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So Dark the Night

So Dark the Night(1946)

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teaser So Dark the Night (1946)

One of the masters of the American "B" picture, Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy [1950]) first made a name for himself with a low-budget clone of Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) entitled My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). In it, Lewis not only managed to weave a clever tale laced with suspense, he convincingly depicted locales in London and a seaside estate in Cornwall, on a total production budget of only $175,000, without leaving the sunny climes of California. It became a critics' favorite, and opened new doors of opportunity at Columbia Studios, then under the command of Harry Cohn.

The following year, Lewis attempted to achieve the impossible a second time with So Dark the Night (1946), based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg (The Man from Planet X [1951]) that had appeared in Reader's Digest. Under similar budgetary constraints, Lewis this time endeavored to recreate a rural French village (and a few scenes in Paris, just to make it challenging). As with Julia Ross, Lewis was given a twelve-day shooting schedule and whatever props and locations he could glean from the Columbia backlot.

Steven Geray stars as French super sleuth Henri Cassin, who is known for his absolute determination. "He would go without sleep endlessly, day after day, when he's engaged in a chase," explains an officer of the Paris Prefecture of Police, "He is the most relentless machine I have ever known. His mind is so single-track at times he even seems stupid and sluggish. And he's so utterly fixed in purpose, he would turn in his own mother if he was convinced of her guilt." Not surprisingly, Cassin is a workaholic, and his superiors insist that he take some time off the job, to relieve the mental strain, his first vacation in eleven years.

He ends up in the rural town of St. Margot, at the inn Le Cheval Noir (The Black Horse). Cassin is welcomed by the Michauds, the owners of the inn (Eugene Borden and Ann Codee), their daughter Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), and the widowed barmaid (Helen Freeman). Knowing that the influential detective would make a fine catch, Mama Michaud tries to engineer a romance between Cassin and Nanette. This doesn't sit well with Nanette's longtime paramour Leon (Paul Marion). When Leon spies them taking a moonlight stroll, he warns Nanette, "I'd kill you rather than lose you to anyone else." In spite of the persistent flicker of Nanette's old flame, Cassin proposes to the girl and a wedding is planned.

Cassin is wracked by guilt, but the situation is resolved when Nanette and Leon disappear. "I knew it was too good to be true," Cassin laments, "That much happiness... just wasn't meant for me." Soon after, the village hunchback (Brother Theodore) reports that Nanette has been found dead in the river. The authorities are about to rule it suicide when Cassin quickly unravels this theory and indicates that Nanette was murdered. Leon is the prime suspect, until his body is discovered, also the victim of homicide.

Then, So Dark the Night becomes a labyrinthine whodunit, of hidden clues, anonymous notes, a town full of potential murderers. But the longer Cassin studies the case, the more the evidence indicates the guilt of one particular suspect -- a most unlikely suspect -- a suspect that will test the limits of the detective's notorious determination.

In a 1968 interview, director Peter Bogdanovich asked Lewis if he had ever been to a rural French village. "Well," Lewis replied, "I can only put it to you this way: I have to answer yes, but not in person. When I came to this film, I knew more about a French village than anybody who'd ever been born in a French village. I went to the research department. I got photographs and more photographs, and read and reread. I took photographs, had them blown up into eight-by-tens, and I would say to the art director, 'I want to match this -- I want this row of trees -- I want this countryside. Find it for me.' To the location department, I wouldn't say, 'Let's find a location," I'd say, 'Find this location.' It was simple -- I was doing my homework, that's all. And -- no, I've never been to a French village."

Lewis scouted the other studios for sets. "There were no French towns," he told Bogdanovich, "there was one at 20th Century-Fox and I think they wanted twenty thousand dollars' rental for the day." Lewis examined the Columbia backlot from every angle, trying to conceive of some way to transform it into the French countryside. Eventually, he looked the right way at the remains of a village that had been bombed out in a war picture. "Now this was just a field -- no sets, nothing -- and way in the background is [a demolished church steeple]. I looked at the art director and said, 'If you took a bulldozer and you made a winding road here -- a dirt road that led past that steeple -- and you put a thatched roof in the foreground, to cover up all the burned-out buildings and everything, you had another flat -- and down this winding road I saw a little donkey cart or some French villager or automobile, would I give you the impression of a French village?' By the time I finished, the sketch artist had drawn a French village for me...That's the French village you saw."

The settings of So Dark the Night are quite convincing. The only thing that strains the credibility of the European setting and remind us that the production was firmly rooted in Hollywood are the wildly varied ersatz French accents that are used to "sell" the exotic locale.

