Even for an amnesiac noir, this archetypal entry is too often forgotten
Borrowed as the title of Nicholas Christopher's study of film noir and the American city, Somewhere In The Night remains a movie less familiar than Laura or The Big Sleep or Out of the Past. But it's almost in their class an atmospheric and at times archetypal noir, the first directorial effort of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and the first major post-war feature to use the device of amnesia-as-metaphor: How vets survived global cataclysm only to have to construct new lives in a homeland that had, in their absence, turned into alien territory.
Drifting up out of coma in a military hospital, John Hodiak can't figure out why everybody calls him George Taylor. Only two letters offer clues to who he is, one from a vindictive girl he ditched, the other apparently from an old pal, Larry Cravat. Without much to go on, he heads to Los Angeles to track down Cravat and thus himself. But as he skulks though the city's dark demimonde (Turkish baths, mobbed-up nightclubs, phony spiritualist parlors, insane asylums), he's quick to learn that other people don't want Cravat found. Yet he finds allies in club canary Nancy Guild, her boss Richard Conte, and police detective Lloyd Nolan. He also finds that the reason for all the violence unleashed against and around him is $2-million in Nazi money (which disappeared in 1942, the year he joined the Marines). Cravat proves both elusive and uncomfortably close....
Somewhere In The Night boasts a strong cast in supporting (Conte, Nolan, Fritz Kortner) and even tertiary roles (Sheldon Leonard, Whit Bissell, Henry Morgan, with special mention to Josephine Hutchinson, who plays a poignant largo midway though the movie). Where it offers scant measure is in its principals. 20th-Century Fox was grooming Guild as its answer to Warners' sultry sensation Lauren Bacall, failing to grasp that Guild's appeal was less romantic than matey the gal pal (like a couple of other Nancys from that era, Olson and Davis).
Hodiak's more problematic. He enjoyed a few years in the Hollywood limelight (Lifeboat, Marriage Is A Private Affair, Desert Fury, Command Decision) before his untimely death in 1955. But he never brought the illumination the star quality to his work that would elevate it from the competent to the classic. So he stays generic through his picaresque ordeals, without the specific anguish that distinguished, for example, John Payne or even Gordon MacRae and Edmond O'Brien as they underwent theirs (in, respectively, The Crooked Way, Backfire and D.O.A.).
Mankiewicz' first go as director comes as a surprise. Most vividly remembered as writer/director of A Letter To Three Wives and the immortal All About Eve (movies whose sparkling scripts camouflaged their lack of visual interest), he generates a menacing look in his nightscapes for the City of Angels, camping out in Bunker Hill walk-ups and on Skid Row. The storyline's almost as complicated as The Big Sleep's, and as murky, but then clockwork plots never sat well in film noir the universe it dwells in stays random, volatile, unfathomable.
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