REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:
SO DARK THE NIGHT. Columbia Pictures, 1946. Steven Geray, Micheline Cheirel, Eugene Borden, Ann Cordee, Helen Freeman, Gregory Gaye, Jean de Val, Paul Marlon, Theodore Gottlieb (Brother Theodore). Screenplay by Martin Berkeley and Dwight Babcock. Story by Aubrey Wisberg. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis.
Is there a darkness in all of us? That question haunts film noir, as essential to the genre as the black and white screen and the clever camera angles. So Dark the Night is the most unlikely of film noir despite being from the directorial hand of Joseph H. “Wagon wheel” Lewis, who here lives up to both his reputation and his nickname with many shots framed through windows and metal bed frames.
Henri Cassin (Steven Geray), the finest detective of the Sûreté, is being sent on a much postponed vacation by his friend and superior Commissar Grande (Gregory Gaye) and the Bureau’s doctor, Dr. Monet (Jean de Val), to the quiet village of San Margot. Cassin is a humble quiet man, exhausted by his many important cases and his absolute devotion to duty. As his superior says, he would “… turn in his own grandmother if he was convinced of her guilt.”
Arriving at the inn in San Margot, Cassin is immediately charmed by Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), the daughter of the Innkeeper Pierre (Eugene Borden) and his wife Madame Michaud (Ann Cordee). Pierre is delighted to have the famous man for his guest, as is barmaid and housekeeper Widow Birdelle (Helen Freeman), but he sees no good in his beautiful but scheming daughter and wife setting their caps for the detective, especially when Nanette is already engaged to the poor farmer Leon (Paul Marlon).
Despite Pierre’s best efforts, and Leon’s threats, Nanette and Mama proceed with their plans, and soon the quiet and unassuming Cassin asks Nanette to marry him. On the night of their betrothal Pierre warns Cassin that the marriage cannot be, and sure enough Leon arrives and then storms out followed by Nanette.
Cassin is heartbroken, and all assume the young couple have eloped, but a week later, as Pierre and Mama have grown concerned, the hunchback Georges (Theodore Gottlieb, performance artist Brother Theodore) arrives with the news Nanette has been found in the river, dead.
Her death is no drowning though. She has been strangled. Suspecting the jealous Leon murdered her and placed her in the river, Cassin, the police, Georges, and Pierre walk to his farm, but there they find him murdered too, with only a single clue, a footprint hidden under Leon’s body.
Cassin now has a double murderer on his hands and nowhere to turn. There is no motive, and the devilish killer has erased every clue. Then a note is delivered to Cassin by Widow Birdelle, another will die, and sure enough the killer strikes again.
That is as far as I can go without giving away too much of this clever and dark exercise in film noir that benefits greatly from a lesser known cast, expert direction by Lewis, and an intelligent script. In addition to being a fine example of film noir this one is unusually a mostly fair play detective story, with Cassin showing his skills as a detective and a solution you should arrive at before the sleuth, but may not.
Geray, a capable character actor, who seldom got to shine in a starring role is perfectly cast as the quiet unassuming sleuth who has spent all his life dedicated to his job and suddenly at a “certain age” finds the promise of youth and love, only to lose it. Eugene Borden is also good as Pierre, who loves his wife and daughter but knows their scheming can only come to no good.
So Dark the Night is a B picture, a Columbia programmer at most, but one that is better than most A films. It is handsomely shot by Lewis with imaginative, but never intrusive, camera angles, and proceeds with the nightmare logic of the best noir while staying at the same time low key and realistic almost to the end.
That ending is the only real melodrama in the film, and the one-time drama outweighs logic, but it is highly satisfying if you just go with it, as is this handsome intense little film.