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At the Cinematheque: "Nightfall" (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

Jacques Tourneur, one of old Hollywood's last poets...
Above: L.A. noir—Rudy Bond, a .45, Aldo Ray, and an oil derrick.
Jacques Tourneur, one of old Hollywood's last poets, seems forever known, when know at all, for pairing his nebulous, poetic clashes between rationality and irrationality with the inspired clouds of unease of producer Val Lewton's wartime productions—in such films as Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), and I Walked With a Zombie (also 43)—and for one of the most unusual and foggy noirs ever produced, Out of the Past (1947).  In the 1950s, Tourneur's products grew more erratic, though masterpieces were frequent—ranging from the beginning of the decade with the genuine warmth of his good-hearted western Stars in My Crown (1950), to the end, with a return to scientific-materialist horror in the British production Night of the Demon (1957)—and frequently uncanny and haunting in that way so specific to Tourneur, where memories of his films almost seem more powerful than the viewing experience itself.
Alongside the supernatural Demon, the filmmaker's other 1957 production, Nightfall, has the most fitting name of any Tourneur film, so much so that Chris Fujiwara's terrific English-language monograph on the director uses the term to cover his entire filmography.  But the title better fits the shadow worlds Tourneur conjured, like those of Demon, where the edge of the frame softens the exact, often lyrical but always matter-of-fact specificity of the camerawork. One senses that a couple of feet outside of the frame's edge the world blurs, and everything beyond the small rooms of the cozy productions seems a threat.  Tourneur is a master of what lays off-screen, and not just the shadow of horrifying creatures his sometimes B-level productions couldn't afford to make convincingly; no filmmaker is simultaneously so vague and so suggestive about the world that exists around us, and in turn so curiously generous about that world.
A Tourneur film has the guts to admit that the precise cinematic document of what is being filmed is far from the truth, far from all that there is to our lives.  No surprise, then, that the most memorable heroes of his films are staunch rationalists (Tourneur saw in Dana Andrews much of what Friz Lang did too), lugubriously forced to sense, then experience, the unexplainable in the world just outside of our perceptions.  Thus: nightfall, where the clarity of day blends and bleeds inseparably with encroaching darkness, everything is shades of gray, and the last rays of light are present along with the deepest, most impenetrable blacks.
Yet this poetic-spiritual-philosophical force, the strange current that with muffled electricity charges the world Tourneur's character move through—the mise en scène—is mostly absent or at least distanced from 1957's Nightfall, a work of melancholic urban resignation.  Aldo Ray must be playing the hero from David Goodis's source novel, because he is not the director's hero; far from a proactive, thick-headed realist, Ray takes the noir's role of cynical veteran and makes a physically and vocally ominous but forever passive, gentle victim out of him.  On the run from bank robbers who killed his friend during their camping trip in Wyoming, framed Ray for the murder, and who are now chasing him because they think he has their lost satchel of dough, just count how many times you think Ray will slam one of his meaty fists into someone's face to solve a problem...but doesn't.
He is perhaps noir's least violent and least active hero, and lives a sensitive life of expected comeuppance, which is where Tourneur's touch comes in: less evoked by the film itself, Aldo Ray's existence in Nightfall seems forever beset by an existential awareness and sensitivity to morose turns of fate and the danger of living life.  You never know when you might have a run-in with a duo of killers.  A glimmer of hope comes from a Los Angeles bar, itself a fine example of the beauty of Tourneur's precision (which continues to be seen in the film's uncomfortable fashion show set-piece and in most of the Wyoming sequences). The location is sharply delineated and atmospherically, realistically evoked inside and out by the filmmaker's oddly tableaux-like use of widescreen and Burnett Guffey's photography.  There Ray meets Anne Bankcroft, and both seem used and abused—not in a pointed, generic way (say, she being a loose woman and he tired of or haunted by wartime killing or some such nonsense), but rather beset by a strange weariness, something simply about living a solitary existence in 1957. Without the comfort of another (confident couples make up the rest of the film's characters), something intangible is left amiss in the world.
