So Dark the Night
Director: Joseph H. Lewis / Screenplay: Martin Berkeley & Dwight Babcock (from story by Aubrey Wisberg) / Editing: Jerome Thoms / DP: Burnett Guffey / Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Steven Geray / Micheline Cheirel / Eugene Borden / Ann Codee / Egon Brecher / Helen Freeman / Brother Theodore / Gregory Gaye / Jean Del Val / Paul Marion
Discussion of ‘Film Noir’ as a distinctive slice of the crime & thriller genre could, has and WILL continue to sell books, inspire documentaries and likely encourage every wave of film-makers to study its form and absorb its ideas. And why not? To paraphrase no less an icon than Picasso: ‘It’s the responsibility of great artists to steal from the work of others’.
Yet when B-movie maestro Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000) made So Dark the Night in 1946, the film community had yet to settle on the ‘Noir’ tag; the principal elements that would later define Noir, still in flux. Film historians & theorists, would later coalesce around five ingredients, that could be varied in quantity but not omitted, if a film could truly be classed as ‘Noir’: Strange. Erotic. Ambivalent. Cruel and the fifth: Oneiric. I had to look that last one up, too, but it basically means ‘having a dreamlike quality’.
So Dark’ has come to be seen as a Noir picture, because all five elements are present.
Those same commentators opine that ‘True Noir’ ranged from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, yet before the term gained popular acceptance, such movies were generally categorised as ‘melodrama’. Whatever else So Dark’ might be, I think all can agree it’s melodramatic!
My last review covered the delirious Tokyo Drifter by Japanese Director (and frustrated auteur) Seijun Suzuki and, in some ways, Lewis’ career followed a similar trajectory to Suzuki’s. Both men came to film through ‘happy accidents’: Suzuki, because he failed an entrance exam to the University of Tokyo and Lewis, because he followed his older brother to Hollywood, with dreams of becoming an actor; the brothers unwilling to join their father’s optometry business. After struggling to find work, young Joe stepped behind the camera; learning his craft directing a string of ‘Poverty Row Westerns’, i.e. B-Movie Westerns. With the USA’s involvement in WW2, Lewis switched gears towards darker, more contemporary themes, that better suited the country’s prevailing mood. Even Orson Welles wasn’t immune from the shift in America’s psyche, as RKO’s treatment of The Magnificent Ambersons would prove.
Through the war years, Lewis delivered an eclectic mix of jingoism (i.e. Bombs Over Burma (1943)) and psychological thrillers (i.e. My Name is Julia Ross (1945)), leaving So Dark’ as almost a return to ‘business as usual’. At the time, Columbia Pictures were seen as a scrappy, low-end studio, lacking the star names of MGM or the international prestige of Paramount. Consequently, So Dark’ received a tiny budget, featured no big stars and would wrap in less than a fortnight of shooting. Yet, in common with Suzuki’s later experience, Lewis was determined to eke as much as possible from such limited resources, as we shall see.
Back in the 1940s, Reader’s Digest magazine was a rich source of short-stories from which the movie studios found inspiration, as in this case: So Dark the Night was originally written by Aubrey Wisberg and adapted for the screen by Dwight Babcock & Martin Berkeley. An interesting character, Berkeley would later ‘sing like a canary’ for HUAC; the U.S. Congressional Committee, investigating communist influence in Hollywood. Representing a particular low-point in America’s Cold-War paranoia, HUAC would lead to the formation of the infamous ‘blacklist’ of ‘politically-suspect’ creatives banned from working in Hollywood…
Lewis was fortunate in his choice of DP: the talented Burnett Guffey; a stylist in both B&W and colour, Guffey would later win two Oscars (From Here to Eternity (1954) and Bonnie and Clyde (1968) and his contribution to So Dark’ would be crucial, in helping Lewis realise his vision for the piece.
The film opens with a frame-filling close-up of a ringing telephone; this is Lewis showing his hand from the off, as he’s a Director who believes in constructing shots with objects just in-front of the lens, partly to add interest & texture, but also to suggest – if subliminally – that there’s more to a set, beyond what the camera sees. It’s a trick: and our imagination falls for it every time.
Anyway, the phone’s answered by Commissionaire Grande (Greg Gaye), head of the ‘Paris Sûreté’. In a fulsome exchange, Grande explains to the ‘Official Police Physician’ that his best Detective – Cassin – has ‘gone missing’ and is late for the start of his long-overdue holiday… After declaring his belief that Cassin will turn-up, Grande concludes this:
‘He’d turn-in his own mother, if she were guilty.’
