Six years before Jacques Tourneur crafted his fine, outdoorsy late-period interpretation of David Goodis' 1947 pulp classic, Westinghouse Studio One staged a three-act, one-hour small-screen production. The television version works from the same material, and while the premise remains basically the same, the two representations of Nightfall couldn't be more different.
The Studio One version is performed sans stars John McQuade is the most recognizable face, as John Vanning, the commercial artist played by Aldo Ray in the big-screen version. McQuade is running from the law for a crime he didn't commit as well as a band of criminals who think he has the $300,000 absconded in a bank robbery. But it's all played on a stage with New York City indoor settings during an oppressive heat wave. Flashbacks of Vanning in the Colorado Rockies are ditched to keep the story in the present day, and he isn't being shadowed by an insurance investigator but rather a police lieutenant played by Herbert Rudley.
While it lacks the cinematic scope of Tourneur's stark but gorgeous outdoor scenes, the small-budget kine-scope TV version is probably truer to Goodis' original work than Tourneur's film. It focuses on the confusion and angst of Vanning himself. McQuade gives an acting turn that far outstrips Ray's one-note performance. Similarly, the character of Martha, the woman he befriends in a bar who helps him solve his personal riddle, is given significantly more depth and pluck than Anne Bancroft's pretty and naive young waif. A middle-aged Margaret Hayes, with the darkest female eyebrows in history, plays a woman who is a lonely, street-wise barfly. She really looks like she's been around the block more than once, she makes the dramatic interplay with Vanning sizzle. Think an earthier, more plain-Jane Marie Windsor.
Confined to the small stage, theatre conventions drive the plot. One of the most compelling characters but uncredited is a sweaty, slothful bar regular who guzzles massive mugs of beer in one gulp to try and cool himself down in the heat. He listens to Vanning''s tales of woe and offers advice, ultimately dreaming vicariously and out loud of how he would deal with his love of Martha, all while a somber Edith Piaf song is pouring out of a jukebox in the background. It's crude and a bit over dramatic, but somehow, it works to add grit and depth to the tale.
As in the big-screen film, Vanning finally solves the riddles of the missing money on his own, and he learns by telephone that the Denver police have recovered it. There is no climactic mountain-high shootout scene but the ending is nonetheless effective and entertaining. There is much less involvement by the crooks, although Norman Keats gives a strong performance as the lead bank robber that essentially combines the best villainous elements split between Brian Keith and Rudy Bond in the big-screen version.
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