Thursday, September 24, 2020
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Hidden Treasures: Night People (1954)

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In this series, I look back at some fantastic hidden gems which have been lost over the years and deserve to be rediscovered. We’ll kick things off with Night People, which opened in theaters in March of 1954.

Night People

If you ask a hundred different people what Gregory Peck‘s best role was, probably ninety percent would say Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you asked Peck, he would probably have said Lt. Col. Steve Van Dyke in Night People (buy at Amazon). And he may not be wrong. A terse, lean Cold War thriller, Night People brims with sharp dialogue and complex characters stuck on either side of a (not yet literal) wall of ideology and pragmatism.

In the early days of the Cold War, allies turned enemies and enemies turned allies were all ensconced uncomfortably together in the ruins of Berlin as the city (and country) were being rebuilt. While things seemed professional and steady on the surface, just below it the betrayal and spycraft were the order of the day and it was left to men like Col. Van Dyke (Peck), the Army’s head of intelligence for the United States sector, to keep things sorted. Things like a ne’er-do-well corporal suddenly disappearing into the Russian sector one night who also happens to be the son of a powerful industrialist. Which sticks Van Dyke with the thankless job of getting the corporal back without upsetting the delicate balance of alliances which post-war Berlin had become or losing any of his own agents in the process.

It’s the sort of thankless job which would make a person ask why anyone would do it. Rather than spend a great amount of time agonizing over that question, Night People simply offers us Van Dyke. Completely cognizant of the personal stakes involved, more so than his superiors, he doesn’t take any of the requirements of the job home with him. In the middle of the tensest situations where he has done all he could do, he takes the time to wonder about football season because there’s nothing else to do, so why worry about it? For Van Dyke it’s all just a job.

Peck’s Van Dyke is a refutation of the modern Hollywood protagonist. He has no backstory or hidden concerns. Beyond his job and the fact that he’s had some sort of relationship with his East German source Hoffy, nothing else is ever known about him. He is exactly what he appears to be, appearing specifically for the story he is built for and then disappearing again, unchanged beyond completing the problem immediately before him.

The closest modern version is a David Mamet lead where internal needs are the proverbial iceberg we only ever get hints at. And none of it is missed. He is, both as a character and a performance, complete without need for greater complication. It’s obvious in his grim approach to grim work and his occasional retreat to sarcasm why the role appealed so much to Peck. In a career of forthright men, Van Dyke may be the most forthright of all while facing the greatest stakes with the potential for World War III (or at least a great loss of position in the Cold War) flowing from any mistake he may make.

In some ways, he might not seem too out of place in a film noir, a genre Peck never spent much time in. The closest he ever came was Hitchcock’s Spellbound — though Hitchcock never really did noir (even if the overlap between Hitchcock noir is large) — and Cape Fear a decade later. In that sense, Night People is probably the most film noir film Peck ever really made. And yet, like Van Dyke, it frequently seems like a refutation of film noir, which at this point was largely on its way out.

It doesn’t seem like that on the surface. Alongside Van Dyke’s stoic, sarcastic take on the people he comes across is a twisty, ever changing chameleon of a plot which requires a flow chart to keep complete track of. [This is a good thing]. While the core goal never changes — returning the wayward corporal — the reasons for his capture and the different groups it affects grows and changes as Van Dyke dives further and further into the mess below the surface.

It’s the sort of crackerjack plotting Hollywood has usually excelled at and in the hands of career filmmaker Nunnally Johnson (best known for his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath) that’s exactly what you get. Every scene reveals character and plot and does so with the kind of off-handedly poetic tough guy dialogue that Ben Hecht and the Coen Bros. made their careers out of. That’s a small thing either, it’s the main thing. Great roles make for great performances and Van Dyke is a great role nor is he the only one. Bjork’s Hoffmeir doesn’t outshine Van Dyke because she can’t, she flits in and out in order to propel the plot along and shine light on Van Dyke as he must quickly process years of deceit and make on the fly tactical decisions regardless of his personal feelings. It’s no accident Night People’s one and only Oscar nomination in 1954 was for Best Original Screenplay (one of three Johnson accumulated in his career).

