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Nightfall (1957)
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by Jay Seaver

"Noir with a pinch of caper."
4 stars

As films noirs go, "Nightfall" is pretty blanc, so to speak. Portions take place about as far from the shadows of the city as you can get, the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated, and the women are loyal and true.

It doesn't quite start out looking that way; there's a cynical tone to Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft) when she first meets James Vanning (Aldo Ray) in a bar, and Vanning is being shadowed by Ben Fraser (James Gregory). We pull away from Vanning for a moment to learn about Fraser. He's an insurance investigator looking to recover the take from a robbery in which Vanning is the main suspect, but as he tells his wife Laura (Jocelyn Brando), Vanning doesn't seem the type, even if he is on the lam. Even if he's right about that, Vanning also has two hardened criminals on his trail - John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond), killers both.

Nightfall isn't worried about purity of genre; it occasionally threatens to to become an almost light-hearted caper movie. The finale takes place not in a dark alley, but in a snowy Wyoming valley, and on the way there, Marie must deliver Vanning a warning in the middle of a fashion show. She is, you see, a model, not some gangster's girl or grifter. The filmmakers use this as contrast. Vanning belongs in the bright, clean Wyoming world, but has retreated under a rock after John and Red drove him out. It's a world that Ben Fraser and Marie Gardner visit but aren't part of, and they're needed if Vanning is going to be pulled out.

And despite this film being relatively cheery by noir standards, it's still a pretty nasty pickle that Vanning finds himself in. Brian Keith and Rudy Bond complement each other as the villains, with Keith's methodical John treating the world with disdain while Bond's Red is a thug who is motivated as much by the opportunities for violence as those for reward. They're hoods, but different kinds of hoods who work together without being an odd couple. The film doesn't work to build them up as unusually dangerous villains; indeed, the fact that they need Vanning's co-operation indicates that neither can look forward to being reclassified as a criminal mastermind any time soon. But that's part of the point - it doesn't take any particular skill to be dangerous; it just takes willingness to do others harm and a belief that you can get away with it.

The good guys aren't that much more complicated, either; James Gregory plays Fraser as a professional investigator who does the right thing as a matter of course. He's probably the smartest character in the picture, and Gregory plays him as interested enough in what he doesn't know - if Vanning has the bank's money, why is he taking odd jobs and eating canned food - than certainties. Anne Bancroft (in her screen debut) makes Marie adventurous without being a tomboy. She's all girl, but one you're glad to have in your corner. Still, they're all supporting characters, and the movie centers on Aldo Ray as James Vanning, and he's up to the task. Though Vanning's an artist by trade, Ray is a big, muscular fellow who certainly could appear to be a tough guy until the fear starts to show up in his face. It's a tricky line for him to walk - he's got to be imposing enough to potentially worry the audience but leave the possibility open that he's not a hood - but Ray manages it nicely.

The storytelling is more than a bit cumbersome. Stirling Siliphant's script starts shaky, with Vanning making annoyingly vague comments about not being able to remember the source of his woes, and Marie's appearance in the somewhat low-class bar where she meets him almost seems out of character by the end. The direction is similarly uneven; Jacques Tourneur has some impressive items on his resumé but also a fair amount of mediocrity, and this one's somewhere in between. He gets us into and out of flashbacks smoothly, and knows when to sit back and let the actors do their thing. If the end fizzles, it might be less Tourneur's fault and more the environment he was working in - the finale really calls for a bit of blood spatter, but you just didn't get that in 1957, so the tension that has been built nicely doesn't quite have the release one might like.

"Nightfall" stumbles a bit, but works a bit more. It's a welcome variation on the film noir cynicism that can start to wear on a person no matter how much he loves that kind of crime movie, even as it keeps one foot solidly in that area at all times.

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originally posted: 08/24/06 14:44:02
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User Comments

6/16/13 Danielsan Very good, very noirish. Good, solid acting and pacing make this worth watching. 4 stars
4/14/11 Vinnie enjoyable 4 stars
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  23-Jan-1957 (NR)
  DVD: 06-Jul-2010



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