Why anyone would actually want a career in the movies is beyond me. It’s murder. Aspiring actors queue up hoping to be one of the lucky ones, the kind with a forty-year fairy tale of a career, financial security, and maybe even an award some magical late-February night. But it isn’t in the cards for most — and I don’t mean those who never even get their foot in the door. Hollywood is cruelest to those who actually make it, who achieve a certain level of fame — the kind where you get top billing in a few pictures and everyone from your home town, even your whole state, thinks of you as a favorite son. But when the picture business sours on you, turns fickle, and eventually passes you by, everyone still knows who you are — you can’t go back, you can’t become un-famous. Anonymity is as elusive as a part in an A-list picture, and a squarejohn’s nine to five job is impossible. What are the options? Most try to hang on, taking lesser and lesser roles until somewhere along the way some vital part of them is lost and their lives become … cheap. The list of such actors and actresses is endless, and the tremendously gifted Aldo Ray’s name is somewhere on it. One need only visit his awards page on IMDb for proof: nominated for a 1952 Golden Globe as “Most Promising Male Newcomer” for the Tracy / Hepburn vehicle Pat and Mike, his one and only follow up nomination came twenty-five years later: a “Best Actor” nod for the 1978 film Sweet Savage — from the Adult Film Association of America, which he won. (And it must be noted he kept his clothes on for the duration.)
Ray was something else: Big. Blonde. Good looking. Affable. All-American. Naval combat vet. If he punched you he’d knock your block clean off — only he’d never punch you. He was that guy. He had that hulking innocence that made a star out of Merlin Olsen decades later. Quentin Tarantino liked him enough to subtly name Brad Pitt’s character after him in Inglorious Basterds. Ray fell into acting sideways and Hollywood never knew exactly what to do with him. He had an offbeat, scratchy voice that didn’t seem to match his looks, and though he could never quite pull it off romantically (he comes awfully close with Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson), he could certainly act. His resume is a mix of character parts and leads, war films, westerns, and plenty of TV. He made one legit film noir; the subject of this essay, and it was this part that really called for what Ray had to offer as a performer.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Nightfall is thematically reminiscent of the director’s earlier canonical film Out of the Past. Made in that period of the later mid-fifties when film noir was beginning to sputter, and had become all too aware of it’s own peccadilloes. It’s to Tourneur and cinematographer Burnett Guffey’s credit that Nightfall doesn’t get bogged down in self-awareness in the same way that, for example, another 1957 film based on Goodis, The Burglar, does. This is a spare, no frills picture that is to the point and makes every one of its 78 minutes pay off. It’s not cheap though, and it doesn’t shout B — everything about it is well constructed by an experienced and confident team of professionals. Guffey’s work in particular stands out. The film’s first 20 minutes feature numerous intricate camera setups, and one particularly well done dolly shot, all handled so deftly as to barely register to anyone who isn’t on the lookout. Guffey isn’t trying too hard; he lets the narrative guide his camera and the results owe less to his desire to show off than to the need for economy. It’s first-rate, virtuoso stuff.
I’m loath to compare two strikingly similar films such as Out of the Past and Nightfall; such exercises have never been of much interest, and seem like the sort of thing best suited to an art history paper. But there is one intriguing parallel between the characters of Jeff Bailey and Nightfall’s Jim Vanning that is far too extra-referential not to dig into, even if just a little: the way in which the protagonists are introduced to the audience, and how their respective introductions purposefully manipulate our first impression. This notion of the first impression, and how it plays out within the greater narrative, is one of the more fascinating aspects of noir character development; one that never gets the discussion it deserves. Here we have a pair of films that seamlessly weld the present to the past, turning time into a circle that resembles the snake feeding on its own tail. Both feature a male protagonist unable to elude his past — yet it’s in the assignation of personal responsibility that Tourneau misleads us about the character of each. It’s also important to note how each of the two pictures forsake the typically urban setting of most noir pictures to great effect (Guffey’s astonishing work aside). It’s in the great outdoors that we first encounter Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past: fishing against the stunning backdrop of a mountain lake, an equally stunning and equally wholesome blond beauty waiting for him on the sunny bank. Prior to actually seeing Robert Mitchum we see his name plastered all over the service station he owns in a picturesque town. Bailey appears to be one of the upwardly mobile lucky ones living the post-war American dream — not only does he have the girl, he even owns his own business. Jim Vanning’s first appearance is handled quite differently: we first see him on the neon streets of Los Angeles, moving cautiously from corner to corner, paranoid, nervous. He lights a cigarette and glances furtively over his shoulder. This is a man who has done something, we are meant to think. He must have a reason to be this afraid. Yet Tourneau has fooled us, Vanning is the innocent victim of bad luck, while Bailey is far more responsible for his predicament than the introductory setting would lead us to believe. Certainly our response to each hero, and his film, would be different had we known the extent to which he was responsible for his own fate. Tourneau is at his best when he hides things from us — and he recognizes that in initially hiding the truth about his characters he vastly improves the impact and narrative force of the flashback. In this he has no peer.
In most pictures the quality of the dialog and the story go hand in hand. Not so here. Not having read David Goodis’s source novel, I’m unable to comment on how much of the dialog is lifted from his book, but there is certainly a disparity between the witty, sharp, though not-quite hard-boiled speech of the film and the less than plausible story. There is a great deal to enjoy in Nightfall, though viewers will have to give a little to reap the rewards. The dramatic thrust of the film, not to mention its underpinnings as a noir, revolves around the characters being in the wrong place at the wrong time — and not just Aldo Ray’s Jim Vanning, but also Anne Bancroft’s Marie, and even Nightfall’s superb villains, played by Brian Keith and the terrifying Rudy Bond. (Bond makes an extraordinary impression. This film is now widely available, even from Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, do so soon.) The story is a complicated weave of circumstance, twist, and chronology that defies summary — so I won’t waste your time attempting one. Regardless, the reels unspool very smoothly and you never get the “how did we get here” moment that comes with many noir stories. The only problem lies in contrivance. Without giving too much away, it must be said that never did a film rely so heavily on the fact that one of its characters is a physician. Though it seems a small detail, this one plot point is critical to the development of the story in numerous ways — the movie just doesn’t work without it, and it’s awfully hard to swallow. But in the end who cares? If you are a film noir fan simply for the sake of story your time investment is sorely misplaced. Most noir pictures are the pulpy stuff of hack writers and retreads. It’s not what happens that makes these things so great, it’s how our heroes respond to what happens, and how the filmmakers choose to share it with us that makes the noir film so endlessly fascinating.
Produced by Ted Richmond
Story by David Goodis
Screenplay by Sterling Silliphant
Cinematography by Burnett Guffey
Art Direction by Ross Bellah
Starring Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith, and Rudy Bond
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 78 minutes.