Archive for Nights When the Devil Came

Adorf, Mario: My Part in His Downfall

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 8, 2019 by dcairns

I just re-read my original piece on NACHTS, WENN DER TEUFEL KAMM (1957) (NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME; or THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT), directed by Robert Siodmak, and I’m pleased to discover it’s both extremely short and quite inaccurate, which gives me a good opportunity to write some more.

The film deals with the subject of a serial killer on the loose in Nazi Germany, and beautifully brings out the horror and the irony of that situation, contrasting — without overtly doing anything — the depredations of the individual with the much worse acts of the state. Adolfo Celi Mario Adorf turns in a convincing and detailed performance as the killer, concentrating on making it a compelling portrayal of a man with learning difficulties.

What I didn’t know last time was that Adorf’s real-life subject was, in all probability, innocent — a hapless soul tortured by the German police into confessing to a bunch of killings, thereby helping them to take scores of unsolved cases off the books. By this light, Siodmak’s well-meaning, liberal film turns into an unfortunate whitewash of the Reich’s police force, who were — OF COURSE — in it up to their ears.

So my feelings about the film — maybe Siodmak’s best post-Hollywood production — are complicated. It gets at some poetic truths, but defames an innocent, murdered man. It has its own cinematic truth, like Truffaut’s L’ENFANT SAUVAGE, and like that film, it can’t quite escape an obligation to history, which it chooses to ignore.

But here’s why I think it’s a brilliant piece of film-making:

Adorf, having been captured, is taken to visit one of his old crime scenes. He starts to re-enact what happened for the benefit of police. The camera follows his invisible victim — present only in his imagination, but unseen by us. At a certain point, we lose sight of the cops, who must be closely shadowing their man, surely.

We are inside Adorf’s mind. Not quite in the past — because we don’t see his “prey” — only the spaces she once walked in — but we don’t see the police he’s talking to. We’re trapped in a phantom zone somewhere between then and now.

And then, when Adorf begins scrabbling in the dirt to conceal the invisible body, a simple cut abruptly causes the police to appear — they’ve been all around him all along.

I can’t think of another film of the time that does this. We’re practically in MARIENBAD territory. A pan around the treetops during the recollection of the murder itself makes me think RASHOMON is in there somewhere. And the camera reconstructing the crime is taken from REBECCA, I think, but the strange, depopulated half-world is a wholly original conceit.

Forgotten Nights

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on February 18, 2010 by dcairns

Your Siodmak dose for the month of February is over at the Auteurs’ Notebook: this week’s The Forgotten deals with NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME, which combines two things of enduring interest to all right-thinking Shadowplayers: Nazis, and serial murder.

Go on, it’ll be fun!

A Kitten isn’t just for Christmas…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2008 by dcairns

We went round to my friend Kristin’s to admire her new kitten, Jonathan:

Jonathan did not disappoint!

Then, after crisps and cake and wine, I suggested watching CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, which I had copied for Kris because she wanted to see Gene Kelly being evil. As a fan of musicals and all things evil, how could she resist that combination?

Beautiful death-mask lighting by Woody Bredell.

It was quite a strange viewing experience. Even with the lights dimmed, Jonathan refused to settle, so the movie played out with an adorable bundle of fur skittering across the floorboards throughout. Then there was Kris’s TV, which has a failing tube or something, so that the top right of the screen is green and the rest is blue, sometimes creating a strange 3D effect where the background of a shot is tinted differently from the foreground. And then there was the tape itself (I recorded it on VHS since Kris’s DVD player was busted) which had been recorded over something in LP mode, so that in the audio background, strange slurred voices could be heard conversing or maybe arguing or singing in ssslllooowww mmmoootttiiiooonnn.

All in all, a strange way to see a film, and likely not one screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz nor director Robert Siodmak had in mind. But the film survived.

It’s a long-standing joke that audiences going to see a film called CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly must have been pretty shocked with the doomed noir love story they got in place of sentimental musical comedy. With that cast, a different title would really have helped, but the name of the film actually resonates beautifully with the story (original author Somerset Maugham had good taste, after all). The time-span of the tale is literally the duration of a soldier’s Christmas leave, and although Kelly inhabits the meatiest part of the story, it’s as much the jilted G.I.’s tale. But Siodmak, a star-maker all his life, didn’t manage to turn Dean Harens into a headliner, and the young hero kind of backs out of the limelight when faced with authentic moviestar wattage.

On Kris’s TV, Deanna was completely silhouetted except for the gleaming teardrop. Nice.

As fallen woman Deanna (terrific performance, completely different face and body language in the flashbacks to more innocent times) narrates her story, both he and she experience the beginnings of an emotional transformation. The flashback structure calls to mind Mankiewicz’s most celebrated work, CITIZEN KANE, while there’s at least one transition that’s very much in the KANE mold: Gene Kelly says, “You don’t believe me,” Deanna Durbin retorts, “I do,” and on those words we cut to the wedding ceremony.

Kelly gives a peach of a performance as charming psychopath Robert Mannette (“little man”?), tormented by the feeling that he’s a disgrace to his noble family name. The film seems to be having fun teasing us with Kelly. We wait almost half an hour for the putative star to turn up. when he does, he’s in silhouette, and he’s just killed a bookie. The next flashback shows how Deanna met her husband (the structure is tricky that way) and he asks her to dance. But just as they reach the dance floor, the song (“Always”, which Deanna gets to sing, twice, very slowly) ends. A brief conversation, and then the band strikes up. Gene takes Deanna in his arms, and just as we’re finally about to see Gene dance, Siodmak fades out.

But minutes later, Kris would remark, “He’s always dancing.”

Which is true. As is: “The mother’s really scary.”

Ah yes, Gale Sondergaard. “When it was all over, the psychoanalysts would say that Robert’s relations with his mother were pathological.” It wouldn’t be a Siodmak noir without a bit of dollar-book Freud. Or astronomy. One or the other. (THE KILLERS and UNCLE HARRY plump for astronomy. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN, THE DARK MIRROR, PHANTOM LADY, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE plump for d-b F. Later on in Siodmak’s career, his great NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME can be said to be about unconvincing scientific explanations for aberrant behaviour.) Sondergaard is never more alarming than when she’s being caring and motherly:

She’s just too corpsey. It’s a beautifully pitched performance, where Sodergaard seems to simply allow the lighting and the lines of her face to carry the sinister implications.

A gripping climax: Kelly has escaped from prison and seeks to kill Durbin for her perceived infidelity. The irony: Durbin has never stopped loving him, and her life as a prostitute has been a self-inflicted punishment for her perceived failure to save her husband from himself. It’s pretty sick stuff.

“How did he get out?” Fiona wanted to know. Women have a way of asking awkward practical questions like that. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to director Morag McKinnon, and at the climactic flashback, when Charles Bronson’s brother is being hanged from a stone arch, she asked “Where’s the ladder?” To which the best answer is, “Maybe they just used the camera crane.”

“He escaped,” I attempted to explain.

“Yeah, but how?”

“Violence.”

“And dancing.”

“Yes. A deadly combination of violence and dancing.”

Deanna Durbin transcends the squalor in a Wagnerian climax as the clouds part and Tristan Und Isolde plays on the soundtrack, and as Glenn Kenny points out, the combination of Wagner and (yes!) astronomy connects irresistably to Bunuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU, but in the absence of any proven interest from Siodmak in Bunuel’s work, I have to question whether this is influence… or just a beautiful synchronicity.