January 23, 1957, release date
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant
Based on the novel Nightfall by David Goodis
Music conducted by Morris Stoloff
Edited by William A. Lyon
Cinematography by Burnett Guffey
Aldo Ray as James Vanning
Brian Keith as John
Anne Bancroft as Marie Gardner
Jocelyn Brando as Laura Fraser
James Gregory as Ben Fraser
Frank Albertson as Dr. Edward Gurston
Rudy Bond as Red
Produced by A Copa Production
Distributed by Columbia Pictures Corporation
It’s hard for me to believe that Nightfall was released more than sixty years ago. The film is dated perhaps by fashion styles and automobile models, but the mood of angst is applicable to any era, including the present. Nightfall is a great story with many of the elements of classic noir: existential angst, uncertainty, the threat of violence, flashbacks, amnesia, fate.
The film opens on a city street in daytime. Viewers learn later that it is Hollywood Boulevard. The camera follows Jim Vanning, with his back to the camera, as he peruses a newsstand. He asks the clerk if there is an Evanston, Illinois, newspaper. There is not. When the newsstand clerk turns on the overhead lights, the man flinches. He’s nervous, maybe even paranoid about something. The switch to nighttime in the city is pretty quick. It disorients the viewers and shows Vanning’s distraction. Is he disoriented and thus not a reliable narrator in this story?
Vanning moves away from the newsstand, and a stranger, Ben Fraser, stops to talk to him. The stranger asks Vanning for a light. They talk about the heat. Jim Vanning tells Fraser that he is a World War II veteran and that he fought in Okinawa. Once Fraser leaves to catch a bus home, Vanning goes to a bar in a restaurant and happens to sit down next to Marie Gardner. She asks him for a $5.00 loan because she doesn’t have her wallet and can’t pay her tab. Because of this chance meeting and the circumstances Gardner finds herself in, without any money, she and Vanning start talking, and he invites her to dinner.
(This blog post about Nightfall contains spoilers.)
The film cuts back to Fraser arriving home to his wife. They talk about Vanning, but they never mention his name. Fraser is an insurance investigator with an interest in a case involving Vanning. His conversation with his wife reveals that Vanning is in trouble, but Fraser has doubts about Vanning’s culpability in past events that still aren’t fully revealed: to the characters and to the viewers.
Fraser needs more time to investigate the details of a bank robbery and a murder, and Vanning’s role in each. Vanning can’t remember the details of his past accurately: He is suffering from amnesia because of the trauma surrounding the events that Fraser is investigating. At the start of the film, Vanning believes that his is partly responsible for the crimes committed by others.
When the film cuts back to Marie and Jim, they are having dinner. They talk about their work: Marie is a model; Jim is a freelance artist. They leave the restaurant after Jim stops to buy cigarettes, and two men (John and Red) in the background watch him. These men stop Vanning and Marie out on the street and call him by a different name: Rayburn. Because of the interactions among all four characters on the street, viewers can infer that Marie is working for John and Red. They tell her to leave and she does. John and Red take Vanning away in a car to a remote industrial site. By now, viewers know that these men, John and Red, are dangerous. But so many questions are left unanswered.
◊ Did Marie Gardner help John and Red by baiting Jim Vanning?
◊ What do John and Red want from Jim? Information? About what?
◊ What is Jim Vanning’s/Rayburn’s real identity?
◊ If Vanning changed his name, why did he do it?
Everyone in this film has questions, and so do viewers. The questions are answered for the characters and the viewers at the same time, as the plot unfolds. In a sense, the film asks viewers to go along with Vanning’s story and trust that they and he will find out what they need to know. The film asks the same of Marie Gardner. After John and Red beat Vanning, Vanning goes to Marie’s apartment demanding an explanation: He thinks Marie might be working with John and Red and that’s how they found him at the restaurant. Marie thinks Vanning is a criminal wanted by the police and that John and Red are officers. She lets Vanning into her apartment only reluctantly, and they learn the truth about one another’s roles in the story so far in subsequent conversation.
Nightfall is based on David Goodis’s novel of the same name, and it alternates between Vanning’s story and Ben Fraser’s part in it, just like the novel does. But the film uses flashbacks when Vanning tells parts of his story. In the novel, Vanning refers to past events in conversation with other characters: Readers are still rooted in the present and hear Vanning’s version of the past. The film takes place in California and in Wyoming; the book takes place in New York City. Fraser is an insurance investigator in the film, but he is a police detective in the novel, and readers learn more about Fraser’s story than viewers do in by watching the film.
Nightfall has some great dialogue that exemplifies the confusion and fear for Jim Vanning and Marie Gardner and the role that fate plays in their lives. After Marie reluctantly lets Jim into her apartment, when he still has questions about her role in his abduction by John and Red, he says to her one of my favorite lines in film noir: “Nice place. I’ll try not to bleed over everything.” It captures his cynicism and his fear about her role up to that point. Fate brings Jim Vanning and Marie Gardner together and embroils them in a dangerous situation that neither one of them wants. Fate seems especially cruel to Marie, who is an innocent bystander in Jim’s story. After Jim enters her apartment and they begin talking, she asks the question that many film noir protagonists could ask about their own situation:
• Marie: “Why me?”
• Jim: “I used to ask myself the same question, ‘Why me?’ Because you were unlucky enough to talk to me tonight.”