Monday, February 12, 2024

Somewhere in the Night

Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Somewhere in the Night (US 1949) avec John Hodiak, Nancy Guild, Lloyd Nolan.

Quelque part dans la nuit / Takaa-ajettuna yössä / Jagad i natten.
De Mankiewicz, Joseph L.
Avec: John Hodiak, Nancy Guild, Lloyd Nolan.
    UK premiere 19 May 1946.
    Finnish premiere 7 Nov 1947.
    French premiere 2 June 1948, re-release 22 May 2013.
    Viewed at Cinéma Le Champo 1, 51 rue des Écoles, Quartier latin, Métro Cluny-La Sorbonne, 75005 Paris, version originale avec sous-titres français (n.c.), 12 Feb 2024.

Cinéma Le Champo: " Au lendemain de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, George Taylor, soldat amnésique, tente de reconstituer son passé. Pour tout indice, il dispose de deux lettres : l'une signée par une femme, l'autre par un certain Larry Cravat. Aidé dans sa quête par Christy, une chanteuse, et Kendall, un policier, il apprend que Cravat est un détective véreux accusé de meurtre et part à sa recherche. "

AA: Joseph L. Mankiewicz debuts as a film director in the year 1946 with two films: Dragonwyck (10 April 1946) and Somewhere in the Night (19 May 1946). He is a Hollywood veteran, screenwriter for Paramount since 1929 and producer for MGM since 1934. At Fox, Mankiewicz starts as a writer in 1944 and makes 11 films as director in 1946-1952, including the masterpieces The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, All About Eve and 5 Fingers.

Somewhere in the Night is far from Mankiewicz's best work, not a good film, but an intriguing and rewarding one. It belongs to Mankiewicz's film noir cycle, with House of Strangers (US 1949) and No Way Out (1950) and arguably Escape (GB 1948).

The script is full of holes and feels like an amateur job despite the presence of talent such as Lee Strasberg and Mankiewicz himself. Major story elements remain unexplored.

The film is not well cast. The performers of the leading roles could be replaced with puppets. But there are unforgettable presences among the supporting cast, especially Houseley Stevenson as the dockworker Michael Conroy who has been locked up in a mental hospital. The great Austrian man of the theatre in Hollywood exile, Fritz Kortner (1892-1970), creates a disturbing performance as Anzelmo aka Dr. Oracle, a fortune teller near Terminal Dock. Stevenson and Kortner convey a sense of existential agony otherwise missing from the performances.

Despite all the drawbacks, and despite not being a good film, Somewhere in the Night is essential film noir.

Somewhere in the Night could be a good title for a study on film noir. The opening credit image is of the night sky.

It is a story of amnesia, loss of identity, loss of memory and loss of language so thorough that in the beginning, George Taylor does not know what a tree is. The beginning of the movie is largely conveyed via inner monologue. The oneiric ambience of the subjective recitative is fuelled with ample doses of morphine to alleviate Taylor's unbearable pain.

George Taylor is a convalescing U.S. Marine war invalid, a victim of a grenade detonated under him in the South Pacific, his body shattered and his face burned to oblivion. With plastic surgery, he has got a new face. He does not recognize himself in the mirror. Nobody recognizes him. This key theme remains underexplored.

Like a somnambulist, George Taylor follows tiny clues remaining of his life, leading him into the middle of a criminal network in Los Angeles. We visit a dubious nightclub, meet a torch singer with a heart of gold, a femme fatale, a fake psychoanalyst-fortune teller, brutal thugs and other film noir cornerstones. Everyone seems to know something fatal about George, while he is reduced to playing blind man's bluff. His true identity, finally, is a surprise to everybody, including himself.

A pioneering feature is an experimental use of first person camera, soon reused by Delmer Daves in Dark Passage (produced Oct 1946 - Jan 1947, premiere 6 Sep 1947) and made famous by Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake (US 1947). 

Fritz Lang in Ministry of Fear (US 1944) had shown that poetry could be created from material such as this, but the dialogue-bound Mankiewicz does not dare let the images fly like in a dream. In Dark Passage, the pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall demonstrated how much the cast can transform such a film.

Still and all, Somewhere in the Night has its share of nightmare imagery. Norbert Brodine was one of Hollywood's great cinematographer veterans, and he found an approach of his own to film noir. He had already shot The House on 92nd Street and continued in noir with the unforgettable 13 Rue Madeleine, as well as Boomerang!, Kiss of Death, Road House and Thieves' Highway.

Brodine was especially good in noir location shooting, inspired by neorealism. In Somewhere in the Night, IMDb lists the following Los Angeles locations: Union Station, Bunker Hill and Chinatown. I don't know whether Terminal Dock was shot on location. But it becomes real enough in the world of the movie.

"The streets were dark with something more than night", wrote Raymond Chandler, and Mankiewicz and Brodine succeed in conveying that. Three years ago I participated in Gerald Peary's American Film Noir Poll on Facebook. The definition of film noir is a matter of argument. Elated by the platform created by Peary, I was able to figure out my own view for the first time, based on a philosophy of history. The distinction of film noir for me is that it was powered by the Second World War, different from all other wars because of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Film noir is a disturbing oneiric expression of its cosmic agony and existential fear.

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