A prophetic statement, that. Better take note…
As if on-cue, we see our man at-ease, traipsing aimlessly through the ‘back streets of Paris’ (actually a snippet of Columbia’s backlot). Cassin passes up a shoeshine, but still tips the street urchin (funds no doubt intended for the tyke to improve their abominable French accent) and admires a florist’s display, before gliding into Grande’s office full of the joys of Spring.
Henri Cassin is played here by Steven Geray. An émigré character-actor from the old Austro-Hungarian empire, Geray was to enjoy a long career in Hollywood, playing an unwavering stream of bar-tenders and hotel-clerks; his is one of ‘those faces’ that pop-up in films, but So Dark’ was to give him the only lead of his film career. In this scene with his boss, Geray reminds me of Herbert Lom, for some reason; maybe in the way he’s reacting to Grande; a superior who’s treating him as an equal. There’s a homo-erotic undercurrent to this scene as well; these men are all too ‘clubby’ with each other; but that’s probably Lewis reaching for ‘ambivalence’…
The Commissionaire’s chauffeur drives Cassin out to the village of ‘St. Margaux’ for his holiday; Lewis and his production designer Carl Anderson, having carved the semblance of a French village from another forgotten corner of the backlot. As we get shots of the car approaching the inn where he’ll be staying, we glimpse the odd, incongruous wagon-wheel; a nod to a recurring cliché used by Lewis in his earlier Westerns, that earnt him the soubriquet ‘Wagon-Wheel Joe’, on account of the frequency with which it was used.
At the inn – and in a stream of laboured introductions – Cassin’s introduced to the housekeeper Widow Bridelle (a taciturn Helen Freeman), its owners Pierre & Mama Michaud, and daughter Nanette, played by French actress Micheline Cheirel.
It’s all too much for Nanette. The uniformed chauffeur. The exotic car and its ‘famous detective’ passenger, all bring a whiff of Parisian glamour to St. Margaux. Consider the cutaway shots, as she ogles at details of the luxurious car (a Lagonda), before switching her gaze to Cassin himself. He looks twenty years older, but such is his glamour, that hasn’t even registered. It’s all turning her head.
Mama’s head remains resolutely straight however, which is why she has Nanette take wine up to Cassin’s room. Despite the obvious age-gap, Mama sees him as Nanette’s ticket-out, even if that leads to a row with an unimpressed Pierre: conducted in French and without subtitles! Lewis chose this approach, I think, to reinforce the fiction, as far as American audiences were concerned, that the film was taking place in-France, so sprinkling a ‘little colour’ into the mix, only added to the illusion.
That evening, Nanette sings to the inn’s crowded saloon. Aside from the cynical Bridelle, all are enraptured by her song, but none more so than Cassin, whom she approaches directly on finishing, as if implying she sang only for him. They go for a moonlight walk, during which she expresses her deepest desire: to visit Paris. Hint, hint!
They return to the inn and once inside, Lewis dollies-in to a lone, brooding figure at the bar, who now approaches. This glowering figure is Leon Achard (Paul Marion), whom Nanette is apparently engaged to. I like Leon. In his cord jacket, chunky ribbed sweater and ‘Breton cap’, he’s the very inch of what a Hollywood costume department believes a French farmer of the period, ought to be wearing. All he needs to complete the look, is a string of onions about his neck…
Nanette now has to salve Leon’s wounded pride & jealous streak, by leading him outside for a kiss & cuddle, giving Leon a chance to leave a conspicuous ‘Red Herring’:
‘I get so frightened sometimes. If I can’t have you, I’d rather kill you, than lose you to someone else!’
It’s an extraordinarily revealing statement for Leon to make, yet here we are, watching it play-out against a syrupy orchestration from Hugo Friedhofer. Despite its implied threat, Nanette doesn’t seem all that bothered, as though she’s heard it all before from this man. Still, she DOES look away mid-clinch, perhaps with a more determined eye on her glittering future…
After a further scene in which Leon finds Nanette & Cassin in a compromising position, we jump-forward to the lovers’ inevitable engagement party, held at the inn. This will turn-out to be the defining pivot in Cassin’s journey.
Whilst sat at a table, alone, waiting for Nanette to appear, Cassin’s approached by Pierre, who’s brandishing a newly de-cobwebbed, rare-vintage Magnum of Champagne. After tantalising an appreciative Cassin with the Magnum, Pierre drops his bombshell: he can’t welcome this man into his family, because he’s too old… The Magnum, then, represents a ‘forbidden fruit’, dragged out of storage, used to tantalise Cassin, then withdrawn: like Nanette herself. This visibly stuns Cassin, but not half as much as when Leon arrives to kill the mood. In an atrocious French accent that would’ve embarrassed the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo!, he declares this to the happy couple:
‘Look, m’sieur detective. I love Nanette. We were promised since we were children. I’ll always love ‘er. I’m very stubborn. And I’m a bad loser. If you marry ‘er, I’ll try to win ‘er back from you. Wherever you go, I’ll be there, making love to ‘er. And, one day, I’ll ween. You’ll never really ‘ave ’er!’
