Why am I so amused and bemused by this scene in the Don Siegel-directed melo NIGHT UNTO NIGHT, in which Ronald Reagan has an epileptic fit?
It isn’t because it’s Ronald Reagan — not everything he does is automatically funny. Admittedly, some aspects of his presidency were humorous, but I didn’t, on the whole, find the idea of this jocular, ruddy-faced buffoon hovering over the doomsday button particularly funny. I spent my adolescence in a state of terror. I would have probably been terrified anyway, for more general/biologically reasons, but I still hold him responsible for that part of my anxiety not linked to hormones.
And it isn’t because it’s an epileptic seizure — those aren’t funny at all, certainly no funnier than any other neurological malady.
It isn’t even the unlikely combination of Ronald Reagan having an epileptic seizure. Though that makes me smile a little bit.
It’s more to do with Siegel’s direction, which is weirdly ineffective and wrong. It turns out that his talent, on sure ground when dealing with direct, determined action — he would have made the best movie ever of a Richard Stark Parker novel if given the chance — falls apart when called upon to render the hallucinatory, the abnormal, the fugue-state. Instead of some kind of evocation of perceptual crisis, we get a low angle or two placing striking emphasis on Reagan’s smoking material. Pipes are just funny, I think, in a way that Reagan and epilepsy aren’t, always. Pipes are always a bit funny. Making a pipe the fulcrum of a dramatic neurological crisis experienced by Ronald Reagan is very funny.
And then there’s the dog. Interesting to note that was a montage director at Warners before his directing career took off. That’s not at all the same thing as being an editor. Siegel shot his own material to create montage sequences for other directors’ films, showing the passage of time, the development of a situation, or just the atmosphere of a place. It probably explains his admirable terseness. But nothing explains that very voluble dog, who barks and reacts for an extraordinary length of time. The shortness of the shots suggests that Siegel had trouble getting the mutt to understand his direction (Later he would have similar struggles with Shirley MacLaine, but succeed). It looks as if all the usable bits of dog footage have been spliced together — and then abandoned, left in the film without any narrative shaping. It’s quite peculiar.
But the pipe bit is the best.