So Dark the Night (1946)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Produced by Ted Richmond
Screenplay by Dwight V. Babcock, Martin Berkeley
Based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg
Music by Hugo Friedhofer
Cinematography by Burnett Guffey
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV DVD (1:11)
It’s quite refreshing to see a character actor land a leading role once in awhile. Hungarian actor Steven Geray appeared in many film noir and noir-stained titles during his career including The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Spellbound (1945), Deadline at Dawn (1946), Blind Spot (1947), The Dark Past (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), Woman on the Run (1950), and my personal favorite as Uncle Pio in Gilda (1946). Geray (who made over 40 films in Europe before immigrating to America in the early 1940s) usually played a foreigner in his American films, sometimes friendly, sometimes not. As far as I can tell, So Dark the Night is his only lead role. It’s a film that isn’t talked about much (possibly because it contains no major American actors), but should be. It’s a little film that begins in a rather benign way, but transitions to a very dark place by the time we reach the end.
Geray plays Henri Cassin, a famous Parisian detective taking a long overdue vacation in the sleepy village of St. Margot, staying at the inn run by Pierre (Eugene Borden) and Mama Michaud (Ann Codee). We’re clearly in low-budget territory here: stereotypical characters, everyone speaking English with mostly bad French accents, and a set-up you can see coming a mile away. We’re not surprised in the least when Henri falls for the Michaud’s daughter Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), although he’s clearly much older.
Neither are we surprised when Nanette’s fiancé Leon (Paul Marion) shows up with one of two moods he’ll display for the rest of the film: sour. Although he’s a one-dimensional character, Leon sees Henri as a rival. But who can blame Henri for being attracted to Nanette? Leon figures it must be Nanette’s fault for encouraging Henri. So when Nanette’s body is found in the river, Leon becomes the prime suspect, but not for long. Leon is found strangled soon after, displaying his other mood: dead. And before you know it, Henri receives a mysterious note: “There will be another murder.”
The elements of So Dark the Night make for a long set-up, especially for a 71-minute film. Early in the film, we’re treated to a nice overhead shot of two men standing underneath a ceiling fan, almost as if they’re destined to be cut to ribbons by the fan’s blades. Later we see Nanette at a village festival standing behind a violinist whose bow seems to be bisecting her face. These are nice touches that don’t really count for much, but cinematographer Burnett Guffey eventually starts unpacking his noir suitcase as the film progresses. And keep an eye out for any scenes involving windows.
Joseph H. Lewis made several good B-pictures including My Name is Julia Ross (1945), The Big Combo (1955), Terror in a Texas Town (1958), and one great film, Gun Crazy (1950). He certainly knew how to elevate a low-budget film beyond its balance sheet. All he needed was a decent story, a good cinematographer and a few bucks. So Dark the Night lacks big stars and there’s nothing special about the script for the first half of the picture, but Lewis manages to leave us with a real stunner by the film’s end. Some may think the ending a bit too much, but I was very satisfied with it. The question becomes this: Is So Dark the Night a film noir or a murder mystery? If I had to assign values to the film, I’d probably come down 70% mystery, 30% film noir. Give it a look and see what you think.
You can find it in the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Volume IV collection.
Photos: IMDb, TMDb, Peter Burnett, Moviefone, DVD Beaver