Jacques Tourneur, one of old Hollywood's last poets, seems forever known, when know at all, for pairing his nebulous, poetic clashes between rationality and irrationality with the inspired clouds of unease of producer Val Lewton's wartime productions—in such films as Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), and I Walked With a Zombie (also 43)—and for one of the most unusual and foggy noirs ever produced, Out of the Past (1947). In the 1950s, Tourneur's products grew more erratic, though masterpieces were frequent—ranging from the beginning of the decade with the genuine warmth of his good-hearted western Stars in My Crown (1950), to the end, with a return to scientific-materialist horror in the British production Night of the Demon (1957)—and frequently uncanny and haunting in that way so specific to Tourneur, where memories of his films almost seem more powerful than the viewing experience itself.
Alongside the supernatural Demon, the filmmaker's other 1957 production, Nightfall, has the most fitting name of any Tourneur film, so much so that Chris Fujiwara's terrific English-language monograph on the director uses the term to cover his entire filmography. But the title better fits the shadow worlds Tourneur conjured, like those of Demon, where the edge of the frame softens the exact, often lyrical but always matter-of-fact specificity of the camerawork. One senses that a couple of feet outside of the frame's edge the world blurs, and everything beyond the small rooms of the cozy productions seems a threat. Tourneur is a master of what lays off-screen, and not just the shadow of horrifying creatures his sometimes B-level productions couldn't afford to make convincingly; no filmmaker is simultaneously so vague and so suggestive about the world that exists around us, and in turn so curiously generous about that world.
A Tourneur film has the guts to admit that the precise cinematic document of what is being filmed is far from the truth, far from all that there is to our lives. No surprise, then, that the most memorable heroes of his films are staunch rationalists (Tourneur saw in Dana Andrews much of what Friz Lang did too), lugubriously forced to sense, then experience, the unexplainable in the world just outside of our perceptions. Thus: nightfall, where the clarity of day blends and bleeds inseparably with encroaching darkness, everything is shades of gray, and the last rays of light are present along with the deepest, most impenetrable blacks.
Yet this poetic-spiritual-philosophical force, the strange current that with muffled electricity charges the world Tourneur's character move through—the mise en scène—is mostly absent or at least distanced from 1957's Nightfall, a work of melancholic urban resignation. Aldo Ray must be playing the hero from David Goodis's source novel, because he is not the director's hero; far from a proactive, thick-headed realist, Ray takes the noir's role of cynical veteran and makes a physically and vocally ominous but forever passive, gentle victim out of him. On the run from bank robbers who killed his friend during their camping trip in Wyoming, framed Ray for the murder, and who are now chasing him because they think he has their lost satchel of dough, just count how many times you think Ray will slam one of his meaty fists into someone's face to solve a problem...but doesn't.
He is perhaps noir's least violent and least active hero, and lives a sensitive life of expected comeuppance, which is where Tourneur's touch comes in: less evoked by the film itself, Aldo Ray's existence in Nightfall seems forever beset by an existential awareness and sensitivity to morose turns of fate and the danger of living life. You never know when you might have a run-in with a duo of killers. A glimmer of hope comes from a Los Angeles bar, itself a fine example of the beauty of Tourneur's precision (which continues to be seen in the film's uncomfortable fashion show set-piece and in most of the Wyoming sequences). The location is sharply delineated and atmospherically, realistically evoked inside and out by the filmmaker's oddly tableaux-like use of widescreen and Burnett Guffey's photography. There Ray meets Anne Bankcroft, and both seem used and abused—not in a pointed, generic way (say, she being a loose woman and he tired of or haunted by wartime killing or some such nonsense), but rather beset by a strange weariness, something simply about living a solitary existence in 1957. Without the comfort of another (confident couples make up the rest of the film's characters), something intangible is left amiss in the world.
Of course, in a work of horror or in a time of unrest, that thing would haunt the film and its characters, challenge them, be the focus of the story and the thrust of its energy. Nightfall again betrays expectations: The world is small, tense conversations between two people in vacant, lonely spaces, or the restrained singularity of flashbacks to the holdup and murder in the snowy countryside. These reveries of memory are uncomfortable, between the too-good-to-be-true friendship of Ray with the man he's later accused of killing, and the sinister over-emphasis on the characters of the killers. In the 1930s, these villains would have been a gang wearing ill-fitted suits, photographed in medium-long shot, and be seen a couple of sniveling scenes for local color and disappear; in the 1940s, this noir type would be exaggerated, caricatured, they'd be sidekicks filmed in grotesque canted angles and shot in the stomach two-thirds the way through the picture. Somehow the 1950s misunderstood the allure of horrifying secondary-role baddies and brought them up to starring roles, as they are in Nightfall—an influence still felt today when the sophisticated, mysterious, or subtle evil-doer is too rare a thing to find when extreme stylization of villainy is so catchy.
At any rate, these two thugs, one played by Brian Keith, who nearly seems as tired of things as Aldo Ray, and the other, Rudy Bond, the only truly happy person in the film (and a morbid psychopath), dominate Nightfall with a nearly overbearing force of a muted anxiety and sighing fatalism. It seems like all you have to do is get two people together in Nightfall and out will come a repressed sense of disgust and the pitiable meagerness of living simply to keep living. Only Ray's doppelgänger, the straight-laced, upright 1950s professional, played by James Gregory as an insurance investigator, and his loving, supporting wife (Joceyln Brando), seem casually content with the world around them. Which is why they are almost intolerably boring. These two are simply puzzled at the actions of Aldo Ray, but I think more deeply puzzled at the world he is living in, so different from theirs. Ray's character, like that of Bankcroft, both loners, is attuned to the possibility of the unease, discontent, and unpredictable fate lines in the modern world around them, manifest as Keith and Bond, who the investigator seems unable to see or understand. For the sensitive souls, there's no joy to be found at the end of the day, only momentary respite with a kindred spirit of sensitivity, and the awareness that after the sun sets, the darkness comes.
A new 35mm print of Nightfall will run at New York's Film Forum June 11 - 17.