Henry Fonda in The Long Night
(photo courtesy of Kino International)

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Kino's "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" is one of the best ongoing video series around. Previous installments gave us the classic Anthony Mann/John Alton crime thrillers Raw Deal and T-Men; Jules Dassin's brutal prison drama Brute Force; Barbara Stanwyck at her duplicitous best in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers; and several other choice noirs. This series now enters its fourth installment with a trio of movies available on both VHS and DVD: an early Anthony Mann thriller, Strange Impersonation (1946); an American reworking of a French classic, The Long Night (1947); and a "Poverty Row" thriller directed by Budd Boetticher, Behind Locked Doors (1948).

 Strange Impersonation

Strange Impersonation is one of director Anthony Mann's earliest thrillers. It predates his relationship with cinematographer John Alton. As such, the movie isn't as visually rich as Raw Deal or T-Men. Mann was given a film crew comprised of Republic Pictures veterans, and they approach this project much like any other Republic B movie. Republic Pictures produced many fine B movies and serials, but a certain visual sameness frequently besets their movies--with overlit sets and static camera placements. Mann breathes new life into the Republic assembly line process through his intuitive grasp of how to create mood and atmosphere with unexpected camera angles.

Brenda Marshall plays anesthesiologist Nora Goodrich, who puts her career before her private life. Marriage isn't particularly important to her. She lives for pioneering new technologies in anesthetics. Her co-worker (Hillary Brooke) envies Nora's position in life and thinks she can do better herself, so during an experiment, Arline (Brooke) arranges for an explosion that badly scars Nora's face. While Nora recovers in a hospital, Arline then sets her sights on stealing Nora's boyfriend (William Gargan), telling him that Nora doesn't want to see him anymore. Once she improves enough that she can leave the hospital, Nora switches identities with a blackmailer who plunges from a high-rise balcony. Allowing the world to think she is dead, Nora plots her revenge.

In terms of plot, Strange Impersonation recalls big-budget women's pictures, such as the Joan Crawford vehicle A Woman's Face (1941); however, you won't find any glossy melodrama here. Strange Impersonation is a wicked little gem that eschews any vestiges of glamour in favor of a blunt and malevolent atmosphere.

A year later, after short stints at PRC and RKO, Mann arrived at Eagle-Lion Studios, where he was teamed with John Alton in one of the most productive partnerships in film noir history. Together they would work on T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked By Night, and Border Incident. (Their non-noir collaborations include a Western, Devil's Doorway, and a costume drama, Reign of Terror.)

The video transfer for Strange Impersonation was provided by a restored print from the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The video and DVD artwork contains one of Kino's best taglines: "Hell hath no fury as a woman scalded by acid."

 The Long Night

The Long Night continues a Kino trend of late of labeling a neglected movie as "a rediscovered American classic." Unfortunately, in this case, that's pure hyperbole. The Long Night has a great pedigree. It stars Henry Fonda, Vincent Price, Ann Dvorak, and Barbara Bel Geddes. It was directed by Anatole Litvak, who also helmed All This and Heaven Too, City for Conquest, and The Snake Pit. It was photographed by Sol Polito, who provided the cinematography for many of Warner Bros. great classics of the '30s and '40s (such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and Now Voyager). Dimitri Tiomkin, one of the great names in film music, composed the score. And it was based on a superb French film, Marcel Carne's Le Jour se lève. However, The Long Night is a near complete misfire.

Part of the problem can be traced to the casting. While Henry Fonda was one of America's best loved actors, his acting range was somewhat limited. He excelled at playing laconic, slow-talking characters of great moral strength. But in the case of The Long Night, he's asked to play a deeply-troubled man. Joe Adams (Fonda) falls hard for a quiet young woman named Joanne (Barbara Bel Geddes) who stumbles into the sand blasting factory where Joe works. He's immediately smitten and pursues her relentlessly; however, much to his disappointment, he discovers she is already involved with a magician (Vincent Price) who lies habitually and gloats over his conquests.

Fonda attempts to create the same smooth, earthy performance that Jean Gabin brought to Le Jour se lève, but forced to spout pages of dialogue, Fonda becomes overbearing and unconvincing. Likewise, Barbara Bel Geddes is out of place as the object of Joe's affection. While Bel Geddes appeared in several fine films, such as Panic in the Streets and Vertigo, her career in Hollywood as a leading actress never really took off. Here, in her debut performance, Bel Geddes needs to inspire Joe's obsessive attraction, but she's too bland to inspire much of anything.