Of course, in a work of horror or in a time of unrest, that thing would haunt the film and its characters, challenge them, be the focus of the story and the thrust of its energy.  Nightfall again betrays expectations: The world is small, tense conversations between two people in vacant, lonely spaces, or the restrained singularity of flashbacks to the holdup and murder in the snowy countryside. These reveries of memory are uncomfortable, between the too-good-to-be-true friendship of Ray with the man he's later accused of killing, and the sinister over-emphasis on the characters of the killers.  In the 1930s, these villains would have been a gang wearing ill-fitted suits, photographed in medium-long shot, and be seen a couple of sniveling scenes for local color and disappear; in the 1940s, this noir type would be exaggerated, caricatured, they'd be sidekicks filmed in grotesque canted angles and shot in the stomach two-thirds the way through the picture.  Somehow the 1950s misunderstood the allure of horrifying secondary-role baddies and brought them up to starring roles, as they are in Nightfall—an influence still felt today when the sophisticated, mysterious, or subtle evil-doer is too rare a thing to find when extreme stylization of villainy is so catchy.
At any rate, these two thugs, one played by Brian Keith, who nearly seems as tired of things as Aldo Ray, and the other, Rudy Bond, the only truly happy person in the film (and a morbid psychopath), dominate Nightfall with a nearly overbearing force of a muted anxiety and sighing fatalism.  It seems like all you have to do is get two people together in Nightfall and out will come a repressed sense of disgust and the pitiable meagerness of living simply to keep living.  Only Ray's doppelgänger, the straight-laced, upright 1950s professional, played by James Gregory as an insurance investigator, and his loving, supporting wife (Joceyln Brando), seem casually content with the world around them.  Which is why they are almost intolerably boring.  These two are simply puzzled at the actions of Aldo Ray, but I think more deeply puzzled at the world he is living in, so different from theirs. Ray's character, like that of Bankcroft, both loners, is attuned to the possibility of the unease, discontent, and unpredictable fate lines in the modern world around them, manifest as Keith and Bond, who the investigator seems unable to see or understand.  For the sensitive souls, there's no joy to be found at the end of the day, only momentary respite with a kindred spirit of sensitivity, and the awareness that after the sun sets, the darkness comes.
A new 35mm print of Nightfall will run at New York's Film Forum June 11 - 17.
To me, Nightfall can be considered a mistaken noir, or a film that starts as if it were a noir using all the familiar tropes or conventions of the genre, a paranoid loner on the run in a foreboding urban landscape pursued by both ruthless criminals and a government man with a femme fatale for a companion, and then undermines them all one by one, the woman is true and only seeks to help, the government man turns out to be an insurance agent whom he befriends and even the thugs are given a soul, if not fully redeemable, the dark night of the city gives way to a country morning in a field of blinding white. I almost suspect Tourneur purposefully set out to “answer” the critics who had used Out of the Past as a prime example of a film noir. I think Nightfall far better represents Tourneur’s themes than does Out of the Past, in that is is built off of a duality similar to that which can be found in Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Curse of the Demon, Canyon Passage, and in a slightly different more communal form in Leopard Man, Stars in My Crown, Wichita, Berlin Express. Even films like Anne of the Indies and War Gods of the Deep show some of the same desire to suggest the mix of dark and light within each of us. Heroes that have a dark side from which violence can erupt, and villains that could be the heroes of the stories if it was just reconfigured ever so slightly. Tourneur doesn’t seem to see his characters as inhabiting one side of a divide, but as being capable of being on either side of it depending on circumstance and, often, their desire for wealth or comfort. As an aside, I am always a little surprised Tourneur wasn’t examined more closely in the blacklist era since his films can often be read as being quite anti-capitalist and leaning towards a sort of communalism that I would have imagined as raising a “red” flag for those persecuting, oops, I mean prosecuting the Hollywood crowd of the time. Of course that would suggest that those determined to attack artists have any sort of ability to understand what they’re looking at, and we all know that is the furthest thing from true. Anyway, as much as has been written about Tourneur’s film in the past couple of decades, I still think he is underestimated and misunderstood by most people in the film community. As good as people seem to think his films are, I believe they are even better than that. I would even go so far to say that there hasn’t been a finer film to come out of the US than I Walked with a Zombie. Certainly there are some others of approximately equal brilliance, but putting Tourneur’s best films on even a slightly lower tier is to, I think, misunderstand what is going on in them.
