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The Night Holds Terror

The Night Holds Terror (1955) may be far from one of the best known movies that falls under the category of "film noir," but it seems true aficionados of the style value it nearly as much as its more famous siblings; Quentin Tarantino personally selected it for screening in the first Quentin Tarantino Film Fest in Austin, Texas, in 1996.

The story is based on a true crime that took place in February 1953, using the victims' real names and retaining the Antelope Valley, California, setting. Driving home from work at Edwards Air Force Base, Gene Courtier picked up a hitchhiker, 22-year-old James Canigan, who pulled a gun on him with the intention of robbery. Joined by two others, ex-con Leonard Mahan, 24, and AWOL Marine Donald Hall, 18, Canigan decided they could make more money by forcing Courtier to sell his car, so they took him and his family hostage in their home. The film follows these events fairly closely, only departing from reality near the end with plot developments involving a ransom attempt and a last-minute police rescue.

The plot may sound familiar, covering the same basic ground as the more prestigious release from the same year, William Wyler's The Desperate Hours (1955), starring Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. But while that award-winning major studio release, based on a novel and a play, has a more literary and stage-bound quality, The Night Holds Terror is a true low-budget noir programmer, one with a grittier authenticity, attributable primarily to its producer-director-writer Andrew L. Stone, a bona fide auteur of B movies. Stone started his motion picture career in the silent era and moved quickly from shorts to features. His most notable early work was in musicals: The Great Victor Herbert (1939), Stormy Weather (1943), starring Lena Horne, Sensations of 1945 (1944), dance sensation Eleanor Powell's last movie. In the postwar era, he moved into the niche of B crime thrillers: Highway 301 (1950), A Blueprint for Murder (1953), with Joseph Cotten, the Doris Day lady-in-peril thriller Julie (1956), The Decks Ran Red (1958) and Cry Terror! (1958), both starring James Mason. At the end of his career he returned to the musical genre, managing to get bigger budgets for his biographies of Edvard Grieg (Song of Norway, 1970) and Johann Strauss, Jr. (The Great Waltz, 1972), both of which he also wrote, produced and directed.

Stone came up with his film title from the newspaper article about the trial of the three real-life kidnappers, which referred to them as the "Night of Terror Trio." Unlike in the movie, which showed them being captured together in their car during a heavy rainstorm, in real life they were arrested separately in different locations. The defendants were accused not only of kidnapping and robbing Courtier but of "forcing his wife, Doris, to dine, dance and play cards with them" all night long. All three were convicted.

An August 1955 article in the Los Angeles Times noted that Mahan's family filed a $750,000 suit against Columbia Pictures and Andrew Stone, claiming invasion of privacy, alleged that because Mahan, Jr., who was serving a seven-year sentence in San Quentin, was portrayed in the movie (under the name "Batsford") as "a brute and mastermind criminal," the family was ostracized and Mahan, Sr. fired from his job. The suit's request that the film be withdrawn from exhibition was dismissed by a Superior Court judge. Another Times report, in November 1955, said Mahan, Jr. had filed suit against Columbia, Stone and real-life victim Eugene Courtier, again for $750,000 in damages and a share in the profits of the film. Mahan, Jr. maintained that The Night Holds Terror was made without his permission, did not indicate his insistence of his innocence and would lessen his chances for an early parole. He also demanded an accounting of the shares of the film's profits. The final outcome of both suits is not known.

Stone's use of true crime stories was not new to this project. In 1943 he formed his own independent company with his wife Virginia Lively Stone as his major collaborator. The two left United Artists in 1947, drawing attention as "Hollywood's only man-and-wife moviemakers." Thereafter, they ran their production company from their home, with Andrew writing, producing, and directing and Virginia serving as co-producer, film editor, and production manager. The two became amateur criminologists of sorts and communicated with police stations across the country to get details of crimes and the people who committed them. The private files they amassed of more than 15,000 case histories became the source material for many of their films of the 1950s. In addition to her usual tasks on The Night Holds Terror, Virginia Stone also composed a song for it, "Every Now and Then."

This was the last original film score written by composer Lucien Cailliet. He worked for another decade as an uncredited orchestrator on such big budget films as Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), Giant (1956), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).

The film's cinematographer, Fred Jackman, Jr., contributed greatly to the look of other low-budget film noir and crime dramas, including They Made Me a Killer (1946), Big Town (1947), The Man with My Face (1951), and Chicago Syndicate (1955).

Two of the three thugs in the story are played by actors who went on to bigger and better things. As ringleader of the kidnapping, Vince Edwards played one of his many villain roles of the period. Later, he became the heroic doctor of the popular TV medical drama Ben Casey. The part of Batsford, based on Leonard Mahan, Jr., is played by John Cassavetes in his first major film role. Just a few years later, possibly following Stone's example, he wrote, directed and edited his first film Shadows (1959), and went on to a successful career as an acclaimed and highly influential independent filmmaker whose works included Husbands (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and Gloria (1980). He also continued acting almost up to his death in 1989 at the age of 59, in such films as The Dirty Dozen (1967), which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, Rosemary's Baby (1968), and his own film Love Streams (1984), co-starring his wife Gena Rowlands.

According to Time magazine at the time of the picture's release, The Night Holds Terror was shot in 18 days on a budget of only $78,000. The working title was "Terror in the Night."

Director, Producer, Screenplay: Andrew Stone
Cinematography: Fred Jackman, Jr.
Editing: Virginia Stone
Original Music: Lucien Cailliet
Cast: Jack Kelly (Gene Courtier), Hildy Parks (Doris Courtier), Vince Edwards (Victor Gosset), John Cassavetes (Robert Batsford), David Cross (Luther Logan).
BW-86m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon
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