Fear in the Night (1947)
It is a truly pity, but the cold fact is, mankind has, in general, a blatant disregard for one of their defining characteristics of our species; artistic expression. Whether it is extracting a beautiful figure from the cold block of stone or delicately applying various pigments on a piece of canvas depicting elements of life, ranging from a beautiful field of flowers with the pages of a beautiful woman. Many of these treasures have been left to degrade over time diminishing our artistic history with each passing year. The artistic form known as cinema is also susceptible to this this regard with a majority of the early examples of the art form left to literally turned to dust in some forgotten vault. When the copyright of the film expires, it goes into the public domain were virtually any company can reproduce a shoddy copy for quick profits. Fortunately, there are distributors such as Film Chest, diligently works to restore these examples of our cultural history as close as possible to their original form. I have been reviewing examples from their catalog for a while now, and in every case I have noticed a remarkable improvement over other examples of the film on disk. Coincidentally, they seem especially interested in a particular genre popular in the 1940s, film noir. In the spirit of full disclosure, this is one of my favorite types of film, one that I’ve enjoyed for many years. To watch films like the one presented here, ‘Fear in the Night’ the 1947 film noir that even after 67 years have gone by. It remains the quite enjoyable example of this category of movie. As it turns out, it is also a footnote in the annals of science-fiction. The protagonist of the story, Vince Grayson, is played by none other than DeForest Kelley, making his film debut. You would go on to a three year stint on a science-fiction series airing on NBC that were not only define the path of his career, but quite literally helped to change a generation; ‘Star Trek: the Original Series’.
We have all had our shares of bad dreams. As small children might awaken in the middle of the night frightened by the nightmare we just experienced. Even after we have grown to adulthood, the disconcerting images and situations that come to us in our sleep still exert disconcerting effect upon us. For Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley), these nightmares are so realistic and intense that they seep into his waking hours disrupting his life. Grayson is a normal enough man who each workday goes off his position as a bank teller. That is until the dream. In it Grayson, along with a blonde woman as an accomplice, are breaking into a safe. When a man intrudes upon their activity Vince turns and stabs him man to death within an octagonal room with mirrored walls. He proceeds to lock the body of his victim in his closet and awakens.
While awakening from a nightmare frequently dispels the fear for Vince only intensifies it. He notices there are strange marks around his neck, in his pocket, he discovers a key and button he had never seen before, and perhaps the most distressing. There is blood upon the cuff of his sleeve. Greatly upset by the dream and not knowing what else to do. He turns to his brother-in-law, Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly), a police officer. After hearing the details of the dream, Cliff dismisses putting any credence into it and tells Vince to ignore as just another bad dream.
A few days later, Vince and Cliff are caught in a sudden rain shower and ducked into a house shelter. Vince immediately recognizes it from his dream. While looking through the house, they discovered to dead bodies; one in the mirrored room and another in the driveway apparently run over by a car. That woman, Mrs. Belknap (Janet Warren), had survived the incident long enough to provide the police with description of the man responsible; which understandably hit Vince exceptionally hard. Although he does recognize the victims from his dreams but the one glimmer of hope is a slim one, Vince does not know how to drive. That is not much of an alibi considering it does not take a lot of skill behind the wheels to just point a car and an old lady standing in the driveway and flooring the accelerator.
Doubt and remorse overwhelmed Vince driving him to attempting to take his own life. It would’ve been successful if not for the intervention of his brother-in-law. The investigation continues. In some clueless that uncovered point to one unlikely potential suspect, Harry Byrd (Robert Emmett Keane), will eventually turns out to be the nom de voyage, Lewis Belknap, a hypnotist with an apparent predilection for evil. He used his abilities to insert details of the crime into Vince’s mind, allowing them to percolate into his consciousness through his nightmares. Vince and Cliff devise a means to trap him by suggesting that Vince will blackmail him.
The film was based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, considered by many to be one of the leading crime writers of his time. The stories name was originally ‘And so to Death’ which was eventually retitled ‘Nightmare’ and remade by director, Maxwell Shane, in 1956 this time starring Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy. Having seen both, there is a certain academic curiosity that can be stated by comparing the two. Ultimately, the question that becomes important is whether ‘Fear in the Night’ is a rendition of the story that can stand on its own merit. Why the later version has a slicker, crime dramas feel to it. This one retains the gritty psychological thriller elements that are definitive for film noir.
When critiquing a movie, it is imperative that you take the tenants of its specific genre into account. While some movies depend on the interwoven threads of subplots and nuance, film noir is intended to be a more straightforward experience, eliciting a visceral reaction that is reinforced by a skillfully crafted foundation of a psychological thriller. While not the most stellar example of this type of movie. It did manage to hit the requisite elements in a solid fashion. Initial level of fear is generated by something we have all experienced, that moment of fright when we awaken from a nightmare as Republican between the dream and the not yet fully realized perception of reality. Many people will be predisposed to believe that lamentable story provided by Vince. It’s this nagging suspicion that dreams and reality are inextricably tied together. This is the means the filmmaker used to pull the audience and plant the seeds of doubt and suspicion into the dark recesses of our minds. This is the fertile area where a film noir story grows in intensity. It must be remembered, especially by more youthful filmgoers, that a trip to the local theater once provided entertainment for the entire evening consisting of a main feature, a ‘B’ movie, and a few short features in a newsreel. These ‘B’, flicks never intended to be great examples of cinema, they were made to add some more entertainment value to the price of admission. Films, such as the one review here, accomplish that goal reasonably well. It’s fun to watch in the movie of prevalent to one of those old paperback novels we could easily carry in a pocket and read during our commute on a train. Thanks to Film Chest this restored edition is well worth adding to your collection.