Written by: Cornell Woolrich (story), Maxwell Shane (screenplay))
Directed by: Maxwell Shane
Starring: Paul Kelly, DeForest Kelley, and Ann Doran
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I've got an honest man's conscience... in a murderer's body."
Fear in the Night is an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s story “And So to Death,” but its most immediate influences seem to be the twin cinematic powers of film noir and Alfred Hitchcock. Despite its low-rent trappings as a Pine-Thomas production (Paramount’s B-movie shed that churned out dozens of cheapies), it’s a fairly solid imitator that especially embraces the pulpier aspects of film noir, what with its convoluted twists and turns and a fairly outrageous premise that reflects the era’s growing paranoia about pop psychology.
Utilizing the “wrong man” staple, the film opens with mild-mannered bank teller Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) in the throes of a terrible nightmare that places him within a bizarre, octagonal room of mirrors. After stabbing a man to death, he stuffs him in a nearby closet before he suddenly awakens from the dream—or has he? To his horror, he discovers that his cuffs are covered in blood and that his throat bears marks from a struggle not unlike the one in his dream. He confides in his brother-in-law (Paul Kelly), who assures him that it was just a dream indeed. However, when the two are out with their wives a few days later, a rainstorm forces them to seek shelter in a house that looks remarkably similar to the one in Vince’s nightmare. Even worse, they learn that police recently discovered a pair of bodies, and Vince has been implicated on account of his car matching the description of a vehicle at the crime scene.
By 1947, everyone was trailing Hitch’s fumes and were desperately trying to catch up—and with good reason because he was kicking some serious ass after directing landmark films on a damn near yearly basis. Fear in the Night especially takes its cue from 1945’s Spellbound with its pseudo-psychoanalytical concerns and a mind-bending plot. There are even a couple of flashy, Saul Bass-style interludes that take audiences inside of Vince’s twisted, tortured psyche (which is further reflected—literally—by the fractured hall of mirrors that haunts his thoughts). Old Hollywood journeyman Maxwell Shane’s direction isn’t as thoroughly elegant as Hitchcock’s, though, because those flashes are few and far between for much of the early-going, where it’s quite a talky affair that takes its time in setting up the central dilemma: does Vince’s brother-in-law (who happens to be a cop himself) turn him over to authorities, or does he help him unravel this twisty mystery?
Unsurprisingly, he takes the latter route, and the two leading men make for solid enough good guys. Kelley is positively baby-faced in his first big screen appearance; there’s no hint of that Old South irascibility he would bring to Bones McCoy 20 years later—just a meekness that works in the character’s favor. Whereas many noir protagonists caught up in similar situations still effused confidence, but Vince is perpetually tortured, almost to the point of being a bit of a sad-sack. Kelly is a little sturdier as the brother-in-law, and it’s perhaps noteworthy that he essentially takes over the lead role, thus rendering Vince passive in his own plight. For the last third of the film, he’s mostly just left to recollect things while the brother-in-law puts all the pieces together.
The eventual puzzle allows the film’s plot to overshadow the actual characters, as it gives way to one wild revelation after another. Hypnosis is at the center, which is probably nutty enough, but this instance is especially silly since it involves a strange tenant in Vince’s building visiting him in the dead of night and putting him into a trance. And that’s really just the entry point to the elaborate murder scheme that’s been cooked up by the film’s true villain, who reveals himself and his crazy scheme (a decision that doesn’t serve him well, of course). As silly as it all is, it speaks to the uncertainty contemporary audiences must have been feeling towards psychology; Fear in the Night is a film that assumes the worst can happen when put into the wrong hands (much like any other science), and the terror here arises in the form of a character who has unwittingly performed horrible acts while out of his mind.
Does it inspire that same sort of terror now? Of course not—as is typically the case, this sort of thing becomes less palatable after years of demystification. Most of us are pretty sure this stuff is bunk these days, but hypnosis was much more salable during the 40s, when the practice experienced a resurgence in notoriety. It’s no wonder films (especially the noir genre) were quick to plumb the depths of man’s psyche—if not for the intermittent nuclear paranoia the following decade, we might have arrived at the more overtly psycho terrors much earlier than we did. Fear in the Night offers a pretty quaint glimpse into the pulpy treatment it received during the early-going, back when it was a truly exotic thing. Shane must have assumed that it would still be relevant a decade later, as he would remake his own film as Nightmare with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy, and that’s a film I’d really like to see, if only because it sounds like the A-side to Fear in the Night. Unfortunately, the latter version hasn’t been issued to DVD yet, but Shane's first effort is floating out there in various budget incarnations. It was recently streaming on Netflix (albeit in very poor quality), but it recently expired (in fact, that’s what compelled me to watch it—it’d been in my queue forever, so I felt obligated). At roughly 70 minutes, Fear in the Night is a breezy yarn, appropriately sketched on a chiaroscuro tableau that's draped in light, shadows, and fog, so it definitely looks the part, even if it can't quite keep up with its contemporaries. Rent it!
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