TCM Spotlight: Night Movies

TCM Spotlight: Night Movies

Fridays in November | 15 Films

Merriam Webster dictionary defines night as “the time from dusk to dawn when no sunlight is visible.”

When it comes to movies, night is more than just a setting, it’s a major character. And for three Fridays in November, TCM Spotlight hosted by Ben Mankiewicz is presenting 15 films embracing the night that revolve around love, murder, madness, comedy and even hungry zombies desiring a snack of human flesh.

The theme for November 10th is “It Happened One Night.”

The evening begins with the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rope. The Master of Suspense’s first Technicolor production, Rope is based on the 1924 murder of a young teenage boy by two college students -Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. Loeb thought he had devised the perfect murder. He hadn’t.

In 1929, Patrick Hamilton’s (Gaslight, 1940) play “Rope’s End” inspired by the Leopold-Loeb case premiered on Broadway.  Actor Hume Cronyn penned the adaptation for Hitch and Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay for Rope. Though the characters were gay in the play; homosexuality was a taboo subject during the era of the Production Code. So their sexuality is implied.

John Dall plays Brandon Shaw, the alpha of the two men, while Farley Granger portrays the hyper Phillip Morgan. As the film opens, the two men strangle a former classmate, David, and hide him in an antique wooden chest just before they host a dinner party featuring David’s parents, his girlfriend, her former boyfriend and their former prep school headmaster Rupert (James Stewart).

Much has been made of Hitchcock’s experiment of shooting the film in various short takes ranging from four to 10 minutes, so it looks like one seamless take. But don’t pay attention to the takes and concentrate on the importance of the night. The darkness becomes all enveloping and weighs heavily on the killers proving to be the downfall for the two men who realize their murder was less than perfect.

The film is set in real time between 7:30-9:00 p.m. The murder takes place before sunset; the drapes of the expansive windows of their penthouse apartment are closed as we see David’s death by strangulation. “What a lovely evening. Pity we couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight,” laments Brandon to Phillip.

As the evening and party progress-everyone is worried over David’s absence-darkness descends and the apartment is encircled by a weird, suffocating hue that even the lights of Manhattan can’t brighten. And when a red neon light pulsates into the apartment, it heralds an impending doom. Brandon is all odious fiend but is nervous around his old schoolmaster while Phillip is agitated and can’t stop drinking. “It’s the darkness that’s got you down,” Brandon tells him. “Nobody feels really safe in the dark.”

Other films airing November 10 are 1995’s Before Sunrise; 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; 1991’s Night on Earth; and 1961’s La Notte.

Ben Mankiewicz explores “The City at Night” on November 17th.  

Mark Stevens, Edmond O’Brien and Gale Storm headline the gritty 1950 film Between Midnight and Dawn,  a cop buddy picture with film noir touches. Gordon Douglas directed Between Midnight and Dawn , about the often-unsung heroes - the police radio patrol who are the cops arriving first on the scene of the crime. Stevens’ Rocky and O’Brien’s Dan are longtime friends, roomies and cruise the streets of Los Angeles at night in their patrol car.  Dan, the more volatile of the pair, is obsessed with taking down the powerful L.A. racketeer (Donald Buka).

Douglas makes great use of the Los Angeles streets because he eschewed rear projection mounting cameras on the front of police cars or in the back seat. Noted “While Douglas uses classic noir chiaroscuro lighting of shadows and slashes of illumination in studio-set scenes, as in a shoot-out in a garage early in the film, his location is defined by hard, single-source lightning, which gives the scenes a down-and-dirty immediacy. “

Next up are two Martin Scorsese classics: the dark, slightly twisted 1985 comedy After Hours and his 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver which was nominated for four Oscars and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Critics and audiences didn’t really know what to make of After Hours but it has grown in reputation over the decades. Griffin Dunne is perfectly cast - Scorsese told him not to have sex or sleep during production - as an uptight computer programmer who lives on New York’s East Side.  He makes a huge mistake when he decides to go to SoHo to hook up with an enigmatic young woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) he met earlier in the evening at a coffee shop.

