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The Night Fighters
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The Night Fighters

Based on the 1958 novel A Terrible Beauty (a phrase from Irish poet W.B. Yeats) by 33-year-old author Arthur Roth, a U.S. Air Force vet who had also served in the Irish army, The Night Fighters (1960) is a glimpse at a strange bit of World War II era-history. The Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, representing the Catholic minority, was ever determined to liberate their people from British and Protestant rule during the war. With the British about to take a beating from Hitler and his Nazi forces, the IRA, surmising that a Nazi victory would mean Irish independence at last, made the decision to collaborate with the Germans. The Night Fighters is a look at the conflicted loyalties that trouble the daring young IRA recruit Dermot O'Neill (Robert Mitchum) who comes to realize that some of his IRA cohorts are seriously misguided, and that the Nazis aren't to be trusted as allies.

Hoping to recreate the brooding Irish rebel mystique that worked so well in John Ford's moody, award-winning The Informer (1935), and Carol Reed's 1947 drama Odd Man Out, The Night Fighters contains all the requisite Irish color in the opening sequences – jolly pub talk, snatches of Irish ditties, and Irish lasses with smiling eyes – but soon changes into a dark tale of intrigue, clandestine plotting, and plenty of gunplay as the IRA gets further involved in dirty deeds behind the backs of the British authorities. Co-produced by Robert Mitchum's own company DRM Productions, The Night Fighters had a prestigious cast full of impressive Irish actors, including newcomer Richard Harris, who had come to acting after a thwarted rugby career. Harris' authentic Irish credentials (born in Limerick in 1930) made him the perfect choice to play Mitchum's lifelong pal Sean, a "true Irishman" who brings him into the IRA fold. Irish-born actor Dan O'Herlihy, who had a busy acting career in U.S. television and movies, was brought in as the fanatical unbalanced leader of the local IRA group, with former British beauty contest winner-turned-actress Anne Heywood as Mitchum's love interest. Cyril Cusack, who was raised in Ireland and was a child star and later theater producer there, was cast as a gentle but wise cobbler who tries to talk sense to the rebels.

This fine company of actors was directed by Tay Garnett, who launched his Hollywood career as a gagman for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, then moved into a long career directing nearly every film genre, including probably his most acclaimed title, the sultry 1946 melodrama The Postman Always Rings Twice. In his memoirs, Garnett wrote that he realized The Night Fighters's story was far from the level of The Informer, but that he felt it could still be fashioned into a compelling movie. What he most regretted, however, was not being able to include in the film some of the off-stage antics of his boisterous and hard-drinking cast.

Certified hell-raisers, Robert Mitchum and Richard Harris were perfect partners in crime as they immediately embraced the Irish tradition of drinking and brawling. The most notorious incident took place in an atmospheric restaurant in Dublin, popular with the Abbey Theatre crowd, where Mitchum and company were dining. When a belligerent fellow demanded an autograph from the star, who was politely waiting for dinner with his wife (she had flown in for a visit), Mitchum became annoyed and scribbled an expletive and signed it "Kirk Douglas." The fan slugged Mitchum, who didn't fight back, but co-star Richard Harris, seated nearby, jumped up and enlisted the help of his theatre friends and soon the restaurant was a mélange of flying fists and broken bottles. Mitchum, however, never threw a punch during the fracas, a fact reported and appreciated by the local newspapers, who were much amused that the big American star had been slugged by a short bantam rooster of an Irishman.

The Night Fighters was filmed totally in Ireland, at Ardmore Studios in County Wicklow, at several Dublin locations, and in the countryside around Rathdrum, also in Wicklow. The moody black-and-white photography perfectly captured the bleak and murky goings-on, and the movie lacked nothing in the way of verisimilitude. Robert Mitchum had a pitch perfect Irish accent, and was able to do a bit of singing, too, giving his portrayal of Dermot O' Neill a dramatic depth tempered with a bit of Irish charm. Mitchum's seemingly lackadaisical approach to his own work was deceptive because he was always well prepared and highly professional on the set but his indifference to his profession off the set puzzled his British co-producer Raymond Stross. In fact, Stross reportedly developed an ulcer during the filming of The Night Fighters, while his star maintained a blasé attitude throughout the entire shoot.

Despite all the attention to detail and the fine cast, The Night Fighters was not a success, neither at the box office nor with critics. The odd mix of Irish color, complicated IRA political motives, World War II setting and unexpected Nazi sympathies made for an uncomfortable and sometimes nearly incomprehensible mélange. The blame was laid mostly on the script though the leading actors and the production design received good notices on the whole. At the very least, The Night Fighters is a chance to see the early Richard Harris, who would receive an Academy Award nomination a few years later for This Sporting Life (1963). It's also worth a look to see Robert Mitchum stretch his talents and try out his Irish brogue. However, if audiences were looking for an in-depth explanation of the complex historical forces at work in Northern Ireland at the time, a trip to the library would perhaps have been a better choice than to a movie theater to see The Night Fighters.

Producer: Raymond Stross, Robert Mitchum
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Robert Wright Campbell, Arthur Roth (novel)
Cinematography: Stephen Dade
Film Editing: Peter Tanner
Art Direction: John Stoll
Music: Cedric Thorpe Davie
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Dermot O'Neill), Richard Harris (Sean Reilly), Anne Heywood (Neeve Donnelly), Dan O'Herlihy (Don McGinnis), Cyril Cusack (Jimmy Hannafin), Niall MacGinnis (Ned O'Neill).
BW-90m. Letterboxed.

by Lisa Mateas

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