Sunday, October 19, 2014


Columbia Pictures, 78m 54s

The archetypal money satchel gets a workout in NIGHTFALL, an ambitious outing from the great director Jacques Tourneur, a pioneer in the art of horror noir, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). Written for the screen by Stirling Silliphant (5 AGAINST THE HOUSE [1955], THE LINEUP [1958]) and based on a novel by crime fiction writer David Goodis, NIGHTFALL concentrates on the whereabouts of the aforementioned satchel and its $350,000 of stolen money inside.

Heavy machinery spells danger in Jacques Tourneur's NIGHTFALL

In a nod to the noir form popularized in the ‘40s, and Tourneur’s own OUT OF THE PAST (1947) constitutes a prime example, present day complications have their basis in past events that are revealed via multiple flashbacks. The lead protagonist is Chicago-based commercial artist and veteran Art Rayburn (Aldo Ray in a likeable turn), who currently masquerades as James Vanning for reasons that are not apparent at the outset. So alienated from society is Rayburn that he carries no identification. He picks up model Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft) only to become entrapped by John (Brian Keith) and his unbalanced accomplice Red (Rudy Bond in the noir psychopath role), a couple of bank robbers in search of their lost heist money, which lies somewhere in the vast mountainous wilderness of Wyoming. Rayburn knows—roughly, anyway—where the loot is.

Art Rayburn (Aldo Ray) and Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft)

In a departure from the noir form of tarnished characters, our point of identification in NIGHTFALL is at no fault for his predicament. The wrong-man-on-the-run Rayburn finds himself pursued by not only the two crooks, but determined insurance man Ben Fraser (James Gregory). Rayburn is deceived, beat down, shot at, chased relentlessly, and suspected of getting rid of his hunting and fishing buddy Ed Gurston (Frank Albertson), who left behind a widow linked romantically to Rayburn. The classic noir element of randomness is palpable, especially when Rayburn explains to Gardner in no uncertain terms that fate brought them together, “Because you were unlucky enough to talk to me tonight.”

Red (Rudy Bond) toys with Art Rayburn (Aldo Ray)

The narrative is introduced in the traditional urban locales in which noir stories so often play out, then Tourneur and cinematographer Burnett Guffey (IN A LONELY PLACE [1950]) explore rural exteriors—atypical staging for the noir film, but not unique (ROAD HOUSE [1948], ON DANGEROUS GROUND [1951], CRY VENGEANCE [1954]). The mise-en-scène comes exceptionally tough for 1957, as when John and Red confront Rayburn at an oil field. And whenever the expansive snow-covered landscape is emphasized, as when Rayburn flees a murder scene while carrying the money satchel, and when a character meets a grisly fate via a most unforgiving snow blower truck, the progenitor of FARGO (1996) is strikingly evident.

My best fiend

The title track performed by Al Hibbler does not compliment this otherwise outstanding film noir, by far one of the most accomplished of programmer length. Tourneur’s suspenseful CURSE OF THE DEMON also was released in 1957. A clean-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation of NIGHTFALL is available as part of the 5-film Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II DVD set available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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