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teaser Nightfall (1957)

Most people would never be able to predict from the early films Anne Bancroft appeared in that she would one day become such an acclaimed stage and screen actress, accumulating a total of five Oscar® nominations for Best Actress (she won for her role as Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher, in The Miracle Worker [1962]). Her acting career began in television where she billed herself as Anna Marno (her real name was Anna Maria Louise Italiano) but when she signed a film contract with 20th-Century-Fox in 1952 she changed her name to Anne Bancroft "because it sounded dignified." While her film debut in Don't Bother to Knock (1952) opposite Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe was promising, her subsequent films were mostly B-movies such as Treasure of the Golden Condor [1953], Gorilla at Large [1954], New York Confidential [1955] and 1957's delightfully sleazy The Girl in Black Stockings. There were a few bright spots along the way, however, and one of them was Jacques Tourneur's superior low-budget thriller Nightfall [1957].

Based on a novel by David Goodis, whose work has served as the basis for numerous film noirs (Dark Passage [1947], The Burglar [1957], Shoot the Piano Player [1960]), Nightfall shares several similarities with Tourneur's Out of the Past [1947] in the way it alternates between the present and the past (via flashbacks) and the main character's attempts to clear his name in a murder rap by taking to the road in a journey toward self vindication. Aldo Ray stars as Jim Vanning, a former commercial artist on the run from two homicidal thugs, John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond). Vanning had gone on a fishing trip with his friend Doc Gurston (Frank Albertson) but had the misfortune to cross paths with two fleeing bank robbers in the snow-covered wilderness of Wyoming. Intending to steal the vacationers' car and eliminate them as witnesses, Red, the trigger-happy one in the pair, murders Gurston in cold blood and then shoots Vanning, arranging the death scene to look like a murder-suicide. Vanning, however, plays dead, having received only a minor wound, and escapes with a satchel containing the stolen bank money. John and Red soon realize they grabbed Gurston's satchel by mistake and backtrack, attempting to apprehend Vanning and retrieve the loot. Their hunt takes them to Los Angeles where Vanning is hiding out under an alias, not realizing he is under constant surveillance by insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory). Marie (Anne Bancroft), a part-time model, is tricked into helping John and Red lure Vanning into a trap but he once again escapes and returns to confront Marie about her involvement with the thugs. Suspicion soon gives way to romance and Vanning and Marie travel incognito by bus to Wyoming to retrieve the hidden satchel with the killers in hot pursuit.

While the character of Marie and her integration into the plot of Nightfall is barely plausible, Bancroft makes her a lively and resourceful heroine who provides a high-spirited contrast to Aldo Ray's exhausted and morose protagonist. In one of the best scenes, which displays a Hitchcockian sense of humor while escalating the suspense, Marie abruptly bolts from a public fashion show to warn Vanning after spotting his two pursuers in the audience. The sight of Bancroft fleeing in high heels and what passed for haute couture fashion in 1957 is topped by the snappy, non-sequitur dialogue between Marie and Vanning in their getaway taxicab.

Vanning: Last night you said I should have met a nurse. What you just did back there was pretty effective first aid.
Marie: Mrs. Lipton must be furious. She runs the show. Meet one of her favorites. Number 18. $650 dollars worth of sequins.
Vanning: Mrs. Lipton's never seen what a .45 can do to a set of sequins.
Marie: Yesterday my biggest problem was how I was gonna break a date with a fella I know for tonight. Of course I could call him up and tell him I can't make it. I'm on my way to Wyoming in a pair of field boots with a man that's wanted for murder.
Vanning: If I left you here they'd find you in no time.
Marie: Even if they didn't, I'd still want to go with you. You're the most wanted man I know.

Unlike most film noirs that are set entirely in urban environments, Nightfall's narrative is split between the city and the country and is aided immensely by the stunning black and white cinematography of Burnett Guffey (From Here to Eternity [1953], Birdman of Alcatraz [1962], Bonnie and Clyde [1967]) who finds menace and danger amid the wintry landscapes and wide open spaces of rural Wyoming. Even familiar, non-threatening machines such as a snowplow or an oil derrick take on sinister connotations in Vanning's paranoid universe.

Guffey and Bancroft aren't the only ones from Nightfall who would achieve greater success in later films. The screenwriter is Stirling Silliphant who would win the Best Screenplay Oscar® in 1967 for In the Heat of the Night and would go on to pen some of the biggest blockbusters of the seventies - The Poseidon Adventure [1972] and The Towering Inferno [1974]. Composer George Duning (Picnic [1955],The Eddy Duchin Story [1956]) had already been nominated for five Oscars® for Best Scoring when he made Nightfall and his later achievements included 3:10 to Yuma (1957), That Touch of Mink (1962) and TV shows such as Star Trek and The Big Valley.

Film location buffs will especially enjoy some of the footage of Los Angeles which captures the way the city looked in 1957 with its all-night newsstands, classic cars and such familiar landmarks off of Hollywood Boulevard as Miceli's Italian Restaurant, the location at 1646 N Las Palmas Ave, which is still in business.

Producer: Ted Richmond
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant; David Goodis (story)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Ross Bellah
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: William A. Lyon
Cast: Aldo Ray (James Vanning/Art Rayburn), Brian Keith (John), Anne Bancroft (Marie Gardner), Jocelyn Brando (Laura Fraser), James Gregory (Ben Fraser), Frank Albertson (Dr. Edward Gurston), Rudy Bond (Red).
BW-78m. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall by Chris Fujiwara (The John Hopkins University Press)
The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film, edited by Phil Hardy (Overlook Press)
Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver & Elizabeth Ward (Overlook Press)

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