This is Leon’s Big Speech: and it’ll prove his last; one only has to see Cassin’s face, to understand the drama yet to unfold. I think Geray’s great in this moment, summoning up a compressed range of emotions yet keeping awkwardly calm, even when Nanette rushes after Leon.
A day goes by with no sign of either Nanette or Leon, but her parents don’t seem worried for her; at one point, Pierre suggests they ‘may have eloped’. Instead, their focus is levelled at Cassin, who’s moping in his room and muttering stuff like: ‘I knew it was too good to be true. That much happiness just wasn’t meant for me’.
Enter a hunchbacked street-sweeper glimpsed earlier, who’s played by Brother Theodore as a pastiche of Laughton’s Quasimodo. Here it comes then, in painfully dragged-out declamation: ‘You know the bridge over the river? The bridge where all that water flows by?’ Uh-huh. This’ll be Nanette’s last resting place: Victim #1. So Leon killed her, right? Cassin’s brilliant detective skills lead the local plod up-river, to Leon’s farm and, oh. Leon. Victim #2.
Cassin’s now in work-mode. Like a fiendish cross between Poirot & Holmes, he finds a footprint in the mud and has a plaster-cast made, so he can play-out a macabre game inspired by Cinderella’s prince: find the shoe, find the killer… Friedhofer’s score has switched tracks, too. The simpering strings have gone; now there’s a strident urgency about proceedings.
Cassin receives a note stating ‘another will die’; troubling, because aren’t the star-cross’d lovers dead? Where’s the motive for any further killings?
Cassin’s then visited by Pierre, who’s just found a second note promising: ‘You will die next’. To shoot this scene, Lewis has the camera look through a deep window embrasure, then push-in to the room. It’s an elegant framing device; a foreshadowing, as much as seeing Cassin behind a wooden balustrade at the local police station. Whoever’s writing these notes, are at least accurate in their predictions, as Cassin & Pierre then find Mama Michaud’s still form on the kitchen floor; the kettle on the hob, urgently whistling in-alarm at seeing the end of Victim #3…
Cassin returns to his room, shaken, where he finds Widow Bridelle rummaging through his things. He lets her go then realises one of his shoes is missing… He finds her with it and is shocked to discover that it matches the plaster-cast exactly! Knowing full-well what this means, Bridelle shows more concern over her own future that she does about the dwindling Michaud family, asking Cassin to take her back to Paris: but he’s going alone.
He reports back to Commissionaire Grande. By a process of elimination – and to the astonishment of his friend – Cassin frames himself as the killer. Undeterred, he further requests that he be placed under-guard while he writes his report. As we see the guard pace beyond the office door, Lewis changes the key-light on Cassin’s face. It’s an unrealistic shift, but it DOES underscore the idea that he might not be all that he appears; the action reinforced when Grande sits down to puff on a cigar and talk to the ‘Official Psychiatrist’ about Schizophrenia… Then we get Victim #4 (the guard) and a hasty escape to St. Margaux for our Jekyll and Hyde copper and a final showdown in which Cassin tackles Pierre, only to meet his undignified end courtesy of a bullet and a window.
C’est la vie…
That final scene with Pierre, was constructed from another arresting viewpoint: the back of a lit fireplace, looking into the room. The flames occupy the foreground, as so many other objects before. Billy Wilder’s opinion on this scene? ‘Who’s POV is that? Santa Claus?’
At this stage, Noir’s highlights (or should that be ‘lowlights’?) have long-received attention in the home-video market, leaving what’s left to be mopped-up piecemeal. While So Dark’ couldn’t be described as an ‘overlooked masterpiece’, it DOES have its merits and plays its single trick with admirable brevity, coming-in at a brisk seventy minutes.
Geray makes the most of his one-and-only star turn and the movie stands as a fine entry in Lewis’ patchy filmography. For Noir to convince, it has to look ‘right’, so it’s remarkable just how much mileage Lewis was able to squeeze from a meagre budget; finding camera set-ups and visual tricks to augment an otherwise thin plot-line. It’s as though he was setting a precedent for the Indie producers & Directors who’d follow. Lewis realised that, just because he was saddled with a B-Movie budget, it didn’t mean he couldn’t pursue his own artistic vision: much like Suzuki, a couple of decades later…
So the waiter said, the only difference between the Champagne of 1902 and 1906 is forty francs!