To help compensate for the lack of fire between Fonda and Bel Geddes, Dimitri Timokin's score swells during the dialogue sequences between Joe and Joanne. But this tactic quickly becomes a major irritant as it destroys the movie's quite atmosphere. (Similar scenes in Le Jour se lève have no music.)

Sol Polito captures some magnificent images as he recreates the ambiance of a Pennsylvania industrial town, but The Long Night feels all too planned and storyboarded. Nothing happens spontaneously. Everything is meticulously designed, and while the results are visually rich, the results are also artificial.

The Long Night pales in comparison to Le Jour se lève. Part of the problem is simply the limitations on Hollywood films during this era. While Jean Gabin's intentions are clearly sexual in Le Jour se lève (in a marvelous scene he tries to coax his girlfriend to come to bed with him), Henry Fonda's intentions are less defined. When Jean Gabin kidnaps a doll from his girlfriend's bedroom, we laugh at him for this modest form of sexual blackmail. But when Henry Fonda steals a doll from Bel Geddes' room, he looks like a nutcase.

The DVD presentation of The Long Night includes a gallery of photographs and artwork, an essay on the production design, and two excerpts that compare similar scenes in both Le Jour se lève and The Long Night (however, the excerpts from The Long Night didn't queue up correctly on our preview copy).

 Behind Locked Doors

Director Budd Boetticher is mostly known for a magnificent series of Westerns he made in the late '50s and early '60s with Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown. But before this partnership with Scott and Brown took root, Boetticher made a variety of movies, including several interesting B-movie crime dramas, such as One Mysterious Night (1944), The Missing Juror (1944), and Escape in the Fog (1945).

Behind Locked Doors isn't among Boetticher's best crime thrillers, but it's rarely a dull movie. Saddled with Richard Carlson (one of Hollywood's dullest actors) in the leading role, the drama struggles to rise above the emptiness caused by Carlson's presence. He plays a private detective named Ross Stewart. Lucille Bremer hires him to look into the goings-on at a mysterious sanitarium and determine whether a crooked judge is hiding out within its walls. (Carlson's attempt at turning on the charm when Bremer walks into his office is laughable.) In a plot development that Samuel Fuller would utilize over a decade later in Shock Corridor, Stewart (Carlson) has himself committed to the sanitarium so that he begin searching for the missing judge.

This story presents many opportunities for shadowy intrigue and claustrophobic atmosphere, but it's hard to work up much concern for such a stiff actor as Carlson. However, the story picks up once Carlson discovers the existence of an off limits wing of the sanitarium. Within a padded room in this wing stalks a demented ex-prizefighter who attacks anyone who enters his room. He slashes down on shoulder blades and heads with his massive, meaty hands. Played by Tor Johnson, who would soon become a major player in Ed Wood's stable of actors, the ex-prizefighter is an enormous brute who knows nothing but inflicting pain. But aside from the scenes with Tor Johnson, Behind Locked Doors is an unexceptional little thriller.

Filmed at Eagle-Lion Studios, where Anthony Mann worked on several top-notch B movies, Behind Locked Doors never fulfills the "classic film noir" label (words that appear on the video sleeve), but it's an ultra-fast moving suspense yarn, propelled by Boetticher's penchant for menacing shadows and claustrophobic interiors.

Boetticher himself didn't think much of his early thrillers: "The less said about [these movies] . . . the better. . . . I was really working in the dark. . . . There isn't a bit of directing in them. None of them is any good." While it's true that Boetticher's early thrillers certainly don't match up to his best Westerns, Boetticher overstates his case. With Behind Locked Doors, we see a director who lets actors carelessly wade through trite dialogue, but this same director also displays a growing awareness of how to use the camera to create onscreen paranoia. This is a minor Boetticher movie, but it offers an intriguing perspective on the developing talents of one of the great genre directors.

"Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" Series IV is now available from Kino International, and it includes Strange Impersonation, The Long Night, and Behind Locked Doors. All three movies are available on both VHS and DVD. Suggested retail price: $24.95 each for VHS and $29.95 for DVD. For more information, check out the Kino Web site.


Review of "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" Series One
Raw Deal, T-Men, and He Walked by Night.

Review of "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" Series Two
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Railroaded, and Hangmen Also Die.

Review of "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" Series Three
Brute Force, The Blue Gardenia, and The Naked City.

Review of Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker.