“The Art of Producing Something Out of Nothing Has Always Been A Most Delicate One”
(Soundtrack: Red Aunts–Bad Motherfucken 40 oz.)
Pardon my enthusiasm, but I’m a little bit overwhelmed today! Just watched Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night for the third time! It’s a remake of Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve (which has been on my list for a while–more than ever now!), but I think some of the reviewers have let this fact cloud their minds… Oooh, they changed the ending! Aww, Henry Fonda’s not right for the part! Barbara Bel Geddes is “bland”… Come on! Wake up people! Personally, I can’t help relating this film to It’s A Wonderful Life–the two works run on parallel tracks, strafing each other with alternate beams of gloom and light that each, in their turn, help to bring the human situations at their respective cores into sharper focus.
The Long Night begins with a murder. Elisha Cooke, playing a blind ex-G.I., literally collides with a body as he feels his way up the staircase to his flat in a cheap boardinghouse in a town “somewhere on the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania”. A shot has been fired. When the police arrive to question the presumed shooter, another ex-G.I. named Joe Adams, he tells them to take off. When they insist upon coming in, he sends indiscriminate bullets through the door and they scurry back down to the street, there to ponder the best means of smoking him out… We still haven’t seen Adams, only heard his plaintive voice, demanding to be left alone.
We get our first glimpse of the outlaw when we plunge into his dim apartment with the tommygun spray unleashed by the S.W.A.T. team. It’s a brutal scene. Fonda retreats into a corner as the cold shower of bullets rinses away the few poor fetish-tokens of relationality that he’s been able to steal from the world. Then, of course, he flashes back…
Astonishingly, given the build-up, we find that this isn’t a “crime melodrama” at all! There’s no heist scheme. No femme fatale. There is a scuzzy magician/dog-trainer (Vincent Price, in an unbelievably good performance–I don’t even understand how you could describe this character!–maybe, uh, incompetent, venal, Svengali?), but he’s no criminal mastermind, not in the normal sense of those words, anyway.
People aren’t too concerned about money in this film–although they all live in squalor. The harshness of their “poverty” manifests itself in a sense of isolation, not in any lack of worldly comfort. In fact, the wonderfully dingy flophouse and tavern sets are strangely welcoming, whenever Fonda finds himself in conversation with Charlene (Price’s ex-assistant in the magic act–played by the amazing Ann Dvorak) or Jo-Ann (a confused and lonely young woman who, like Jimmy Stewart in IAWL, dreams of being “drawn out” by the exoticism of the world ouside of the crusty steeltown flowershop in which she works; she’s played by Barbara Bel Geddes–so different here from Midge in Vertigo–although, if you really think about it, similarities do come to light–at any rate, I think she’s perfect in both roles).
Everyone in this film is trying to express the inexpressible. To break out of the “prison of self”, or at least to earn the right to receive conjugal visits. Yeah, that’s more like it. Litvak’s achievement is to really make us feel the importance of these little interviews: they communicate an almost tangible sense of intimacy, while at the same time reminding us that these consensually-built “homes” are temporary–houses of cards…
Meanwhile, Price blurs the line between “honest” and “dishonest” striving in this regard, and there’s one scene in particular, in which he makes a startling confession (to Fonda) worthy of “The Husband” in Dmytryk’s Crossfire, that pretty much annihilates it! You get the sense that, if only Price could sustain his lies, he really would be as lovable as he wants his audience to believe. In the most beautiful moment of self-diagnosis in the film, he tells Bel Geddes: “In a strange way I’m honest, even about my lies.” That’s the whole trouble with him. He can never quite believe himself, even when he’s got others fooled. If love is a lie that two people create together and unleash upon themselves like a Frankenstein monster, then Price somehow can’t bring himself to pump the requisite electricity into the fleshy whoppers he continually digs up.
There’s a lot more to be said about this film–and its connection to IAWL in particular–wish I had more time! For now, let’s just say I think it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen!
Good Evening Friends!