Offbeat, brooding drama with metaphysical yearnings ultimately reaches too far
A curious, brooding drama with metaphysical airs, Night Unto Night holds interest by its very oddity (and to some extent as an early directorial effort by Don Siegel). It's set in pre-boom, primitive Florida near the Everglades and takes its redemptive close during a purging hurricane, along the way touching on transcendent themes - though it seems to confuse spirituality with spiritualism. These are its dramatis personae:
. Ronald Reagan plays a biochemist (!) come to coastal Florida seeking a simple, reclusive life; he's been diagnosed with epilepsy and, man of science or not, he views his condition as a mysterious and terrible curse. So he rents a gloomy old pile of a house from a young widow where he sets up a laboratory to fiddle with his molds and spores. He's a disturbed, perhaps suicidal man, but, Kings Row notwithstanding, Reagan is an actor who leaves the impression of never having been troubled a day in his life.
. Viveca Lindfors is the widow, who must vacate the house because in it she keeps hearing the voice of her dead husband, whose boat was torpedoed just offshore. Lindfors was imported to Hollywood in an attempt to recreate the mystique of Ingrid Bergman, whom she resembled in voice and visage, but the imposture never quite worked. Still, she's as good here as she ever was and gives a glimpse into the thinking that brought her from Sweden.
. Broderick Crawford is a friend and neighbor. In a drastic stretch, he plays a painter who earns his living doing commercial art but saves his talent for vast murals in what looks like the Socialist-realism school. Nonetheless, he serves as the spokesman for faith, which he carries like a chip on his shoulder, waylaying the scientists and psychiatrists he meets with harangues about their puny rationalism.
. Osa Mussen, though a Dane not a Swede, plays Lindfors' twisted sister, a spiteful hedonist who throws herself at Reagan and does not suffer rebuff kindly. She drinks too much and ignites the volatile gases of the plot's alchemy.
The story, from a novel by Philip Wylie (whose 15 minutes of notoriety would come in the mid-1950s with his book Generation of Vipers), has a reach which far exceeds its grasp. While it does hold interest - thanks chiefly to Siegel's shifting but steady pace - it raises questions which it does not bother to (or cannot) resolve. Too many of its strands (the spirit of the dead man, the murderous enmity between the sisters, Crawford's ill-packed intellectual baggage) start to flap in the winds of the concluding hurricane and fly off, never to be seen again. At the end, all that we're left with of the ineffable is plain old guy-meets-gal chemistry.
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