Thanks for the enlightening comments greg! I definitely agree on the need for more Tourneur advocacy, and a greater appreciation of his art. As for Nightfall not really being a noir, I’d actually posit that perhaps it is a highly precise noir, a stripped and minimalist one. In this sense, it is closer to a “true” noir (thought there’s no such thing), or the core of noir than Out of the Past, which is a better film but “distracted” from its semi-genre elements but its overwhelming strangeness.
I see what you’re saying Daniel, and given the rather elusive nature of noir as a genre, it might be hard to be too precise about the boundaries on what is or isn’t within its confines. I certainly think Nightfall is working in noir territory, I suspect consciously so, by which I mean at this late stage, the theory had started to be reflected directly in the films rather than just being part of the zeitgeist of the times. However, I still hold that Tourneur is also purposefully working his characters out of the hopelessness, angst, and paranoia that seems to be the predominant mood of noirs. He starts the characters in that world but keeps pushing them towards a new sort of hope and trust in each other and, even more to the point, a faith in the future being bright that would seem out of place in most standard noir genre definitions. I think it’s also interesting that he seems to have reversed the trajectory of the characters in Out of the Past, where they move from the bucolic towards an almost willed implosion or desire for self destruction.. (Move in a straight narrative sense where the flashbacks aren’t emotionally accounted for by the audience as having happened previously but in the linear time confines of the films.) I think Aldo Ray is a fascinating choice as a lead in Nightfall because his size and look suggests an imposing figure, but his persona has a childlike quality that hints at a need for guidance and reassurance. On the other hand, Mitchum had something of a persona as someone who it’s hard to imagine wanting to be loved or willing to put themselves in someone else’s hands, which is why his leaving the good girl for the bad works so well, you believe he wants to have the trouble and resistance so he can keep his edge by desire but not become tied to anyone else since that would ask too much from him. Ray seems to be almost begging for love, and when he suspects he’s not being played fair, he acts like a petulant and hurt boy, he lashes out emotionally not out of independence, but because his feelings have been hurt, that’s something that is hard to imagine a Mitchum character ever feeling. You’re quite right to emphasize Tourneur’s strangeness. There is a tone to all of his works, even the less successful ones, of things being off, of connections being made that one wouldn’t expect. He seems to like to put those unalike together and bring their worlds into a sort of collision where elements from both meet in uneasy contrast. Canyon Passage is a great example of this in the friendship between Andrews and Donlevy, actually, that is a weird little film in that it has a definite noir vibe to it but is centered around a community rather than the more typical isolated hero arc, Andrews character stands apart from within a group rather than from outside it, anyway I’m starting to digress too much which would only lead to a far too massive post.
Interesting article, and discussion. I only know Tourneur’s “canonical” works. And while I will say that “Out of the Past” is probably the archetypal noir (and arguably the best), I don’t know if I can agree that “I Walked with a Zombie” is on par with the finest films ever to come out of Hollywood. Granted, I need to see the film again. Maybe I’m missing a lot! I’ve never seen “Nightfall”, but I like the theory that Tourneur starts out from the point of departure of classic noir, then slowly subverts or undoes those codes by the conclusion of the film. And I certainly agree that by the 50s the theory of noir was reflected directly in the films rather than them being a more natural “zeitgeist” aesthetic. 50s noir is self-conscious noir. But I think “Nightfall” is too young a film for us to believe that Tourneur was actively responding to critics who were placing “Out of the Past” at the center of the noir canon. I don’t know that those critics were saying such a thing, or even existed, in 1957. Yet and still, point made about his self-conscious attempts to work within and against the noir style, and that this is a director that could stand much more critical attention.
