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Former Warner Brothers star George Raft lends his iconic presence to RKO's Nocturne (1946), a film noir-styled tale of a police detective who risks his job to prove his superiors wrong when they rule a composer's mysterious death a suicide. Thanks to moody direction, an astute producer and a cast of B-movie stalwarts, Nocturne was a surprise success, earning more than half a million dollars on its initial release.
The film was one of George Raft's many attempts to lose his gangster image. Although he had grown up in "Hell's Kitchen" and got his first big break on screen as Paul Muni's sidekick in Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), Raft was tired of being typecast as a murderous thug. It didn't help that he counted a few real-life gangsters, particularly Bugsy Siegel, among his circle of friends. His later career was hampered by his insistence on re-writing scripts, as he did with Nocturne, to make his characters even nicer than they had appeared on the page.
With Nocturne, he should have trusted management and left the script alone. The film was produced by Joan Harrison, one of only three female producers working at that time (the other two were Harriet Parsons, daughter of gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and Virginia Van Upp). Harrison came to film noir naturally. She had started in the industry in 1933 when Alfred Hitchcock hired her as a secretary. Gaining invaluable training from the master of suspense, she eventually rose to earn writing credits for such classics as Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent (both 1940). Then she broke out on her own as a producer with the classic film noir Phantom Lady (1944). She would eventually return to Hitchcock as producer of his long-running television series.
The cast of Nocturne was some kind of B-movie heaven, starting with leading lady Lynn Bari. She had earned the title "Queen of the Bs" while under contract to 20th Century-Fox, where she quickly established a common pattern for second-string actresses, playing supporting roles in A films and leads in the Bs. In A films, she was most often cast as the other woman, trying to steal leading men from the likes of Alice Faye (Hello, Frisco, Hello, 1943) and Linda Darnell (Sweet and Low-Down, 1944). In Bs, she always got her man, though it was usually lesser stars like Preston Foster and Raft. She even lost one real-life husband to an A-list actress when ex-hubby Sid Luft married Judy Garland.
Rounding out the cast were even more B movie stalwarts, including Mabel Paige, the poor man's Ethel Barrymore (she even played a role later taken over by Barrymore when Someone to Remember, 1943, was remade as Johnny Trouble in 1957), who played Raft's mother. Jack Norton assayed his usual type in a bit role as a drunk, while Virginia Huston, a promising actress ultimately relegated to playing Jane to Lex Barker's ape-man in Tarzan's Peril (1951), made her screen debut as a singer suspected of murder.
One of the few cast members to make it into top productions was Joseph Pevney, who played the deranged pianist Fingers. After a few more supporting roles in top films like Body and Soul (1947), with John Garfield, and Thieves' Highway (1949), with Richard Widmark, he moved into directing. Among his better-known films were Meet Danny Wilson (1952), with Frank Sinatra, and Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), starring James Cagney as Lon Chaney. Eventually, he switched to television, where he helmed several episodes of Bonanza and the classic The City on the Edge of Forever from the first season of the original Star Trek TV series.
Producer: Joan Harrison
Director: Edwin L. Marin
Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer
Based on an unpublished story by Frank Fenton and Rowland Brown
Cinematographer: Harry J. Wild
Art Director: Robert Boyle, Albert S. DAgostino
Score: Leigh Harline
Cast: George Raft (Lt. Joe Warne), Lynn Bari (Frances Ransom), Virginia Huston (Carol Page), Joseph Pevney (Fingers), Myrna Dell (Susan), Mabel Paige (Mrs. Warne), Queenie Smith (Queenie), Jack Norton (Drunk).
by Frank Miller