Nightfall | Columbia | Jacques Tourneur | 1957
This 1957 noir masterpiece by Jacques Tourneur stars Aldo Ray as a man fleeing a private investigator and Anne Bancroft as the barroom acquaintance who agrees to help him. Ray’s past is revealed gradually in a series of flashbacks, which are intercut with the couple’s flight and the investigator’s pursuit; by developing each narrative in a parallel space or time, Tourneur movingly articulates the theme of a character trapped by his history. The images have a smooth, almost liquid quality, the high-contrast lighting of most noirs replaced by a delicate lyricism that takes the natural world as the norm. Tourneur links this naturalism to Ray’s growing observational skills (“I know where every shadow falls,” he says), but it also contrasts with the story’s acute paranoia. ~ Fred Camper, The Chicago Reader
Fred Camper, ladies and gentlemen, one of those bridge trolls of cinephilia who writes in that blocky, formulaic style that treats film analysis as a series of automated inputs and outputs. Input: Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Output: masterpiece. Nightfall! Dinky mid-fifties Columbia noir par excellence, which might have been just as easily directed by Lewis Allen or Richard Quine. ‘Masterpiece’ is the most turgid word in film writing, bandied about as frivolously as a Parisian aristocrat’s mistress, and declared a priori as if by divine writ. It’s a word that should be as far from a critic’s vocabulary as ‘guilty’ from a judge’s mouth, submitted only after all evidence has been marshalled and thoroughly scrutinized. But writing, as with legal proceedings, is a grueling, time-intensive endeavor – if done well. And most film critics are nothing if not lazy. Pounce on the judgmental superlative first, then retrofit the evidence accordingly — that is what Camper has done here.
The plot summary, first off, is faulty. The private investigator is indeed pursuing Ray, but unbeknownst to Ray, who is actually trying to evade a couple of nefarious bank robbers. Mere pedantry, you allege? This isn’t a finer historical detail in Reds, you numbskull, but the synoptic bedrock of a 75-minute noir quickie. How do you fuck that up? Let us proceed. Camper applauds Tourneur for “developing each narrative in a parallel space or time,” by which I assume he means cross-cutting, one of the remedial building blocks of filmmaking. ‘Parallel’ here is meaningless. The flashbacks, the investigator’s pursuit, and Ray’s burgeoning romance with Bancroft, all of these converge to a fixed point. That fixed point? The climax! Again: storytelling 101. Camper, for his part, must have flunked geometry 101, as the defining characteristic of parallel lines is that they do not converge. But are the ‘spaces’ parallel? I don’t know what this is supposed to mean. Camper doesn’t either. The film is set in lots of ‘spaces,’ just like practically every movie ever made, and whether they are parallel or perpendicular or circumferential, I do not think he nor anyone else can say.
“Tourneur movingly articulates the theme of a character trapped by his history.” This is a gussied up way of saying that this is the umpteenth noir that uses fatalism to drive the narrative. And ‘history?’ The story proceeds from a chance encounter between an everyman and some sinister crooks. It’s a random act of fate used to drive a breezy crime thriller. There is nothing unique or multi-dimensional to Ray’s character, his interiority, his behavior, his ‘history,’ that sets the course of his doom-laden journey. Camper makes it sound like Out of the Past Redux, when in reality it’s a goofy David Goodis adaptation in which fashion model Anne Bancroft bemoans that married men aren’t interested in her and in which Aldo Ray uses ESP to track her down to her apartment after the zillionth escape from the clumsiest captors on planet Earth. There’s also Bancroft becoming the obligatory mouthpiece for ‘going to the cops’ and using America’s legal infrastructure to get out of a jam (the most perplexing thing about this movie is its repeated insistence that the Bancroft character is a paragon of naivete). I dunno, folks, from my vantage point it’s all pretty hackneyed and silly, albeit entertaining stuff. But Camper goes on.
“The images have a smooth, almost liquid quality, the high-contrast lighting of most noirs replaced by a delicate lyricism that takes the natural world as the norm.” In what universe is ‘high-contrast lighting’ the inverse, converse, obverse, or reverse of ‘delicate lyricism?’ What Camper is trying to say here is that 40s-Siodmak expressionism is bold and/or crude, where Tourneur strikes at something more naturalistic and/or impressionistic. It’s a reductive dichotomy and overwhelmingly false. Tourneur’s film looks like a ton of mid-fifties noirs, particularly those made at Columbia, and it is no more ‘delicate’ or ‘lyrical’ than, say, Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House. And if you want to watch a film with an actual liquid quality, might I suggest Million Dollar Mermaid?
Not sure if this is the Rio Bravado comeback post you’ve been waiting for, but I needed to get this out of my system, folks. This blog is a military outpost in the war against bad film writing, and the Campers of the world must be thoroughly skewered if progress is to be made in this campaign. But more writing will be coming down the pike, my friends! Till next time.