As the sun sets on Los Angeles the streetlights and neon signs flicker on, but at nightfall Jim Vanning sticks to the shadows, a man who doesn’t want to be seen or known. He moves from city to city, making his living as a commercial artist, but his career was in another time and place under another name.
On a street corner, a man asks for a light for his cigarette before he catches his bus and Vanning obliges, as he does for the woman he sits beside in the bar who asks if she can borrow five dollars having misplaced her wallet; her name is Marie Gardner, and she promises to return it the following day, but Jim goes further and offers to buy her dinner.
Despite his appearance, a solid man who holds his secrets close, capable of looking after himself and comfortable with a hunting rifle, Vanning is a man who naturally trusts, who is generous and who wants to be near to people, yet as soon as he leaves the bar with Marie his past catches up with him.
Two men, John and Red, approach and thank Marie for “softening him up;” she leaves without a word and they bundle Vanning into their car at gunpoint, take him to a deserted industrial site and attempt to beat what they need out of him, the location of their missing $350,000…
Directed by Jacques Tourneur from a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, later an Academy Award winner for In the Heat of the Night, Nightfall was adapted from David Goodis novel of the same name; released in 1957, it has been restored from the original film elements for a new Blu-ray release on the Arrow Academy label.
Aldo Ray is Jim Vanning, an untrained actor who found himself in movies when his brother had asked him for a lift to an audition, and while he had more than ten credits before Nightfall his performance remains understated, as out of his depth as his character, a presence rather than a personality, with the rest of the cast carrying the film.
Later an Academy Award winner for The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft is Marie, a soft-spoken model, fascinating in every scene as she dabs the bottom of her coffee cup with a napkin or turning her head to blow cigarette smoke, swept off her feet in a Jean Louis ball gown of mauve sequins worn with a collared cape of pink and cerise organza, swiftly swapped for more practical jeans and field boots.
Brian Keith and Ruby Bond are a less harmonious partnership as the brains and the trigger-happy heavy, an ill-matched pairing of necessity rather than kinship whose patience with each other has been extended past its sell by date because of their chance meeting with Jim in the mountains of Wyoming months before, told episodically in flashback.
Despite being regarded as a film noir, Nightfall is atypical in its avoidance of certain archetypes and its approach to setting, the opening scenes of the city at night giving way to wide landscapes and snow glittering in the winter sun, choices echoed later in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, though Tourneur favours a snowblower rather than a woodchipper in the fate of one character, a shocking moment at odds with the tone of the rest of the film which he would thematically repeat on railway tracks later that same year in his horror classic Night of the Demon.
Accompanied by an appreciation by film historian Philip Kemp and a video essay by critic Kat Ellinger, the most interesting of the special features is the commentary by author Bryan Reesman, providing insight into the performers and their careers, the locations, Tourneur’s style and the expectations of the genre and the restrictions of the era, packing information into every scene, brightening what is otherwise a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller.