The Long Night (1947)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Produced by Anatole Litvak, Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim
Screenplay by Jacques Viot, John Wexley
Based on the screenplay of Le Jour se Lève by Jacques Viot
Cinematography by Sol Polito
Edited by Robert Swink
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
The Long Night marks the first and only time Henry Fonda and Vincent Price appeared together onscreen. It’s an unusual, yet interesting pairing, a bit like placing Daniel Day Lewis and Nicholas Cage in the same film. (That’s probably an unfair comparison, so feel free to come up with your own.) The broad differences between Fonda and Price actually work well, yet those differences are far more worthy of thought than those between this film and its superior inspiration, Marcel Carné's Le Jour se Lève (1939). So is The Long Night worth your time?
Sol Polito’s high contrast cinematography provides an early introduction to the gritty bleakness that awaits us in an unnamed steel town along the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, presumably set in the time it was released (1947), but looking a lot more like the New Deal era than post-WWII. In steel and mining towns, it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exact years, but one thing’s for sure: a man stumbles out of an upper floor apartment after being shot, tumbles down the stairs, and dies. We have no idea who this is, but the man in the apartment holding the gun is Joe Adams (Henry Fonda). Soon the police arrive and, after several attempts to call him out, commence to filling Joe’s apartment with bullet holes while crowds gather outside. During a brief respite (probably while the cops are reloading), Joe’s got a moment or two to reflect on how he got in this mess, all with the help of film noir’s best friend, the flashback.
Joe’s a working stiff, laboring away as a sandblaster and living in a crummy upper-level apartment when he meets Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), a young woman who works in a flower shop. Joe immediately develops strong feelings for Jo Ann, learning that not only are they both orphans, they once lived in the same orphanage (only not at the same time). Joe is well-meaning, but immature, unsophisticated, and painfully verbose, providing us with a stark contrast to the Joe we see in the film’s opening. Jo Ann, more innocent than immature, falls for Joe, yet something’s holding her back. A few weeks later, after Joe proposes, Jo Ann puts him off, but won’t say why.
Joe’s sharp enough to know that something’s going on, so he follows Jo Ann to a club called The King’s Jungle, featuring a magician called Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price). We immediately recognize him as the man Joe shot in the film’s opening and we don’t have to wait very long to learn why: Maximilian clearly has Jo Ann in his sights.
While waiting for the show to end, Joe plants himself at the bar, where he meets Charlene (the always wonderful Ann Dvorak), Max’s former assistant, who tells Joe everything he needs to know about Max: he’s sadistic, a fraud, and a real creep. It’s no surprise that Max’s intentions toward Jo Ann are less than honorable, and that Jo Ann is too naïve to understand that Max is really a slimebag.
We’re also treated to a flashback within a flashback, a technique that can easily become perilous, but it mostly works here. Unfortunately, many other aspects of the film don’t work. There’s absolutely no reason for Charlene to notice Joe at the bar at The King’s Jungle, other than the fact that Joe looks like a hobo compared to everyone else at the club. Other improbabilities include (1) Joe’s speech delivered from his apartment window to the masses below, amplified like he’s speaking into a microphone announcing an Ohio State football game, (2) the fact that the police could’ve broken down Joe’s apartment door and rushed him, (3) Joe's ability to not only dodge bullets, but not even get a scratch during the hail of gunfire. The dialogue throughout (especially in Joe’s lines) is pretty awful, with the exception of the scenes where Joe and Max face off. (The film’s best line, however, comes from Max, talking to Joe: “Good heavens, do I have to apologize for superior imagination?”) Although Dimitri Tiomkin wrote the film’s score, he might as well have credited Beethoven, since the second movement (Allegretto) from his Symphony No. 7 pervades the film. And when we get to the film’s unbelievable ending, it’s clearly head-shaking time.
Yet the most grievous sin belongs to RKO, who not only acquired distribution rights to Le Jour se Lève, but also did their damnedest to purchase and destroy all available prints of the film. Thankfully copies were discovered in the 1950s and we can enjoy Le Jour se Lève today. I haven’t read the second half of the RKO story as recounted in Richard B. Jewell’s Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures (2016), but I imagine (and hope) the studio executive behind that decision paid heavily.
Although this is far from Fonda’s best role (or Price’s, for that matter), he does all he can with it. The scenes between Fonda and Price show a frustrated Joe - who neither possesses the manipulative skills of Max nor knows exactly how to successfully argue with him - and the slick conniver that defines the essence of the magician. For such vastly different actors, their scenes together are quite compelling. Ann Dvorak is always good, and Barbara Bel Geddes - only 25 at the time - is impressive in her first screen role. At least RKO did one thing right: hiring Bel Geddes to a seven-picture contract based on her work in this film. Charles McGraw has a few brief moments as a cop and Elisha Cook Jr. plays a blind man who discovers the dead body early in the film. For all its problems, The Long Night is still well worth watching.
Photos: DVD Beaver, Film Noir Photos, IMDb, TMDb