His trip via taxi is terrifyingly crazy and his $20 bill flies out the window leaving him broke and lost. This yuppie’s life turns into the grimmest of Grimms’ fairy tales or even a warped version of “Alice in Wonderland” as the evening progresses.  SoHo may be in lower Manhattan, but it seems like a different planet.

Along the way he meets artists who work on papier-mache (Linda Fiorentino, Verna Bloom), a waitress (Teri Garr) who looks like she walked out of the 1960s, a bartender (John Heard) and a woman (Catherine O’Hara) who, believing Dunne is guilty of robbing several apartments that night, leads a vigilante against him. Also roaming SoHo are two stoners (Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong) who are the actual thieves.

The New York Times wrote that the best thing about After Hours is “the photography of Michael Ballhaus. At what I assume was Mr. Scorsese’s direction, Mr. Ballhauss’ camera takes on an aggressive, willful personality of its own. Racing across images, like a dog straining at a leash, to scrutinize small details, or watching with rapt attention as a $20 bill floats to earth, the camera plays the role of a narrator whose manner is amused, skeptical and not at all inclined to allow itself to become sentimentally involved. After Hours is not, ultimately, a satisfying film, but it's often vigorously unsettling.”

Unsettling is an apt description of Taxi Driver, penned by Paul Schrader, which explores the violence and loneliness of the world as seen through the eyes of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who is a night shift taxi driver. A Vietnam vet, he’s angry, the ultimate outsider. He’s a fuse just waiting to be lit. “You talkin’ to me?” he rants angrily at the mirror in the film’s most famous scene. 

Travis narrates what the evening shift is like for him: “All the animals come out at night: queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

He becomes obsessed with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer for a presidential candidate. But when he takes her to a porn theater on their date, she spurns him. He takes his rage at being rejected and attempts to assassinate the politician. Then he meets a young prostitute (Jodie Foster) and decides to save her by killing her ruthless pimp (Harvey Keitel). Travis becomes a hero but it’s just a matter of time before his fuse is lit again.

Scorsese offers an expressionistic take on New York in this masterwork.  “The intense, oversaturated nocturnal imagery was created in collaboration with a relatively young cinematographer. Scorsese admired the way Michael Chapman shot the urban environment of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973) and together they created an almost hellish visual world for Taxi Driver,” noted “ Steam rises out of the grates and manhole covers like some primordial urban swamp (some of the street scenes were shot at slightly higher speeds, to give the steam an eerie, unreal slowness when played back)...” 

Adding to the atmosphere was Bernard Herrmann’s haunting final score for which he

received an Oscar nomination. Taxi Driver was also nominated for Best Film, Best Actor for De Niro and Best Supporting Actress for Foster. Neither Scorsese nor Schrader earned nominations.

Rounding out the programming are 1967’s The Incident and 1984’s Alphabet City.

“Bump in the Night” is set for November 24th. And only the bravest of viewers should watch without the lights on. 

First up is 1967’s Wait Until Dark, for which Audrey Hepburn received her fifth and final Best Actress Oscar nomination. The thriller was based on Frederick Knott’s (Dial M for Murder, 1954) 1966 hit about a recently blinded woman (Hepburn) whose photographer husband (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) accepts a doll from a woman at the airport that unknown to him is filled with heroin. A psychopathic criminal (Alan Arkin) wants the doll and hires two conmen (Jack Weston, Richard Crenna) to help him obtain it by any means necessary. The final showdown between Hepburn and Arkin - the only illumination in the pitch-black apartment is from the refrigerator light - is shocking. 

Supposedly, Jack Warner didn’t like the scene between Hepburn and Arkin.  But the audience did. According to Hepburn biographer Warren G. Harris at a sneak preview: “During the showing at a 900-seat showing in Glendale, the disputed scene left the capacity crowd, gasping and shrieking with fright, so Warner gave it his blessing.” 

Rounding out the evening is 1944’s Gaslight, for which Ingrid Bergman won her first Best Actress Oscar and marked the film debut and first Academy Award nomination for Angela Lansbury; 1960’s Midnight Lace with Doris Day in a dramatic turn as a recently married woman who begins to receive mysterious, threatening phone calls; George Romero’s ultimate zombie flick 1968’s Night of the Living Dead; and William Castle’s delightfully fun 1958 horror chiller House on Haunted Hill starring a delicious Vincent Price.