Judge George Hatch has suffered from amnesia for as long as he can't remember.
"Memories have a way of getting stuck together like pages in a book."
Somewhere in the Night is a nifty film noir that falls into a sub-genre that features a protagonist with amnesia. It's a terrific device for grabbing an audience's attention and having them immediately identify with the main character.
Facts of the Case
A Marine (John Hodiak, Lifeboat) awakes from a coma in a battlefield MASH unit only to discover that his face is covered with bandages and his jaw is wired shut. He ponders his predicament in voiceover and wonders why the medics keep referring to him as George Taylor. Searching the drawers in his bedside table, he finds a vexing "Dear John" letter from a very angry dame and an even more peculiar note from one Larry Cravat advising that he has deposited $5,000 in Taylor's Los Angeles bank account.
Once discharged, Taylor travels to L.A. in search of Cravat, who may provide a clue to his own identity. His investigation turns into a foray through the city's underbelly of mob-run honkytonks, seedy bathhouses, prisons, and madhouses, leading to a scheming spiritualist, Dr. Oracle (Fritz Kortner, The Brasher Doubloon), better known as Anzelmo to his comrades in crime. Anzelmo has information about Larry Cravat that puts the amnesiac George Taylor in immediate jeopardy.
Pursued by a grotesque group of gangland goons and galoots, Taylor finds help from a sympathetic nightclub chanteuse, Christy Smith (Nancy Guild, Give My Regards to Broadway) and the club's manager, Mel Phillips (Richard Conte, The Big Combo). Taylor learns that Larry Cravat is wanted for murder and had stashed a suitcase packed with two million dollars obtained from the Nazis. The self-effacing but slick Police Lt. Donald Kendall (Lloyd Nolan, The Street with No Name) has been following the Cravat case and the contraband currency for years, and is certain that Taylor is a promising new lead.
Somewhere in the Night was the first film noir to tackle the subject of amnesia as being the result of psychological and emotional damage suffered by shell-shocked soldiers returning home after World War II. The veterans felt detached and disassociated by the way things had changed in America, but were forced to jump start a new civilian life in what had become an unfamiliar and often hostile environment. This movie, in fact, is so overloaded with convoluted and contrived subplots that the viewer soon becomes as disoriented as the main character. I doubt that this was intentional, but rather an attempt to pad out Marvin Borowsky's story, "The Long Journey."
The screenplay was co-written by Howard Dimsdale and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and it was Mankiewicz's sophomore directorial effort following the Gothic pot-boiler Dragonwyck released the same year. Mankiewicz (A Letter To Three Wives, All About Eve: Special Edition) was just getting comfortable in the director's chair, and Somewhere in the Night has more than its share of clumsy moments. The scene in which Christie Smith tinkles the keyboard and serenades Mel in his club goes nowhere and adds nothing to the plot. Commentator Eddie Muller suspects that producer Darryl F. Zanuck probably requested it to showcase the attributes of his rising star, Nancy Guild. She sings and shows a lot of cleavage (well, as much as was allowed at the time) and a clinging black sequined gown accents her shapely gams.
The film builds to an awkwardly staged climactic shootout, in which only one shot is fired. It's a somewhat disappointing "not-a-bang-but-a-whimper" ending but, with a low budget and a relative tyro directing, the conclusion still manages to neatly dovetail and connect most of the dots in an unwieldy script.
Mankiewicz relied heavily on cinematographer Norbert Brodine to create a brooding noir-like atmosphere. Brodine had a knack for layering dark and shadowy scenes, making them appear almost three-dimensional. Director Henry Hathaway's utilized Brodine's expertise in three film noir classics, The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine, and the original Kiss of Death. Brodine's talent is particularly evident in this film when George Taylor ventures into Skid Row and eventually tracks the missing suitcase under the piers of Terminal Dock.
I found John Hodiak and Nancy Guild rather ineffectual as the lead characters. Hodiak is almost Tyrone Power handsome, but he lacks genuine charisma and brings no real emotional depth to George Taylor's predicament. Hodiak's potential is better exemplified in the supporting roles he played in Hitchcock's Lifeboat and William Wellman's Battleground. In Somewhere in the Night, however, he delivers a two-note performance with little else registering beyond his facial expressions that are limited to confusion and surprise. His line delivery is bland and if it weren't for the amnesiac "hook," the viewer might not even care what happens to Taylor. And regarding that "line delivery," an uncredited John Ireland (All the King's Men) actually did the opening voiceover narration that better captured George Taylor's angst—and the audience's attention as well.
Nancy Guild (rhymes with wild) presents even more of a problem. Somewhere in the Night was her first film and Zanuck was grooming her to be Fox's screen siren akin to Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake. The trailer and poster taglines for the film even pushed the story into the background and promoted her as "Meet That Guild Gal…She Gives as Good as She Gets!" Well, she didn't and doesn't. Guild sounds like she's reading cue cards and there's none of Bacall's sultry smoke-and-fire or Lake's mystique in her performance. Zanuck quickly jettisoned Guild, and she made only seven other films including Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and Francis [The Talking Mule] Covers the Big Town. That's quite a toboggan ride to oblivion.
I'd rather have seen supporting cast member Margo Woode (Moss Rose) in this role. Woode plays Phyllis, Anzelmo's femme fatale accomplice with panache and a penchant for tossing French phrases into her rejoinders and repartee. Woode makes Phyllis funny, dangerous, and all the more unpredictable. Other pros and familiar faces like Lloyd Nolan, Richard Conte, Harry Morgan, Sheldon Leonard, and Whit Bissell make strong impressions in noteworthy parts.
And I'd like to single out Josephine Hutchinson (North by Northwest) for her five-minute cameo as a distraught elderly woman with connections to the Cravat case. She's losing her memory in a different way than the traumatized George Taylor, and Hutchinson's early take on Alzheimer's disease is heartbreaking.
Fox is to be commended for a near-perfect transfer, especially considering that the film is not a well-known title. It's one of those diamonds-in-the rough that deserves more notoriety, and their DVD presentation should attract an audience of noir-heads who may have overlooked this little gem, and anyone else looking for good escapist entertainment. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono renders the dialogue crisp and clear, and the score by David Buttolph (Rope) resonates beyond expectation.
The most notable Extra is Eddie Muller's detailed and informative commentary in which he candidly cites everything that is right and wrong with Somewhere in the Night. At one point, he laughingly advises the listener not to expect him to divulge any explanations or revelations about the plot because even he hasn't a clue. Muller is the founder and president of The Film Noir Organization that is dedicated to the preservation of films in this genre/cycle. He's written several books on the subject including Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and Art of Noir, and he knows his stuff. He's also authored two novels, The Distance and Shadow Boxer, featuring boxing columnist Billy Nichols embroiled in murder and mayhem in San Francisco circa 1948. Both, by the way, are great reads.
In addition to Muller's knowledgeable commentary, Extras include the original theatrical trailer and those for three recent Fox film noir releases, The Street With No Name, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and No Way Out.
Despite its faults, Somewhere in the Night will keep you riveted to the screen with its fast-paced plot and outstanding supporting cast.
Not guilty! Track down this DVD in your local rental outlet, or just buy it. You won't be disappointed or find yourself lost somewhere in the night.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by author Eddie Muller
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