I know I owe everyone a review of Scarlet Street, and I promise it’s on the way. But today I have what may be a little undiscovered film for most of you:
The Night Visitor (1971) László Benedek
VCI Blu-ray (1:46)
Before Turner Classic Movies, there was WTBS, or the Turner Broadcasting System, Ted Turner’s cable station that broadcast all kinds of movies and shows. SuperStation WTBS was one of the few places on cable where you could see older and classic films. One night I stumbled upon a Swedish thriller in English called The Night Visitor, but I’d missed at least the first 45 minutes of the film. When it was over, I knew how it ended, but not how it started. I had to wait until last night, 34 years later, to discover that.
Memories are strange things, especially memories that’ve been kicking around in your brain for 34 years. We’ve probably all experienced this: seeing a movie in your youth, coming away from it with a certain feeling (positive, negative, or somewhere in between), then seeing it again 20+ years later, only to realize (1) how wrong you were about it (2) how it’s not really the movie you remembered (3) how much you and your tastes have changed.
I experienced bits and pieces of all of that while watching The Night Visitor. As the film opens, we see Max von Sydow (above) carefully navigating his way through a section of snowy woods. He’s wearing shorts, a t-shirt and boots, constantly looking back to see if anyone’s watching him. At first I thought, “This is exactly like the opening of Paris, Texas, only reversed.” (In the opening of that film, Harry Dean Stanton is wandering through the desert overdressed in a suit jacket and slacks.) Both films are similar in the openings in that we don’t know who these characters are, where they’ve come from, or where they’re going.
Now the tough part: it’s impossible to talk further about The Night Visitor without spoilers, so I’m just going to do that now. Von Sydow plays Salem, an inmate in an asylum who was accused of an axe murder by reason of insanity. He was framed and now he wants revenge. Salem has figured out a way to escape the asylum and reenter it without anyone knowing. (How he does this, I won’t tell you.) Murders are committed in this Swedish town, but Salem is safely locked up, right?
In one scene, the police inspector (Trevor Howard) comes to interrogate Salem, who claims he’s been in his cell the whole time. How could he get out? Their little cat-and-mouse game is mildly amusing, but made more interesting when Salem predicts who will die next. (Of course he knows; he’s going to commit the murder.) Then, after another exchange, Salem states, “You shouldn’t believe a word I’ve said.” Maybe he is crazy.
The Night Visitor is not exactly what I remembered. I thought the film had more close calls (although it does have several) and remembered the denouement being stretched out more than it actually is. I still found it very enjoyable, although I noticed several problems with the film. Although the movie boasts some fine actors (Liv Ullmann, Trevor Howard, Per Oscarsson), character development is practically non-existent. Probably the character we get to know best is the elderly guard.
One aspect of the film (that I don’t think is accidental) I appreciated is the way Benedek uses the bright green colors in various ways throughout an otherwise dark film. To me, this seems to foreshadow the conclusion, which was well-played. Then again, maybe I’m seeing something that’s not really there. (This is the same person that remembered parts of the film differently from 34 years ago, ya know.)
You can’t help asking a lot of questions and second-guessing several plot points, but the film still provides a lot of entertainment, mostly due to the escape scenes, the creepy atmosphere and Max von Sydow’s performance. The film is also one of Henry Mancini’s strangest scores which uses woodwinds, a synthesizer, two pianos and two harpsichords, one tuned a quarter-step lower than the other.
The VCI Blu-ray contains a commentary by Bruce G. Hallenbeck, filmmaker and author of several books on horror films, but I haven’t listened to it just yet. I can’t say the film will be for everyone, but I enjoyed it and am glad I picked it up. See what you think.
Photos: Theater of Blood, Mubi, Horrorpedia