[It’s tempting to say too that it was and is horrible overlooked, but the reality is films nominated for Screenplay and Film Editing far and away outlast most of their peers in staying power].

What it gains in masterful wordsmith at first glance it seems to lose in a muddle of commercially focused visual choices. In an extreme contrast to its title, Night People is so bright and colorful it seems like it always takes place in the bright light of day, even at night.

Coming in the mid-50s, the choice of Cinemascope made sense as studios battled television for eyeballs. For the viewer it presents a visual feast of Berlin (with much of the film shot on location) combined with lush color slowly transitioning from Technicolor to the less vibrant Eastman color. Cinematographer Charles Clarke (another one of those quiet professionals who just went about his job but isn’t highly celebrated despite his skill) not only makes full use of the new wider format but keeps as much of the bright primary colors of Technicolor as possible in the final print. Yet again, Night People goes against the film noir grain. Yes, there were a handful of films which did similar — Leave Her to Heaven, Niagara — but it’s still so rare that it sticks out when it occurs.

The days are glorious blues and the nights are glorious purples and more importantly everyone is carefully uniformed from Van Dyke’s immaculately pressed green to the blue of the British and the Robin’s Egg of Hoffy’s suit (her own sort of uniform). In a world of greys, everyone is carefully color coded.

The bright look seems at first a misnomer. Night People’s noir like story cries out for black and white as the different sides wade around in moral turpitude.

Instead the dirty deeds are all done out in the open, in the bright light of day and Technicolor. The bright color reflects the upstanding, unflinching and unfailing forthrightness of Van Dyke (even as he double crosses and double deals) slamming into the grimy darkness of noir. The lack of self-doubt, the lack of shadows or grey scale (even when there were shadows) is a, knowingly or not, counter point to film noir suggesting nothing is black and white or grey unless we let ourselves view events that way and to view them that way is a sort of weakness which does not reflect reality or tell us anything about it. The world isn’t what we make of it, it simply is what it is and we must survive in it.

It’s a point of view which is hardly foreign to Johnson’s heroes, intentionally or not. An auteur who spent most of his career in the studio system of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, Johnson’s hand is frequently covered over by the needs of the studios he worked for making artistic design harder to separate. Is Night People’s expansive look reflective of a desire to refute grimy crime film or a commercial need to combat television? Is its professional, stalwart hero the reflection of a purely professional filmmaker or the end result of a studio’s idea of what a post-War audience could handle?

This may be why it is largely forgotten. It so strenuously goes against the grain of what the modern view of films of its type should be it is overlooked in favor of films which don’t.

Either way, Night People is a film of change, sneaking into the post-War / Cold War culture of the ’50s where American optimism still lived but was beginning to be tinged with paranoia and cynicism before the inevitable break of the ’60s. It’s not quite ahead of its time but may have benefitted more from having appeared later when decisions about audience appetites had more latitude. Instead it is a film in transition, slowly, cautiously moving studios from the requirements of the Hays Code to the wilds of the New Wave. Or maybe it’s simpler than all that. Maybe Night People is just the work of expert craftsman doing their jobs and no deeper than that.

In that sense, Night People reflects the men who made it; quiet, knowledgeable professionals who eschew melodrama and personality dysfunction in favor of just doing their jobs to the best of their ability. It’s that very simplicity, masking complexity, which makes it great.

Starring Gregory Peck, Broderick Crawford, Anita Bjork, Rita Gam, Walter Abel, Buddy Ebsen; written by Nunnally Johnson, Jed Harris, Tom Reed; produced and directed by Nunnally Johnson.

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Joshua Starnes
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015 he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and in 2018 wrote the series "Kulipari: Dreamwalker" for Netflix. In between he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.

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