Just as Lewis was beginning to shoot So Dark, he was called into the office of studio head Harry Cohn. Due to the success of My Name Is Julia Ross, Lewis was being promoted to A-class director and would immediately take over the helm of a multi-million-dollar project: The Jolson Story (1946). Rather than being overjoyed, Lewis responded that he would be interested in reading the script and considering its possibilities. "What the hell are you talking about?" Lewis remembered Cohn exclaiming, "You mean to say you'd prefer to make that little thing, that So Dark, that 'B' picture?...Okay. Go back to your 'B' unit. Finish your little Reader's Digest story and then come back to me, ya hear?"

Lewis didn't prefer low-budget movies but he, like Cassin, focused all his attention on a current project and was determined to see each one through to a proper conclusion.

So Dark the Night had been slated for a two-week shoot, but Lewis allowed it run into three (twenty shooting days, by his account). He was emboldened by his youthful determination and his knowledge that he had become something of a hot shot at Columbia, and decided to spend some of that newfound political currency on his little "B" picture.

In his early years as director, Lewis had a fondness for creative, in some cases obtrusive, camera angles -- shooting through the spokes of wagon wheels and other foreground objects. This practice -- in its more awkward form -- is evidenced here when Lewis shoots one scene from the ceiling's perspective, through the blades of a rotating ceiling fan. Most of the time, however, his use of foregrounds and inserts is much more subtle and meaningful. One of the film's most memorable directorial flourishes is when Cassin pulls up to Le Cheval Noir and Nanette is momentarily dazzled by the sophisticated urbanite. Lewis cuts to a quick succession of closeups of the chrome accents of his touring car (hood ornament, grille, hubcaps), at which Nanette gazes in small-town amazement. It reveals something of both their characters, without the need for a single word.

In his essay "Joseph H. Lewis: Tourist in the Asylum," Myron Meisel comments upon this earmark of the director's style. "Lewis also displays his penchant for objects in hard focus in the foreground while the action takes place farther back in the frame. The death of the girl's mother is evoked through the metaphor of a dripping faucet and a steaming teapot, our view of them obscured by the clutter of various other kitchen objects. All of these visual devices converge in the stunningly designed climax, in which the complex motifs of framing, objects in the foreground, reprised bells on the sound track, deep focus, mirror images, and ratcheted light are orchestrated to the theme of realization."

Not everyone appreciated the stark visual storytelling in which Lewis was engaging. Variety complained, "Paradoxically, the film seems to collapse under the weight of its technical niceties as director Joseph H. Lewis continuously takes time out to make his points through the indirection of cinematic imagery rather than directly through the spoken word."

Overall, however, Variety appreciated Lewis's eye for detail: "A tight combination of direction, camerawork, and musical scoring produce a series of isolated visual effects that are subtle and moving to an unusual degree...Despite the obvious budget limitations, the layout of the streets, interior decorations, and landscape shots define France as it exists in our imagination."

Meisel takes it a step further: "[So Dark the Night] reveals Lewis at last as a filmmaker of astonishing complexity...From this point on, although he would continue to helm his share of clinkers, Lewis fully assumes his most congenial creative role, wending his way through permutations of obsession with the bemused decency of a tourist in an asylum."

Similarly, film historian Robert Keser, in Senses of Cinema, insists that So Dark the Night, "announces Lewis' maturity and fully realised ambition, a breathlessly directed outburst of expressionism."

Largely overlooked in Lewis's canon, So Dark the Night has been steadily gaining an appreciation among film aficionados. Upon the director's death in 2000, Ed Grant, in Time magazine, singled out the film as one of Lewis's more notable achievements, calling it, "a masterful little whodunit about a French detective who faces the biggest puzzle of his career. The denouement of this forgotten gem is so potent that it was later used as the climax to Agatha Christie's last Hercule Poirot novel, Curtain (Christie never said whether she'd seen Lewis's film)."

A few years later, Tony Rayns wrote in an updated edition of the Time Out Film Guide, "This is what Joseph H. Lewis is all about. The script is a perfunctory and frequently silly murder mystery...However, none of this matters. The film is directed like a million bucks [with] more cinematic ideas and effects per square foot of screen than any number of contemporary 'A' features."

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Producer: Ted Richmond
Screenplay: Dwight Babcock and Martin Berkeley
Based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Production Design: Carl Anderson
Cast: Steven Geray (Henri Cassin), Micheline Cheirel (Nanette Michaud), Paul Marion (Leon Achard), Frank Arnold (Antoine), Eugene Borden (Pierre Michaud), Helen Freeman (Widow Bridelle), Ann Codee (Mama Michaud), Egon Brecher (Dr. Boncourt), Gregory Gaye (Commissioner Grande).

by Bret Wood

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