 Fingers (1952)

Director of photography: Norbert Brodine
Noir pedigree: House on 92nd St. (1945),
Boomerang (1947), Kiss of Death (1947), Thieves’
(1949), 5 Fingers (1952)

Lead actors

John Hodiak (Larry Cravat/George Taylor)
Noir pedigree: Desert Fury (1947), The Bribe (1949), A Lady Without Passport (1950), The People Against O’Hara (1951), The Sellout (1952)

Nancy Guild (Christy Smith)
Noir pedigree: The Brasher Doubloon (1947), Black Magic (1949)

Richard Conte (Mel Phillips)
Noir pedigree: The Spider (1945), Call Northside 777 (1948), Cry of the City (1948), House of Strangers (1949), Thieves’ Highway (1949), The Sleeping City (1950), Under The Gun (1951), The Hollywood Story (1951), The Raging Tide (1951), The Blue Gardenia (1953), Highway Dragnet (1954), The Big Combo (1955), New York Confidential (1955), The Big Tip Off (1955), The Brothers Rico (1957)

Lloyd Nolan (Lt. Donald Kendall)
Noir pedigree: House on 92nd St. (1945), Lady In the Lake (1947), Street With No Name (1948), Easy Living (1949)

Supporting cast

Fritz Kortner (Anzelmo)
Josephine Hutchinson (Elizabeth Conroy)

Noir icons

Charles Arnt (little man)
Whit Bissell (John the bartender)
Clancy Cooper (Tom, male nurse at sanitarium)
Jeff Corey (bank teller)
Sheldon Leonard (Sam)
Harry Morgan (Bath house attendant)
Houseley Stevenson (Michael Conroy)

Riding the crest of the "writer-director" wave that swept into Hollywood in the early forties (Welles, Sturges, Wilder), Joseph L. Mankiewicz was only a few years away from his career-making triumphs (a pair of hard-edged comedies, A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve) when he made his second film (and his first noir), Somewhere In The Night.

The archetypes and conventions that soon came to define noir were just being established in late 1945; today, we can see that many of the noir effects in Somewhere In The Night rely rather heavily on those established in Murder, My Sweet. The lead actor, John Hodiak, is often as sourly intense as Dick Powell’s Marlowe, but without the sense of humor/irony that Powell lets seep through now and then. There are flophouses, dives, and insane asylums where menace is waiting, with more questions than answers. The lead actress (Nancy Guild, in her first role in what proved to be a brief career) is asked to be hardbitten (like Anne Shirley’s alienated rich girl in MMS)—or, perhaps more to the point, to crack wise a la Lauren Bacall. The cop (Lloyd Nolan) is sympathetic instead of argumentative (Don Douglas in MMS), but fulfills an analogous function in the plot. The riveting opening, with its feverish voiceover and out-of-focus photography, is an understated knockoff of MMS’ “drug sequence.”

These resemblances by no means sink the film, however; it has its own pace and complexity, thanks in large part to the presence of Richard Conte, one of the true giants of noir, showing his early chops as a smooth, deceptive bad man. Conte is the guy who really murdered the man with two million dollars back in 1942, just before Hodiak (private eye Larry Cravat) ducked into the army, only to emerge three years hence with a new face and a loss of memory. Biding his time, Conte appears to help Hodiak as he careens around some seedy sections of Los Angeles trying to find Cravat—to find himself, as things turn out.

Conte’s problem is that the loot is as missing as Hodiak’s memory, and he has to wait for Hodiak to piece together enough of his former existence for the clues to kick in and lead him to the money. This leads him to a gang of thugs who are also on the trail of the suitcase full of $1000 bills, led by the erudite but ruthless con-man Anzelmo (played by German silent film star Fritz Kortner, who shamelessly tries to steal the picture). There is also a dime-store femme fatale named Phyllis, who likes to throw around French phrases and is incongruously married to Sheldon Leonard, who plays his lone scene with his usual gusto.

Hodiak finally stumbles into the key clue: there was a witness at the murder, Michael Conroy, an old man who has been in a sanitarium for the past three years (played by the great Houseley Stevenson, whose brief reign as noir’s “go-to-guy” for crusty codgers began with this film). Conroy is fatally injured by one of Conte’s henchmen, but he is able to tell Cravat where the money is stashed before he dies, setting up the final round of action in which Conte is revealed as the murderer and is apprehended in a shootout with police lieutenant Kendall (Nolan).

In his biography of Mankiewicz, Pictures Will Talkauthor Kenneth L. Geist relates how intensively the second-time director coached his first-time leading lady, Nancy Guild. Unlike Lauren Bacall, however, Guild had never acted before being signed to a movie contract, and she doesn’t quite navigate the type of lines supplied to her by Mankiewicz the screenwriter—lines that Bacall or Ann Sheridan or Susan Hayward would have given a much snappier spin. Guild tries hard, but her line readings are just flat enough to make the romantic subplot a bit too stiff in the face of all else that’s going on.

Hodiak underplays his role throughout most of the film, which makes for a fitful performance. A comparison with Bogart’s performance in the similarly themed Dark Passage is instructive. We see the fear, frustration and anxiety flashing across the face of Vincent Parry as events play out in DP; Hodiak starts strongly, but he fades into the role as SITN progresses and we lose the ability to register his feelings from his facial expressions.

