Nightfall (1956)


(director/writer: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriters: Stirling Silliphant/from the book by David Goodis; cinematographer: Burnett Guffey; editor: William Lyon; music: George Duning; cast: Aldo Ray (Rayburn/James Vanning), Brian Keith (John), Rudy Bond (Red), Anne Bancroft (Marie Gardner), Jocelyn Brando (Laura Fraser), James Gregory (Ben Fraser, Insurance Investigator), Frank Albertson (Dr. Edward Gurston); Runtime: 78; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ted Richmond; Columbia Pictures; 1957)
“Splendid adaptation by Stirling Silliphant of David Goodis’s 1947 novel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Splendid adaptation by Stirling Silliphant of David Goodis’s 1947 novel. Jacques Tourneur (“Out of the Past”/”I Walked with a Zombie”) gets the most out of this minor film noir about a paranoid man haunted by his past, who can’t fully comprehend how he got into such a tight predicament where he’s being pursued by both the law and two dangerous criminals. Burnett Guffey’s brilliant composite photography adds chills to the already tense narrative. His exterior daytime shots of a wintry Wyoming landscape signify danger contrasted with the neon-lit dark city night streets that signify safety.

Rayburn (Aldo Ray) is a big bear type of friendly Chicago bachelor, commercial artist, and former Navy wartime veteran who is on a hunting trip in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with older best friend Dr. Edward Gurston (Frank Albertson), who married Jim’s friend–a woman twenty years his junior. Their camping trip is interrupted by a speeding car going off an embankment and Doc patching up the fractured arm of one of the rescued men. The psychopathic Red (Rudy Bond) and the more puzzling contemplative John (Brian Keith) just robbed a bank in Seattle of $350,000, and decide to steal the camper’s car and kill them because they’re potential eyewitnesses to their perfect robbery. Trigger-happy Red kills Doc, but after making it look like a suicide leaves Rayburn unconscious and seemingly dead. The camper recovers when the thugs are gone and finds they mistakenly took Doc’s medical bag instead of the one with the dough. While fleeing on foot through a snowstorm, the camper buries the money in a snowbank near a shack and instead of reporting it to the police, he goes on the lam changing his name to Jim Vanning. He does it because his fingerprints are on the rifle that killed Doc, and that would make him a likely murder suspect. Also, his motive might be the suspicious relationship he had with Doc’s wife, who wrote him love letters and made sexual advances at the innocent man.

On the run all winter, Vanning lands in Los Angeles after being tailed for several months by insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory), who is accompanied by his wife Laura. The investigator is waiting for Vanning to lead him to the heist money, even though he knows that he’s also wanted in Chicago for murder. Ben tells his wife “He grows on you; it’s almost like he needs protection.”

In a Hollywood bar, Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft), a high-class fashion model, picks up Vanning claiming she has no money to pay for her drinks after her girl friend failed to show up for a dinner date. Outside the bar, Red and John accost him and roughly dismiss Marie, saying she did a good job relaxing him. She mistakenly helped them thinking they were police after a wanted man. The thugs take Vanning to a deserted oil derrick and are set to torture him for info on the money, but Vanning manages to escape and flees to Marie’s place where he explains everything. They spend the night innocently together and plan to go to Wyoming to find the money and return it to the police (Marie is in danger of the thugs returning and Vanning convinces her that the police can’t help). In Wyoming they are met by Ben, who convinces them to let him join in the hunt for the money. Vanning finds the money spot, but the thugs have already gotten there. It leads to an exciting climax where the regular guy noir hero finds again his lost innocence and belief in humanity. In the novel, he recovered from a traumatic amnesia.