Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Film Review--The Long Night (1947)

A remake of the highly lauded Marcel Carne 1939 classic Le Jour Se Leve, The Long Night opens with recently returning serviceman Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) shooting an unknown dandy in his dingy apartment. Upon hearing the shots and the police sirens, the people of this small blue collar town flock around to find out what happened—no way Joe Adams could have done this—and as he sits alone in his home with his thoughts, waiting for the cops, we wind out, through a series of flashbacks, what drove poor Joe Adams to murder.

The story structure of The Long Night is impeccably constructed. It isn’t easy to use flashbacks within flashbacks without becoming convoluted, but there is no confusion of time and place here. The device isn’t used as in Rudolph Mate’s 1949 classic, D.O.A., in which we have one large flashback. Instead, we jump back and forth, back again, then back even further, before we come back to the present again. A complicated web, but one that does a fantastic job of developing complex characterizations of small town lovers and their naivety. These characters are completed, however, by some great performances, especially from Fonda (in one of his first films after returning from the war), who’s experiences no doubt lend a certain amount of insight into Joe Adams’ existential crisis, and Vincent Price, who gives the soon-to-be murdered magician Maximilian the feeling of a powerless Svengali, the kind of manipulator who can only prey on the weakest possible people.

In keeping with the original film’s poetic realism, the small town in which these people live is made up of highly theatrical sets, weird miniatures, and minimal but strangely surreal mattes that immerse the viewer in the scene even though, taken on their own, don’t make any realistic sense. As a result of its poetic nature, too, some of the performances are overwrought and occasionally distracting, but Fonda’s performance tempers a lot of this. The stark photography (the only reason the DVD is in a film noir collection) by Sol Polito and a solid score from possibly the finest early film maestro Dmitri Tiomkin round out what is a surprisingly good production.

What I find interesting about the film is that there are definite anti-military and pro-collective feelings in the story, which I must assume come from the original story. Fonda had just come back from the war with commendations and director Anatole Litvak had also served in the army during WWII in the photography division and worked with John Ford on the US Army’s Why We Fight series. This all helps to serve the story in a substantial way but the HUAC had just started working again when The Long Night came out and, had the film been made even a year or two later, these “anti-American” sentiments either would have not been in the film or all concerned, regardless of prior military service, would surely have summoned for questioning. It comes at a place in Hollywood where people had not yet become afraid of ideas but soon would be. I guarantee that McCarthy would have frowned upon the shooting of an Army uniform, but maybe I underestimate the guy.