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February 19, 2019

So Dark the Night

so dark the night poster.jpg

Joseph H. Lewis - 1946
Arrow Academy BD Region A

For the benefit of those who may be less familiar with the filmmaker, Joseph H. Lewis was nicknamed "Wagon wheel Joe" for his composition of shots through wagon wheels in his westerns. While there are some wagon wheels as props in So Dark the Night, Lewis finds other ways of inserting frames within the camera frame. There are shots through fences, tree branches, a fireplace, a clothes line, and lots of windows. The final minutes of the film might even be read as a visual pun, Lewis' joke on his own visual style, on shots and frames.

A famous Parisian detective, Cassin, takes his first vacation in eleven years. He goes to a small, provincial village where he attracts the attention of the hotel proprietor's daughter, Nanette. Not everyone is pleased, especially the farmer who has claimed engagement to the woman since childhood. There is also the significant difference in age. The detective's vacation is interrupted when the woman and the farmer are found murdered.

So Dark the Night must have been experienced as "So Strange the Movie" by an audience that had no idea what to expect. The very chipper Inspector Cassin is walking down a very sunny Paris street, exchanging pleasantries with a shoeshine boy and a girl selling flowers. The scene is introduced with tracking shots of Cassin's legs. The lightness of tone continues with Cassin's visit to the police station prior to leaving Paris, and Nanette admiring the chauffeured limousine that brings Cassin to the hotel. At this point, Lewis gives a brief stylistic shout-out to Sergei Eisenstein with a montage of close-ups of parts of the limo. Lewis returns to lateral tracking shots plus dolly shots with the camera moving in on a character for emphasis. But the film that began cheerfully becomes an increasingly creepy murder mystery.

So obscure the cast! If the names of most of the actors in So Dark the Night are unknown, you aren't alone. Steven Geray usually belongs in the category of "that guy, who was in that movie". As Cassin, this was Geray's only starring role, scrunched in between brief appearances in Gilda, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and To Catch a Thief among the more famous titles, as well as a slew of television episodes through the Fifties and Sixties. If Geray did get a screen credit, it was usually at the lower end of the credit roll. Michiline Cheirel, Nanette, had brief supporting roles in Carnival in Flanders and Hold Back the Dawn. Coincidentally, both actors were in William Castle's The Crime Doctor's Gamble a year later. Much of the casting seems to have been a roundup of European emigres on the Columbia Pictures lot, so the accented English might not be French, but it is honest. The cult performance artist, Brother Theodore, billed here with his real name of Theodore Gottlieb, shows up as the town's hunchback. There is no particular reason for the character to be a hunchback, as if he strayed off the set of another movie.

In case it matters to anyone, I've corresponded with three of the four people involved with the supplements. The only person who remains innocent is Imogen Sara Smith who provides an overview on Lewis' career at Columbia Pictures. I'm more familiar with Smith's commentary tracks on several films, with Desert Fury on deck for next week. As usual, she's very informative about Lewis and the production of So Dark the Night. The other Smith, whom I've exchanged notes with from the days when this blog began percolating, Farran Smith Nehme shares the commentary track with Glenn Kenny. Kenny goes over Lewis' early career in poverty row westerns and the critical reevaluation of Lewis' career, while Nehme is extremely helpful in identifying several of the cast members. While their commentary is casual, it is also well-prepared. The booklet notes by David Cairns offer an entertaining examination of Lewis' visual style here. The blu-ray is from a 2K restoration and looks dazzling enough to easily belie the modest budget, probably no more than the $175,000 the previous year's My Name is Julia Ross.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 19, 2019 08:38 AM