powered by AFI
A rarely-seen gem of the postwar American cinema, Anatole Litvak's The Long Night (1947) is equal parts film noir, classical Hollywood romance, and European art film.
A remake of Marcel Carn's Le Jour se lve (1939, aka Daybreak, starring Jean Gabin), it stars Henry Fonda as Joe Adams, a World War II veteran who appears to have committed murder in the top floor of the boarding house where he lives. After the police surround the place and fire a volley of bullets through his window, Joe reflects on the events leading up to the killing, and the narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks.
We find Joe in happier times, working in a factory in a grimy steel town, making the acquaintance of Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), a working-class girl who was raised in the same orphanage as he was. Joe falls for Jo Ann but realizes there is an obstacle standing between them: a silver-tongued magician who calls himself Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price). Joe gleans information from Max's hard-boiled assistant, Charlene (Ann Dvorak), who warns him that the magician is a womanizing cad. But what is his relationship to Jo Ann? Is he her father? Or her seducer?
The corpse in the boarding house, we realize, is Maximilian. And Joe is clearly the killer. But as the police fire tear gas into the apartment and prepare for their final offensive, is there anything Joe can do to learn the truth, redeem himself, or at the very least keep from being killed in a hail of gunfire?
Even at the time of its release, the visual style of The Long Night was its most striking feature. "If atmosphere and mood could alone sustain a motion picture," wrote Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. in the New York Herald Tribune, "this latest melodrama would rank among the most effective of the year."
The look of The Long Night is distinguished by the fact that it is shot almost entirely indoors (except for the prologue which is used to establish the setting). Ordinarily this would not seem like such an accomplishment, but The Long Night includes numerous exterior scenes, such as factory yards, vacant lots, streets and gas stations. Rather than rely on rear projection or painted backdrops, which give the sets an unwanted two-dimensionality, production designer Eugne Louri conceived elaborate sets that were built in forced perspective, to create the illusion of depth within the confines of the soundstage. ("Forced perspective" means certain portions of the scenery are built on a smaller scale, tricking the eye into believing they are much further in the distance.)
"We didn't plan to eliminate reality; we wanted to create the most suitable reality for the film," Louri later wrote, "By omitting certain useless details, by underlining some others, by conveying the mood by lighting, colors, shapes, and linear composition, the designer could make the sets much more expressive than real locations. They could become more real than real. A poetic reality, a reality with soul."
The most elaborate set was the boarding house exterior, which entailed the construction of the multi-story apartment building as well as the town square, complete with surrounding buildings and a war memorial statue -- all within the confines of a soundstage. The reason the producers chose to reconstruct the scene (when there was an actual location already standing) was the extreme difficulty in lighting an exterior location at night -- and almost all the scenes here occur at night. By recreating the setting indoors, the lighting as well as the quality of sound were much easier to control.
Several scenes occur within view of the town's immense factories, constantly belching smoke and fire into the sky. This posed several challenges to the filmmakers. At first Louri considered a painted backdrop, but quickly ruled it out. "We had to shoot both day and night scenes, which would necessitate painting two separate backdrops, a very expensive proposition if they were made full size."
Instead, he supervised the construction of a miniature factory (built in forced perspective) which was placed at the rear of the set, in front of a painted sky. "Apart from my personal preference for three-dimensional miniatures to flat painting, I felt this method offered an advantage," Louri explained, "A miniature [setpiece] could be lit along with the rest of the set, creating the same mood and unity of lighting." Plus, it could be rigged to emit smoke and fire, providing an extra layer of authenticity.
Rather than depict the freight trains passing between the factory and the low-rent part of town, Louri chose to simply suggest their presence by funneling smoke up from the set, and strategically moving it across the frame (a technique that was borrowed from the production design of Le Jour se lve). The subtle application of railroad sound effects completes the illusion.
In the end, Louri achieved the sense of "poetic reality" he had aimed for, though not everyone appreciated his efforts. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times complained, "The setting itself is inconsistent with the realism it patently pretends. The place is supposed to be a mill town in the Pennsylvania-Ohio belt and the characters are naturally intended to be likely to that region. But the scene looks entirely artificial." Commenting not only upon the sets, he continues, "In short, Mr. Litvak's production is an obvious theatrical fake, exposed by its own pretensions and an over-talked John Wexley script."
Perhaps Crowther would have been more kind to the production designer if he weren't so dissatisfied with the film as a whole. His review begins: "It is not very likely that many who see The Long Night will know that it is based on an old French picture, Daybreak, which had Jean Gabin as its star. But it is -- and we mention the connection because Daybreak, while not a sterling film, was in every respect superior to this new job, now on the Palace screen -- which fact is a pertinent reflection upon the standard techniques of Hollywood."
Though Crowther is certainly entitled to his opinion, it is not entirely accurate to consider The Long Night a crass Hollywoodization of a European film. It is, more accurately, a European production that happened to be filmed in Hollywood. The producers and director had all worked in the French film industry prior to World War II, and were trying to bring to American cinema a more European sensibility. Producers Robert and Raymond Hakim (born in Egypt) had worked with Jean Gabin (the star of Le Jour se lve) on La Bte Humaine (1938) and Pp le Moko (1937). German-born Litvak's directorial credits include the French films Mayerling (1936, with Charles Boyer) and L'quipage (1935, aka Flight Into Darkness, starring Annabella).
Louri was born in Russia and was a frequent collaborator with legendary director Jean Renoir, on such classics as Le Grande Illusion (1937) and La Rgle du jeu (1939). In fact, at the time The Long Night was in preproduction, Louri had been engaged to work on an English-language remake of Renoir's Madame Bovary (1933, produced by the Hakims, directed again by Renoir). When the project fell through, the Hakims asked him to work on The Long Night instead, which is how he came to be involved in this project.
The Long Night was filmed under the title A Time to Kill, which was derived from Ecclesiastes 3:3 ("A time to kill, and a time to heal..."). Prior to release, the title was changed. Apparently the producers preferred a Shakespearean reference to a biblical one, and the film as it exists today includes an introductory title card quoting Macbeth, "The night is long/That never finds the day."
The Long Night was the first screen appearance by character actress Barbara Bel Geddes. She had already established a reputation for herself on Broadway when director Anatole Litvak "discovered" her upon seeing Elia Kazan's production of Deep Are the Roots. Bel Geddes's role in Deep Are the Roots earned her the Donaldson Award for "Outstanding Achievement in the Theatre."
Even though The Long Night was a critical and financial failure (losing an estimated $1 million), it served as a springboard for Bel Geddes's career. After watching her performance, RKO signed Bel Geddes to a seven-year contract, which proved to be the beginning of a long and rewarding career in film and television.
Producers: Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim, Anatole Litvak
Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: John Wexley; Jacques Viot (earlier script)
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Production Design: Eugne Louri
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Robert Swink
Cast: Henry Fonda (Joe Adams), Barbara Bel Geddes (Jo Ann), Vincent Price (Maximilian), Ann Dvorak (Charlene), Howard Freeman (Sheriff Ned Meade), Moroni Olsen (Chief of Police), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Frank Dunlap), Queenie Smith (Mrs. Tully), David Clarke (Bill Pulanski), Charles McGraw (Policeman Stevens), Patty King (Peggy).
by Bret Wood