Directed in 1957 by Jacques Tourneur, night falls in Nightfall as quickly as it ever has. The movie’s opening scenes depict a busy afternoon in a city that might be Los Angeles, buses crawling the busy kerbs. While pedestrians click around him, a large man with cropped blonde hair, his bulk crammed almost comfortably into a suit, browses at an enormous newsstand marked Home Town Papers. Seeing him, the vendor asks what town he’s looking for – then comments that, nah, there ain’t no call for papers from there.
At this point, the newsstand guy clicks on his stall’s glaring overhead light, causing the blonde man to flinch and skulk off toward safely shadowy corners, afraid to be seen. And we flinch, too, because, a few seconds ago, it had seemed like bright afternoon and now, suddenly, it’s dark, the black night splashed with white as neon signs begin to spark on up and down the street.
This furtive blonde man (played by Aldo Ray) is calling himself Jim Vanning. A year ago, he and his friend, a doctor, were hunting in snowy parts of Wyoming. A car crashed into their camp, and two men, John and Red (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond), came falling out, armed thieves returning from a bloody bank robbery. With no criminal records, this pair were keen to leave no witnesses around to identify them. So they killed the doctor, then, arranging the scene to make it appear as if Vanning had killed his friend, left him for dead and took off in his car.
Vanning survived, though, and, discovering that they’d lifted the doctor’s bag instead of their cash, he stumbled off with it, half-conscious, eventually losing it somewhere among the snowdrifts. Now, he’s hiding out from the killers and the police, moving around, waiting for the spring thaws that will let him go back out there and retrieve the money – the only evidence he thinks can prove his innocence of his friend’s murder.
This is what’s happening in the film, but we don’t realise it yet, because Vanning tells his story in fragmented flashbacks, the first occurring when the two killers show up without explanation to drag him away from a lonely girl he’s met in a bar (an early, beautiful showing from Anne Bancroft), and take him out into a wrecked landscape on the charcoal edge of town, a field of pylons and oil derricks, prefiguring the climactic geography of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958).
But the film’s flashback structure – along with its heavy sense of today being trapped by yesterday, and the layered contrasts it sets up between urban and rural locations stained with danger – links Nightfall most strongly with director Tourneur’s finest movie, Out of the Past (1947).
Though he’s probably best remembered for the series of haunted, sparsely elegant and ceaselessly influential low-budget horror films he directed – Cat People (1943), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943) and his later classic Night of the Demon (1957) – in Out Of The Past Tourneur caught the very essence of film noir and made it condense into blue mist. Nightfall was the only other noir he made. But where, in Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum breathed an amused, melancholy hipster’s resignation-jazz, Ray cuts a far less iconic figure.
Nightfall is based on David Goodis’s 1947 novel of the same title, and it’s both unlike the book – which is set mostly around New York City’s Greenwich Village, and features no snow – and very like it indeed: it retains lots of specific details from Goodis, but, more importantly, catches the same elusive, lonely, alone-in-the-city-night air. Through its forlorn fogs, a few hardboiled lines crackle, like intermittent lightning. (In a beat up joint, Ray asks for a vodka with a twist of lemon. The bartender answers: “Is that a big twist or a little twist?” To which Ray responds: “You look the big twist type.”)
Mostly, though, Ray is a big sad husky bear. He appears bewildered, and, although powerful-looking, he frequently admits how scared he is, without going into any show about it. The few times he breaks into a smile, he looks like a baby. Before acting, Ray started out as a real-life sheriff, policing a small town. In later years he turned up in nasty exploitation flicks. (Years after that, his son, Eric Da Re, played the nightmare thug Leo Johnson in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks; his mother, Ray’s ex-wife Johanna Ray, was Lynch’s casting director.)
Nightfall’s killers fascinate. Bond, who had showed up among the faces watching Brando’s slow-witted martyrdom in On the Waterfront, looks normal in square, rube ways, but he reveals himself to be a sick psycho, slow-witted and mean, giggling over his gun, singing little torture-songs: “The tougher they are the more fun they are…” Brian Keith, in a great performance, is quite unfathomable, ambivalent, reluctant, weary of everything. These two guys hate each other, you soon realise, like the killers in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Come to think of it, one of Fargo’s key motifs – a lonely bag full of money, lost somewhere in the snowdrifts – seems a direct lift from Tourneur’s movie.
That perilous, snowbound countryside is gorgeously rendered, and the film climaxes with a mad battle way out there between Ray and a snowplough. But the best moments come in the city: a ridiculous fashion show Bancroft takes part in (she’s a model, this beautiful girl who sits alone in bars), staged in the abstract Japanese garden of a hard-modernist hotel, all horizontal white concrete, glass and steel; a weary Mexican couple murmuring in a bus station; Ray looking out the back alley window of his rented room at 4AM, telling Bancroft about the iron fences and telephone poles out there, how he knows where every shadow falls; and the insurance man (James Gregory) who has been shadowing him for three months, sitting in his own lonely rented 4AM room right across the street, staring back through binoculars in silence while, in another part of town, his wife (played by Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister and a liberal victim of the Blacklist) waits for him to come back to their own modest, cosy rooms again. Everyone waiting for night to lift, wondering why them.