Film With Sleep

Roy (Ward) Baker’s NIGHT WITHOUT SLEEP opens with Gary Merrill waking from a nightmare, so I immediately felt cheated. Firstly, the character has been asleep, secondly, he’s Gary Merrill. I decided to watch the movie for Linda Darnell, and instead we have GM, seemingly quite good guy, but adequate to hold one’s attention onscreen only in ALL ABOUT EVE, where he’s supported by more interesting players on all sides. He serves, I guess, as a kind of anchor. He has what Ken Campbell called “the legendary minus factor,” — you can inject him into a scene if it’s in danger of getting too exciting. He’s like Hugh Beamont’s less exuberant brother.

NWS casts GM as a neurotic alcoholic songwriter whose problems with his stage mother have left him incapable of forging relationships. He’s married a rich woman, has an exotic mistress, and grasps at a last-chance “redemptive” fling with starlet Darnell, a looong way into this film. We seem to be supposed to be on his side, but it’s pretty hard to sympathise, and the potential “solution” to his worries, another mistress, doesn’t convince — isn’t he just making the same mistakes over again?

My copy of the film is grungy, which doesn’t help. Impossible to really judge the emotional effect of the film when everything looks like it’s been shot through translucent black soup.

Had NWS starred Richard Widmark, it might have stood a chance — an actor whose dynamism and nerviness could often compensate for really unsympathetic character traits. Merrill can only play for pathos by being a sad-sack. The grimy transfer makes him seem older, a disconsolate empty scrotum with a hairstyle that looks like it landed on him from above like a pancake.

The women around him are a mixed bunch — June Vincent avoids making her mothering wife an appalling character, a noble choice, but maybe that would have been more interesting to watch? Hildegarde Knef’s vocal delivery is quite Schwartzeneggerian, which is distracting. Darnell makes everything brighter and better, before she’s called upon to perform a peculiar roleplay, which goes on for a long time and is embarrassing to watch, the more so as she’s built up some warm feeling.

There’s a final plot twist which isn’t. An episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour with Tony Randall did the alcoholic blackout thing far better (and Randall is astonishing in it). The script seems to have been intended to float a series of possible twists, each of which is then disproven, but it SO doesn’t pull this off.

The most interesting aspect, for me, was that the movie, a product of Baker’s brief stint in Hollywood at Fox, has several of the same qualities as his better-known DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK, recently recalled to memory by its featuring in BLONDE (although we never meet an English director in that movie’s “reconstructions”). Both films feature cod psychology (dollar-book Freud, as Welles called it) and make their leading ladies seem awkward with almost unplayable scenes, where Baker seems unable to help them, or not enough anyhow.

(I don’t remember INFERNO well enough to say if it follows these trends.)

But this movie makes DBTK look like The Mahabharata.

What’s surprising and disappointing is that RWB, who was capable of striking effects in terrific films, doesn’t seize upon the resources of Hollywood to do anything interesting or expressive or different, despite the psychological bent of the films he was assigned. This one has a flashback within a flashback, flashbacks which then turn out to be possibly false, but then again turn out to be true after all, but none of it encourages him to any formal experimentation at all. It’s like he was intimidated by the studio apparatus rather than inspired by it. Which would seem strange, as he was known in the UK as quite a formidable tough guy who wouldn’t hesitate to tear a strip out of a crewmember who displeased him.

I have other questions about Baker. More soon.

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5 Responses to “Film With Sleep”

  1. daniel riccuito Says:

    sexiest screen presence ever, ld

  2. Simon Kane Says:

    Oh THAT guy! “The Theatre! The Theatre!” Yeee… He’s a pretty big drag in “Eve” too.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Would like to see this on a marquee with “Pillow of Death”. That’s one of those Inner Sanctum programmers, all with Lon Chaney Jr. as object of female lust.

  4. Baker has at least earned his way to movie heaven with A Night to Remember and Quatermass and rhe Pit ;)

  5. I wonder what drew Bette Davis to marry Merrill. He does seem like a decent bloke (marched to Selma) but then that doesn’t necessarily seem like the key quality to attract la Bette.

    Merrill MAYBE makes more sense as a lust object than Chaney Jr, but it’s pretty close in improbability terms.

    Baker’s first film, The October Man, is appealing, and Flame in the Streets is a very honourable race relations drama.

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