Director: Joseph H Lewis
Screenplay: Martin Berkley, Dwight Babcock, (based on the story by Aubrey Wisberg)
Starring: Steven Geray, Micheline Cheirel, Eugene Borden
Duration: 71 min
BBFC Certification: 12
Spawned from the despair of the Great Depression, Film Noir first reared its head in the early 40s, diminishing all hope, slaughtering Hollywood’s overly happy and optimistic view of the world and driving us down into a bleak world where life is bitter sweet. Amongst the many titles attached to this genre is this lesser known film, So Dark the Night (1946).
Written by Martin Berkley and Dwight Babcock (based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg) and Directed by Joseph H Lewis (Gun Crazy 1950, The Great Combo 1955) So Dark the Night, like several films at the time, explores issues of mental illness and split personality. Whilst the storyline suggests great opportunities for a suspenseful thriller, overall this film lacked momentum and the twist was no real surprise. However, as a low budget film with a strong leading actor and great cinematography, it does have its merits.
The narrative starts with Henri Cassin (Steven Geray) planning a well-earned break in the French countryside. It is here he meets and falls in love with the inn keeper’s young daughter Nannette (Micheline Cheirel). Seduced by the lure of a more exciting life in Paris, Nanette agrees to marry Cassin much to the hatred of her childhood sweetheart and existing boyfriend Leon (Paul Marion) who vows, “I’ll kill you rather than see you in the arms of another man.”
Following an altercation at the couple’s engagement party, Nanette rushes out, Leon in close pursuit, so when her strangled body turns up in a river, Leon is the first to be suspected. That is until his body is also discovered strangled in a nearby stable. As a famous detective, the local police call on Cassin to help them solve the murders. Cassin continues with his enquiries and as the plot thickens, more bodies appear, and more people are suspected to have reason to kill the young couple. The film continues in its collection of evidence until the final twist where the murder is finally exposed.
One of the best parts about this film is the cinematography alongside great direction by Lewis. Set in the heart of the rural French countryside, the film begins with the arrival of a famous Parisian detective, Henri Cassin (Steven Geray) skipping his way through the village, cheerfully greeting each person he meets. At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps you’re watching the wrong film. This overly optimistic arrival perfectly mimics that of a Disney movie or light-hearted musical, rather than the bleak shadowy world of film noir.
Gradually as the plot unfolds, overly bright and happy scenes of French country life are overtaken by darker and more sinister, classic film noir aesthetics. Burnett Guffey uses slanted angles alongside reflected images in windows and mirrors to great effect. Blurry reflections give glimpses into the hidden subject matter, whilst shots through windows gradually become more evident and prolonged as Detective Cassin is metaphorically imprisoned by the window frames. It is these images and shots that clearly indicate So Dark the Night’s place in film noir despite the untraditional setting.
Credit should also go to Joseph H Lewis for his vision of building the set of the small quaint village in France, especially when you consider Lewis had never actually visited the French countryside and that all his knowledge of Paris and rural France was gained through intense research. I am sure audiences of the time would have been easily tricked into believing the outdoor scenes were actually filmed on location and not a lesser known Hollywood studio, a huge accomplishment on what was undoubtably a meagre budget compared to the more fruitful studios of the time.
Although not usually cast as a leading man, Steven Geray gives a convincing performance as the Parisian detective seeking relaxation from the stresses of his hectic life. Subtle facial expressions give us a snapshot into what is to come, without being too obvious. This allows the film to progress towards the twist with a sense of, ‘Is he? Isn’t he?’ continually questioning the purity and sincerity of his character. Micheline Cheirel also gives a good performance as the young love interest and despite the obvious difference in age compared to the character she was portraying, we can accept her as more childlike through her carefree actions and innocent facial expressions.
The scrip written by Martin Berkley and Dwight Babcock is not awful, but many of the supporting characters felt very one dimensional, even those that were quite important to the films narrative. The relationship of a much older man and a teenage girl, although perhaps a little sinister (well it is film noir after all) attempts to push some boundaries, adding a sense of unease around detective Cassin and it works well. However, a huge issue I had with the script was the mother/ daughter relationship. As a mother of a 21-year-old daughter, I found it hard to believe any mother would actively encourage a relationship between a teenage girl and a man older than her own father. I wonder if this was also perhaps a concern for the studio, as it would explain the casting of Micheline Cheirel, a much older woman, in the role as Nannette.
Overall this is a film that would be of interest to film noir fans but may fall a little short on suspense for the average lover of thrillers. It has some amazing direction and cinematography that warrants discussion by critics and film lovers alike, Steven Geray proves he can be a leading man with some depth of character and the film has enough happening to encourage viewing to the end. However, it is likely todays seasoned audience might not be so surprised by the twist. Nevertheless, worth a watch.
This release is also accompanied by a great little appreciation film by Imogen Sara Smith which is a definite watch for any film noir lovers. It explains a little more about the film noir genre and this film’s relationship within that genre. She also talks a little about other Studios of the time.
So Dark the Night is released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy and includes the following extras:
• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
• Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Audio Commentary by critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme
• So Dark… Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia – Critic Imogen Sara Smith provides the background and an analysis of the film
• Theatrical trailer
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tonci Zonjic
• FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic David Cairns