The Monkeybitch Enigma
As the early Joe Mankiewicz noir SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT unfolded, I started praying it would keep up its high standards to the end, but I wasn’t all that optimistic because (a) part of the film’s charm was a sense that it didn’t know where it was going and (b) it doesn’t have much of a reputation, often a sign that a film has fallen at the final hurdle — the climax of a movie often determines disproportionately how people will feel about the film as a whole.
In fact, much of the film’s third act comes together nicely, and there’s ample evidence that the sense of random aimlessness that enlivens the early-middle sections is actually a cunning ploy disguising a tightly-plotted plan. But the climax is over too soon, handed to a supporting character, robbing the hero of the chance to distinguish himself. Since he’s played by the odd-looking John Hodiak, distinctly second-rank, he needs all the opportunities the screenplay can give him. He has the face of a monkeybitch.
Actually, Hodiak’s lack of charisma helps the film in some ways — he’s effective as a lost and confused nobody, struggling to make sense of the world. (This is an AMNESIA MOVIE. Yay!) A big-shot movie-star might well have seemed more likely to come out on top. The greater error is casting Richard Conte as the leading lady’s friend. She keeps talking about what a nice guy he is. We think, “Uh huh, rrrright…” and as it turns out our skepticism is justified.
But knowing all that, one can derive a lot of pleasure from this film. Hodiak plays a G.I. with a misplaced memory, thrust into what you might call your basic shadowy realm of subterfuge as he tries to uncover the secrets of his past. This galloping cliché of a plot gets a shot in the arm from some strong visuals early on — Mankiewicz plays with subjective camera and seems in a more experimental mood than usual — and from the writer’s intelligence, constantly seeking to bolster characterisation and liven up dialogue. One of his notions is to suggest that the characters know what kind of movie they’re in, and feel themselves slightly above it. There is musing on why movie detectives always keep their hats on. The action stops for a Chinese meal. The bad guys are charming and urbane, or cheap but sassy.
And then there’s THIS lovely fellow/shot:
Fritz Kortner’s master-criminal character actually suggests sitting in this spot because the lighting will be suitably mysterious. And he has the face of a monkeybitch.
For much of its running time this is a throughly superior caper — one major plot twist is thoroughly pleasing, and surely original (I guess it’s been copied a few times since), and the sense that everybody’s just making it up as they go along is probably more to do with the unusual fluctuations of tone than the lack of an overall scheme (although one major bad guy remains uncaptured at the end — “We’ll pick him up,” suggests the detective, but will they? WILL THEY?). Amid the banter and suspense scenes, there’s one heart-breaking scene where the wandering hero finally finds somebody who recognises him — only to learn she’s a lonely neurotic, fantasising a connection with him in order to stave off the emptiness of her existence. Nicely done.
Louis B. Mayer’s nickname for Joseph Mankiewicz was Joe Monkeybitch.
Mankiewicz always said that if he was remembered at all it would be as “the swine who rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dialogue” in THREE COMRADES. Fortunately, he was wrong. But he’s remembered as “the dialogue guy” who did ALL ABOUT EVE, and there’s a bit more to him than that.