The top movie opens like whorling ink and oil and blood in a madman’s plughole. The lower movie opens like a five-dimensional bezoar viewed through a kaleidoscope — abstract clouds of translucent hair that seem to pass through us as we delve deeper. After that opening title though, they are the same.
Behold! The Floating Head of Death in NIGHTMARE and FEAR IN THE NIGHT.
Maxwell Shane liked Cornell Woolrich’s story Nightmare so much, he made it twice, first as FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which was DeForest Kelley’s first feature (and seeing the very fine performance of the Dr. McCoy guy in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK reboot reminded me how warmly I feel towards DFK), in 1947, and again in 1956 as NIGHTMARE, with Kevin McCarthy in the lead but with Edward G Robinson accorded senior billing, as is only right.
In fact, it seems Robinson, who had previously starred in a real Woolrich classic, NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (not very faithful to the source novel, but very good), made this film mainly to clear his name after he’d had some trouble with HUAC. The Z-list producers, William Pine and William Thomas (known in the trade as “the Dollar Bills”) seem to have had some power to rehabilitate stars who were under a cloud: if you worked for them, you were judged OK.
According to unreferenced internet sources, Maxwell Shane himself was a writer for Black Mask magazine, linking him to the Woolrich tradition of pulp-noir writing, and he later worked on Boris Karloff’s Thriller show, where the Woolrich story Guillotine was adapted for TV.
Incidentally, in Woolrich’s 1947 story A Night in Barcelona, the hero is called Maxwell Jones, and he’s a jazz musician, like the hero of NIGHTMARE, although unlike the hero of the 1947 FEAR IN THE NIGHT. Make of that what you will. And Woolrich reused the name, according to CW authority Francis M Nevins, in his last completed novel, Death is My Dancing Partner.
It begins — with a nightmare! Kevin McCarthy, the chin who walks like a man, sees himself in a mirrored room, stabbing a man with an ice-pick/awl, and stashing the body in a closet. “I felt as if my brain was in handcuffs,” he narrates, absurdly. During the struggle, he tears off one of the man’s jacket buttons, and after hiding the cadaver he pockets the key. And when he wakes up — you guessed it, he has the button and key on him. Also bruises and bloodstains.
This, then, is the mystery. McCarthy, sweating and jutting his jaw, is convinced the murder was real, but he doesn’t consciously remember it, and he doesn’t, so far as he knows, know the murdered man.
There’s a faint echo of this scenario in MINORITY REPORT, Spielberg’s “science fiction film noir“, which makes me ponder the death of noir and the limitations of a lot of neo-noir. I have a suspicion that noir died as a result of creeping self-consciousness, and that the very act of naming the genre was a nail in it’s coffin. But I also think that noir succeeded in its heyday because the filmmakers were sincere about the paranoia and fear that fueled the stories they told, and nobody was more sincere than Woolrich, who lived the life of loneliness and alcoholism. It’s hard to think of a sensibility less noirish than Spielberg’s, isn’t it? So in his movie, a man is really driven to the brink of murdering somebody he doesn’t know, and he’s all set to do it, as predicted by a psychic (Philip K Dick’s original story is very Woolrichian — both are ham-and-eggs pulp writers with weird imaginations), but then Spielberg wusses out and needs an additional forty-five minutes of screen time to come up with a happy ending in which malevolent fate is replaced by a nonsensical bad guy with a foreign accent, played by a guy who played lots of Nazis and the Emperor Ming.
Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy ditches his girlfriend, a big-voiced jazz singer (Connie Russell, impressively full-throated) and visits his convenient cop brother-in-law, Eddie G. Who doesn’t believe him, until a family picnic is interrupted by a thunderstorm and McCarthy leads Robinson to the house he dreamed about, the house with the mirrored room. (The room also appears in Shane’s FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which is shot-for-shot near-identical to this one, save for a lower budget and no jazz subplot. FITN appeared the same year as Welles’ mirror-magic-show THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.)
Now we learn there’s been a real murder in this house and things are not looking good for Kevin. The only real clue comes in the reading material favoured by the unseen householder ~
Do you sense a hypnosis plot lurking in the wings? Do you suspect that the old adage about hypnosis being useless to make somebody act out of character was possibly not extant at the time of this movie? How right you are!
Along the way we get further nice ideas like McCarthy searching for the haunting, sleazy and scary tune he heard floating through his dream, quizzing his jazz cohorts in a dutch-tilted montage sequence to find out if anybody can Name That Tune. And we get a few nice ceiling fans and shadow shots.
As long as I’m kicking MINORITY REPORT for its feelgood finale, I should really be consistent and smack NIGHTMARE for the cheery family-values-and-jazz coda that wraps things up into a neat bundle at the end. There were ample opportunities to kill or permanently dement McCarthy along the way. But the conclusion is put over with some enthusiasm and good spirits, and it’s pretty economical, and the song is nice. This is from late in the noir cycle, so one doesn’t expect too much (TOUCH OF EVIL and KISS ME DEADLY notwithstanding), but the movie is a snappy, happy little opus with a great crime jazz score, good New Orleans locations, and a few very pleasing visuals. Here’s a moment where Kevin thinks he sees a vision from his dream ~
Gotta love that split mirror image. In fact, the whole scene is part of the padding inserted to blow up the B-movie original to a beefier 1 hr 28 mins. McCarthy picks up the girl and goes home with her, and by way of Big Easy atmos there’s a black female voice singing blues in the night, and it really is atmospheric and kind of eerie, especially because the whole thing has nothing to do with the plot ~
“My closet’s full of men’s clothes / And no man to put ‘em on / Gonna find a man to love me / Before this day is gone.”
NB: DREAM DETECTIVE is the title of a film by Shinya Tsukamoto. I like his work, but that title is so evocative for me I almost don’t want to see it. How can the film be better than the title and the thoughts it conjures?
NB2: Francis M Nevins is right to say that FEAR IN THE NIGHT is the superior version. Now that I’ve watched it all, I can say that Paul Kelly in the Edward G Robinson role makes the difference — he’s always an alarming and unpredictable presence, c.f. that terrifying scene in CROSSFIRE…