However, there is one sequence in the film where his "slow register" is perfectly attuned to what is going on. As he tries to find Conroy, he winds up at the apartment of his daughter, Elizabeth (played by Josephine Hutchinson). The anguish of her loneliness and the circumstances that created it cause her to deceive him into thinking that she knew him before the war, and Hodiak’s reaction to her admission of this is as beautifully modulated as Hutchinson’s quietly escalating desperation. These type of moments disappeared from noir relatively early in the cycle, as the films got tougher and more violent—which is why we should value such moments in noir even if, in retrospect, they seem somewhat out of place to us.

What Somewhere in the Nightreally has going for it is its depth of supporting performances—Conte, Nolan, Hutchinson, Kortner and the ensemble of “noir icons” who add color and texture to the somewhat monochromatic tableau provided by the lead actors. While we come away from things with only a partial sense that the film’s themes have been thoroughly explored, the supporting cast keeps the action interesting. The quality of their performances is the primary reason why the film remains engaging and enjoyable nearly sixty years after its release.

Noir element rankings (for those so inclined...)

Character elements: Femme fatale/homme fatale (4/15); Morally ambiguous protagonists (12/15); Corrupt authority figures (0/5)’ Fall guy (5/5); Violence relative to character development/interaction (4/10)

Mise-en-scene/setting elements: Low-key B&W cinematography (18/20); Fatalism (16/25); Odd camera angles or visual effects/sequences (7/10); Urban
setting (10/10); Exotic/remote/barren location setting (0/5); Night club/gambling setting (3/5)

Plot elements: Convoluted story line (5/10); Flashbacks (0/15); Murder/heist at the center of the story (10/10); Spoken narrative (1/5); Betrayal/double-cross (5/5); Story told from criminal perspective (0/5); False accusation or fear of same
(5/5); Sexual relationships vs. plot development (2/5); Hard-boiled dialogue/repartee (6/10); Social/political undercurrents (1/5)

Total elements score: 114 (200 max)
Average (1-10): 5.7

Subcategory averages (1-10 scale): Character elements 5.0; Mise-en-scene/setting elements 7.2; Plot elements 4.7

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Film Noir of the Week master list

Abandoned (1949)
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Act of Violence (1948)
After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
Alias Nick Beal (1949)
All the King's Men (1949)
Allotment Wives (1945)
The Amazing Mr. X (1948)
Angel Face (1952)
Angel's Flight (1965)
Apology for Murder (1945)
Appointment with Danger (1951)
Armored Car Robbery (1950)
Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows 1958)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
see also John Huston Part 2: The Asphalt Jungle
The Aura (2005)
Backfire (1950)
Bad Blonde (1953)
Bad Timing (1980)
The Bank Job (2008)
Beware, My Lovely (1952)
Blonde Ice (1948)
Blood Simple (1984)
Bluebeard (1944)
The Blue Lamp (1950)
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
A Blueprint for Murder (1953)
Bob le flambeur (1956)
Body and Soul (1947)
Body Heat (1980)
Bodyguard (1948)
Border Incident (1949)
Born to Kill (1947)
see also Born to Kill (1947)
Brainstorm (1965)
Brighton Rock (1947)
see also Brighton Rock (1947)
Broken Embraces (2009) aka Los abrazos rotos
The Brothers Rico (1957)
Brute Force (1947)
Bunco Squad (1950)
Burglar (1957)
Caged (1950)
see also Caged (1950)
Cape Fear (1962)
Canon City (1948)
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)
Cat People (1942)
Cell 2455, Death Row (1955)
Champion (1949)
The Chase (1946)
Chicago Calling (1951)
Chicago Deadline (1949)
Chinatown (1974)
Chinatown at Midnight (1949)
Christmas Holiday (1944)
City That Never Sleeps (1953)
Clash by Night (1952)
Classe tous risques (AKA The Big Risk, 1960)
The Clay Pigeon (1949)
The Clouded Yellow (1950)
The Come On (1956)
Conflict (1945)
Cop (1988)
Cornered (1945)
Count the Hours (1953)
Crashout (1955)
Crime of Passion (1957)
Crime Wave (1954)
see also Crime Wave (1954)
The Crimson Kimono (1959)
The Crooked Way (1949)
Criss Cross (1949)
see also Criss Cross (1949)
Crossfire (1947)
Croupier (1998)
Cutter's Way (1981)
D.O.A. (1950)
Dark City (1950)
Framed (1947)
Framed (1975)
I Confess (1953)
The Lady in the Lake (1947)
The Last Seduction (1994)
Laura (1944)
see also Laura (1944)
The Letter (1940)
The Limping Man (1953)
The Lineup (1958)
The Locket (1946)
The Long Memory (1952)
The Long Night (1947)
The Long Wait (1954)
Look in Any Window (1961)
see also The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Night Moves (1975)
Nightfall (1957)
Nightmare (1956)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Night Train (1999)
1984 (1956)
99 River Street (1953)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Notorious (1946)
Odd Man Out (1947)
Stray Dog (aka Nora inu, 1949)
Street of Chance (1942)
Street with No Name (1948)
The Strip (1951)
Sudden Fear (1952)
Sunset Blvd (1950)
Suspense (1946)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
T-Men (1947)
Take One False Step (1949)
The Tattooed Stranger (1950)
The Temp (1993)
The Tender Hook (AKA Boxer and the Bombshell 2008)
Tension (1950)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
They Drive By Night (1940)
They Live by Night (1949)
see also They Live by Night (1949)
They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)
They Won't Believe Me (1947)
Thieves' Highway (1949)
The Third Man (1949)
Time Table (1956)
The Trap (2007) aka Klopka
Trapped (1949)
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