Bobby, actually, there were some articles that came out in, I believe, Cahiers a year or two before Nightfall that explicitly mention those noir themes in regards to Out of the Past, I can no longer find them on line, but reading them is what triggered my thinking that it may be a direct response since Out of the Past is in some ways an unusual work for Tourneur and I think it can lead some to emphasize themes that aren’t typical for Tourneur or that could somewhat distort the themes he wished to emphasize. By focusing too much on Out of the Past as a noir, it may be that it loses some possibility of meaning that it would have if it was thought of alone or as part of Tourneur’s body of work. But, of course, that’s just a guess on my part. It might just be that he was responding to theories on noir in general or on the general tendency towards darker themes of the time or that he just wanted to explore some variations on themes he had already dealt with. The cause doesn’t matter so much as the result which seems to me to be rather purposeful in its move to white from the black. In any case, thanks for responding! It sometimes seems like no one is reading the notebook pages at all, due to the lack of responses, and there’s a lot of good stuff here that I wish more people would be involved with since I would like to hear more about some the of ideas or films that are new to me.
I agree. To be honest with you, a clear majority of the serious and interesting conversations are to be found in the Notebook. Unfortunately, as you said, they are scant. If you read some Cahiers articles of the time that spoke on the themes of “Out of the Past”, then your theory is strongly advocated for. That’s actually an interesting point of study. How much did French writers of the 50s (or 40s for that matter) grapple with le film noir americain? We all know about the canonical works (“Panorama”, “Les Americains aussi”), but was this a subject that frequently appeared in their magazines, and how far did they go with theorizing it? Still to this day we take most all of our accepted thinking on film noir from the post-noir writings of Americans. Back to the Notebook, and just as a side note for any powers-that-be listening, I don’t regularly find many articles I’m interested in reading. This is why I don’t engage in the forums here as much. I don’t have a problem with the quality of the writing at all. Just that the variety of subjects seems to be lacking something for me.
Greg, could you clarify what you see as the duality in Stars in my Crown? Are you referring to the duality of the main character’s responsibilities?
Mike, how weird, I hadn’t looked at this thread in weeks until I got a random urge to see if there were any more responses to it today and found you had just replied. Anyway, no, not exactly, I was referring more to the thematic split Tourneur seems to be pointing out between the physical/mental plane of our ordinary existence and a more spiritual plane that unites our disparate desires into a whole and healthy oneness. That’s abstract though, so I’ll give some examples. The preacher is introduced wanting to give a bible reading that is laughed off by the men in the bar until he pulls his six guns at which point they listen. The physical reality of the threat opens them to spiritual enlightenment. This light hearted opening is later matched in reverse when the young doctor accuses the preacher of spreading typhoid by going house to house comforting the people of his parish. This accusations causes the preacher to have a crisis of faith, his physical presence, he fears, is malignant. He thinks he may be actively causing harm instead of help to those he visits, and he loses confidence in himself and shrinks from his necessary role causing himself misery. It turns out that the doctor’s dislike of the preacher and his methods blinded him to the reality of where the harm actually came from. He criticized the preacher for his message of there being something more than just the physical needs of people to be looked after, but his own mental state prevented him from seeing the reality of the physical cause of the typhoid problem. Of course the most telling scene is the would be lynching where the townsfolk had come to see Uncle Famous as nothing more than an abstraction, an impediment to their desires. It’s only when the preacher reminds them of their physical connection to Uncle Famous that the spiritual side of their thinking returns and they can see him as a real man who has moved in their world and effected them all. That is perhaps clumsily explained, but spiritual ills manifesting themselves spiritually is one of the most important reoccurring themes in Tourneur’s films. It shows up as the battle between science and superstition in Curse of the Demon, Irina’s internal struggle and the failure of psychiatry in Cat People,and it comes up in different ways in most of his other films as well, the most thorough examination of which is I Walked with a Zombie where that duality is completely layered into the film’s structure and meaning.
I’ve now seen “Nightfall” and would agree with you that it can be considered a “mistaken noir” or an unraveling of noir.

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