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Category Archives: Anatole Litvak

The Long Night

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Hollywood has always been in love with the remake, not only of its own domestic product but those originating in other territories too. In the ’40s and ’50s a number of French movies were revisited, Lang’s Scarlet Street and Human Desire being prime examples, with a fair degree of success. Frequently these re-imaginings were (as in the previous examples) the work of directors and crews who had learned their craft in the French and other European cinema industries. Such was the case with The Long Night (1947); a remake of Le Jour Se Leve carried out by emigre director Anatole Litvak. Now I’ve never seen  the original, but a quick scan of the comments at the IMDb tell me that a number of people regard the Hollywood film as inferior. I’ve always been of the opinion that there are both good and bad remakes, and that there are those who display a knee-jerk reaction whenever the term is used. You pretty much have to judge any movie on its own merits and, as such, I think The Long Night stands up well enough.

It’s late in the day in a nameless town and a blind man taps his way up the stairs to his room in a boarding house. His ascent is interrupted as a shot rings out. On the top floor a door bursts open, and a mortally wounded man stumbles out before pitching headlong down the staircase. This was The Great Maximilian (Vincent Price), a second rate conjurer plying his trade in a succession of low rent night clubs across the country. Now he lies dead on a seedy landing in a tenement, gutshot by factory worker Joe Adams (Henry Fonda). That’s how The Long Night opens, and before the end we will learn just how these two men came to this point. For the most part the story is told in flashback from the point of view of Adams, although at one stage there is what you might call a double flashback. Sound confusing? Well, it’s not really, since the story recounted is a fairly simple one. Naturally, there’s a woman involved who acts as the catalyst. She is Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), a virginal young innocent for whom both Adams and Maximilian fall – figuratively and literally. With Maximilian persisting in his attempts to seduce the girl and Adams simmering resentment growing, events slowly build towards the only possible outcome. Along the way, other characters flit in and out of the story, most notably Maximilian’s former assistant and lover Charlene (Ann Dvorak). Her streetwise presence serves both to provide a contrast to the gullibility of Jo Ann and to highlight just what a piece of work Maximilian is. His deceitful pursuit of Adams’ girl is one thing, but it’s a rare kind of S.O.B. who shaves the paws of puppies and burns the skin red raw in order to train them to perform.

Broken glass and broken dreams - Henry Fonda

Made at a time when noir pictures were beginning to move towards a wider use of locations and a more documentary approach, The Long Night is something of a throwback. Shot entirely in the studio and making extensive use of miniatures and forced perspective, the film takes on a dreamlike, otherworldly quality. This works pretty well since Joe Adams spends the film holed up in a bullet-riddled room living within his own mind and memories. Fonda does well in a role that demanded he be breezy and cheerful in the flashbacks, all the while growing more uneasy until he finally starts to lose his grip on reality. He always excelled in his portrayals of average guys who are put upon, and he manages to work in some post-war angst which must have struck a chord with the recently returned WWII vets. In contrast, Vincent Price hams it up in a bombastic performance as the villain who is sly, snide and sneering while retaining a certain pathos. Barbara Bel Geddes, in her debut role, was well cast as the youthful Jo Ann. Superficially, she doesn’t seem to fit the stereotypical image of the femme fatale, but her character certainly has a fatal effect on the men in the picture. Ann Dvorak’s wisecracking dame who’s seen it all is is a joy to behold as she picks away at Maximilian’s carefully arranged image, and seems to be having a ball casually humiliating him whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

The Long Night was an RKO picture but it has been released on R1 DVD by Kino. While the film clearly hasn’t had any significant clean-up done it remains in pretty good shape. There are a variety of damage marks present but, with a few exceptions, the print is clear and very watchable. As is often the case with films like this, the audio can be a bit inconsistent but I can’t see anyone forking out for a full blown restoration so this is probably as good as it’s going to look and sound. The disc does boast some nice extras in the form of a text based feature detailing the meticulous work that went into the production design which gives the film its unique atmosphere. Alongside that, there are  a  couple of clips which compare scenes in the movie with virtually identical ones in the French original. All told this is a fine movie that should please anyone with a taste for noir.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2009 in 1940s, Anatole Litvak, Film Noir, Henry Fonda

 

Sorry, Wrong Number

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I’ll start off by saying that I like films that employ flashbacks in the telling of the story. Of course, if this technique is going to be used it needs to be done well. An example of its misuse/abuse would be Passage to Marseille; where there are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks to the point that the viewer is driven half crazy and loses all sense of time and place. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) avoids falling into this trap. Here, those trips down memory lane are necessary to drive the story forward and they work perfectly.

The film was adapted from a radio play and summarising the plot is not so easy without giving away too much, and thus ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Almost all of the action is played out via a series of telephone conversations involving Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck). Leona is introduced as a rich, pampered invalid who lives in luxury in Manhattan and, alone and bed-ridden, has only her telephone as a means of communicating with the outside world. As a result of a crossed line, she overhears a conversation between two unknown men as they finalise the details of a murder soon to be committed. Naturally alarmed, Leona first tries to tip off the police but they profess an inability to act given the sketchy information available. Her next thought is to get in touch with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), but that proves more difficult. Her attempt to contact him results in a series phone calls (and accompanying flashbacks) which gradually build up a complete picture of Leona, Henry and their life together. With each call another piece of the puzzle falls into place, and Leona slowly arrives at a horrifying realization.

Harold Vermilyea explaining that Mr Evans may be found at Bowery 2-1000

Barbara Stanwyck has come to be regarded as something of a noir icon, largely through her icy portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Where that film cast her as the archetypal femme fatale, Sorry, Wrong Number has her play the helpless woman in distress. She does well here with a character that starts off as an unsympathetic figure. As Leona moves from an initial petulance, through frustration to panicked terror, she manages to avoid the temptation to overact. All the emotions on display fit in with the type of woman revealed over the course of the film. Burt Lancaster was in the middle of a series of noirs, or noir tinged movies, at this point and he’s pretty convincing in the role of Henry. He begins as a blue-collar bit of rough who catches Leona’s fancy, becomes her pet plaything, and finally allows his simmering frustration and innate greed to draw him into criminality. There are also plenty of good turns from a support cast which boasts Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Leif Erickson and William Conrad. While this is a movie full of flawed and unsavoury characters, the one sympathetic figure is Harold Vermilyea’s Waldo Evans. He’s the soft-spoken little chemist who dreams and saves in the hope of owning a farm where horses can roam free. When Henry spins him a tale that promises enough cash to realise this dream, the poor sap falls for it and his fate is sealed.    

Sorry, Wrong Number fits the noir bill by delivering a story where there are no winners and no happy endings. We have a roster of characters whose greed, selfishness and weakness set them on a path towards their own self-destruction. The moody photography of Sol Polito is another essential ingredient, and it’s at its most effective in the scenes on Staten Island. This desolate setting, especially the decrepit 20 Dunstan Terrace, is a place where you just know darkness lurks.

The film has long been available on DVD in R1 from Paramount, and it’s a pretty good transfer. The print used is clean but it does display very heavy grain, particularly in the darker scenes. As usual from Paramount there’s not much in the way of extras, just a theatrical trailer. Still, the disc can be picked up for very little and the quality of the movie alone is more than enough reason to justify a purchase.

 
 
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