The Long Night

Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes in The Long Night (dir. Anatole Litvak, 1947).

Vincent Price.

Henry Fonda.

I haven't seen more than a couple of clips from Marcel Carné's 1939 Le jour se lève, but I've seen enough to determine that The Long Night is damned to American remake purgatory (can one be "damned" to purgatory? you know what I mean). One's knowledge of the inevitable compromises and dilutions made by Litvak's film diminishes its real uniqueness and power. Contemporary viewers and critics didn't appreciate the stylized sets and striking use of background miniatures to create illusions of distance and scope. They just thought it all looked fake. And I'm sure they had no idea what to make of Vincent Price's lizard-like performance as Maximilian the magician. American audiences in the forties weren't ready for their melodrama to turn a conscious eye on its own latent surreal neuroses, though it tried now and then (Welles' Lady from Shanghai is another piece of evidence).

I'm not claiming that The Long Night is a masterpiece, or without serious flaws. There is some dissonant casting (Fonda, particularly, though he gives it all he's got, never quite finds his character's violently jealous pulse), and it's clear that the climactic logic required by the story is betrayed for the sake of studio approval. It has a look all its own, however, and it gets at that compelling pseudo-occult seediness I associate with the stage-magic industry of midcentury: a kind of two-bit theatrical perversion without a clear audience, half hermeticism, half con game, somewhere between Satanism and door-to-door vacuum sales.

Ann Dvorak is a peach-in-the-rough as Price's disgruntled assistant, and Elisha Cook Jr. and Charles McGraw appear too briefly in too-small roles.

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