Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:
DAVID GOODIS – Nightfall. Messner, hardcover, 1947. Reprinted as The Dark Chase. Lion #133, paperback, 1953. Other reprints include: Lion LB131, paperback, 1956; Black Lizard, paperback, 1986; Centipede Press, softcover (introduction by Bill Pronzini).
NIGHTFALL. Columbia, 1957. Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith, James Gregory, Jocelyn Brando, Rudy Bond. Screenplay by Sterling Silliphant. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
The book is really too quirky to make a satisfactory thriller, but if you’re just looking for a fine read, you can’t beat it.
The story opens with Jim Vanning, a commercial artist eking out a living in New York City while hiding out from the law and a trio of very personable bank robbers who are interested in the loot from a job that Vanning inadvertently disappeared with and then lost.
Like I say, this is just too quirky to work out as a crime story, and purists may lose interest quickly as the story spins out one unlikely move after another. There’s a cop straight out of Woolrich, with his own way of working and nothing else to do but follow Vanning around for months at a time; a girl who falls for him and even believes his cockamamie story for no apparent reason; and a plot twist that defies all logic. I could go on, but you get the point; if you’re looking for realism or even plausibility, this ain’t for you.
For those who can relate to Goodis’s own personal universe however, it’s a treat. Not as dark and self-defeatist as the later books, but full of that sense of a small man struggling against a very big and very dark universe.
Goodis’s unique gift was in seeing heroism in the least of us, He didn’t ennoble his bums, winos and working stiffs; he simply made heroes of them, and somehow this seems more gratifying (and much less condescending) than the efforts of many better-respected and more overtly socially conscious writers. His people come out of the gutters to live on the pulpy page, and I enjoy him all the more for it.
Nightfall was written just after Goodis’s popular success with Dark Passage, but it wasn’t filmed for another ten years, when Columbia showed the good sense to hire writer Sterling Silliphant, who had already adapted Five Against the House (1958) and would go on to The Lineup (’58), and got Jacques Tourneur — of Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (’48) — to direct.
Together Silliphant and Tourneur manage to leech the improbabilities out of the story while keeping big tasty chunks of Goodis’s sharp dialogue and his more-than-pulp characterizations.
Brian Keith is particularly effective as a thoughtful bank robber, played off perfectly against Rudy Bond’s dumb-but-sensitive killer. In the leads, Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft carry the less colorful parts nicely, but they pale in comparison to James Gregory and Jocelyn Brando as a patient detective and his loving wife.
Silliphant also manages to throw in a nifty finale, with a Mexican stand-off in snow-bound Wyoming and a serial style cliff-hanger as Ray and Bond struggle aboard a gargantuan snow plow headed right for the good guys. Maybe it ain’t in the book, but it provides a lively cap to a film that captures something of Goodis’s compelling style.