NIGHT PEOPLE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1954) Kino Lorber
“You have never really seen Gregory Peck until you’ve seen him in Cinemascope…” so declared 2oth Century-Fox’s marketing campaign for Night People (1954) – one of the studio’s earliest efforts in the then new-fangled anamorphic process, directed by Nunnelly Johnson. It’s Johnson’s inexperience as a first-time director, grappling with this clumsy widescreen process, lending to severe limitations, rather than his ineptitude as a storyteller, that makes Night People something of a woeful anomaly in the Cinemascope canon; the visuals, a veritable textbook ‘how not to…’ shoot any movie in Fox’s patented process (placing characters too close to the edge of the frame, resulting in their wraith-thin vertical elongation; panning too quickly from left to right or right to left, creating an equilibrium-induced queasiness as virtually everything with a vertical plain bows and warps inward towards the center of the frame, and, finally, occasionally getting much too close to characters’ faces, thus provoking what would affectionately become known in the industry as ‘the Cinemascope mumps’ – horizontally squished heads).
Nunnelly Johnson, who began his career as a journalist and author of several short story collections, became interested in film criticism as early as 1932. These interests denied him professionally he quietly packed up to try his hand in Hollywood instead. Almost immediately he found work as a screenwriter at Fox; by 1935, one of their most prolific contributors. Despite an Oscar nomination for his 1940 classic adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Johnson’s interests began to diversify. He turned to producing, cofounding International Pictures with William Goetz in 1943. Evidently, Zanuck took notice and an interest in Johnson’s future at Fox. Thus, Nunnelly Johnson became a director. The transition, alas, is not smooth, hampered – perhaps – by the elongated frame and the constraints of those early and very primitive Bausch & Lomb lens. Night People is an anomaly in other ways too. Johnson’s screenplay, based on a story idea by Jed Harris and Thomas Reed (with an uncredited assist from W.R. Burnett) has enough hairpin turns for three heavily plotted Cold War pictures; strychnine-poisoned double agents, an imposter/lover, a devious bait n’ switch with the Russians, and a lot of cloak and dagger spread thickly along the way.
But there is no getting around it: Gregory Peck’s Col. Steve Van Dyke is a fairly unlikable bastard with Peck working against type to portray Van Dyke as part ‘off the nut’ mercenary and part military strategist extraordinaire with a decided mean streak opposite Broderick Crawford’s boorish industrialist, Charles Leatherby. It’s Leatherby’s son, Cpl. John (Ted Avery) that is at the hub of all their consternation and chest-thumping. Seems John, after departing his gal/pal’s apartment in Berlin one dark night, has been targeted and abducted to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Leatherby Sr. is used to throwing money to make any unpleasant situation ‘go away’. Alas, this is one precariously perched set of circumstance no amount of greenback can cure. Peck enjoyed making Night People, perhaps because it provided him with the opportunity to play a sadist (decidedly way out of his ensconced reputation as the movies’ amiable purveyor of the moral right). Perhaps it is just me; but I cannot buy into Peck’s performance herein. He is more crotchety than decisive and less pit bull with a pulse than an insecure ‘little man’ desperately trying to camouflage this reality. He says some great lines – none of them with total conviction to make us forget here is one of Hollywood’s finest actors when he elected to play ‘good’, ‘truthful’ and ‘clear-eyed’ men of personal integrity. Van Dyke is decidedly not that!
Night People was developed under the working title, The Cannibals; later, changed to avoid audiences’ confusion for an African safari-styled picture. Night People was, in fact, a title already owned by Fox and ascribed to a sci-fi flick to have starred Richard Widmark. As this was never produced, the title was simply ported over to Johnson’s project instead. Johnson desperately wanted to direct Night People. As he and Gregory Peck were good friends, having toiled together on 1950’s The Gunfighter, the actor wholeheartedly agreed to give Johnson his first big break. Rumors circulated that Peck was readily displeased on set. If so, his discontent had nothing to do with Johnson. Interestingly, Fox elected to shoot Night People overseas, in authentic locations in Berlin, with interiors cobbled together from sets built at Munich’s Geiselgasteig Studios. Both Zanuck and Johnson felt strongly about locations adding authenticity to their story. And yet, a lot of this movie takes place inside cloistered hospital rooms and military base offices; hence, the scenic value of locations in Cinemascope is greatly minimized.
To show off Cinemascope to its best advantage, Night People begins with the vast canvas of a military parade in progress before seguing to a few spookily lit cobblestoned winding streets in Berlin where Cpl. Leatherby is abducted. It all makes for a nice little travelogue. However, immediately following the main titles, the movie settles into an anticlimactic series of claustrophobic and not terribly prepossessing interiors created by Hanns Kuhnert and Theo Zwierski. For all its claims to international intrigue and espionage, Night People quickly unravels into a wordy and occasionally pretentious drama with a lot of heated exchanges between Peck and Crawford; the two proverbial bulls locked together in the same china shop – or, in this case – hospital wards while Van Dyke does damage control and battle in tandem with Leatherby, the Russians and Anita Björk’s platinum-tressed Nazi viper; having murdered the real freedom fighter, Hoffy Hoffmeier to impersonate her and seduce Van Dyke, already having taken this absinthe-drinking double agent to bed. Whoops and chalk one up for Hitler’s honey.
For comic relief we get Buddy Ebsen’s constantly kerfuffled Sgt. Eddie McColloch, and, as the strong-willed virtuous woman, Rita Gam as Ricky Cates, Van Dyke’s right-hand. With all this talent on tap, one would anticipate a much more involved and engrossing picture. Instead, Night People comes alive only briefly in fits and sparks; the sparing between Van Dyke and Leatherby Sr. intermittently interrupted by a lot of ominous back and forth between the principals, running around like chickens with their heads cut off; infrequently bumping into one another, but thankfully, no furniture on their way in or out of these confined sets. Due to the taut nature of occupation that actually existed in Berlin at the time of shooting, a scene where a truck is escorted by U.S. military to the edge of the Brandenburg Gate was enough to incur armed Russian guards’ suspicions. They remained poised and ready to attack cast and crew until the pivotal sequence was completed.
Night People begins with the Allied kidnapping of Corporal John Leatherby, an American soldier stationed in West Berlin. In America, news of John’s sudden disappearance reaches his industrialist dad, Charles who vows with every breath in his body to get the boy back. Calling every marker in his little black book, the well-connected Leatherby raises a considerable stink from Toledo in Berlin. As far as he is concerned neither the Army nor his government are doing enough or moving fast enough and bring Johnny home. So Leatherby boards a plane to Berlin, determined to confront the men in charge of what he has already mis-perceived as a badly bungled operation. What Leatherby does not count on is the guy at the other end ready to give as good as he gets in their verbal fireworks, lobbing all those heavy-hitting questions right back at him. American provost marshal, Lt. Col. Steve Van Dyke is not about to take any guff from Leatherby. In short order, Van Dyke lays down the law. He will be the one calling the shots – not Leatherby. He knows how to negotiate for ‘hostages’, unlike Leatherby, who mistakenly believes he can simply write a check and buy them off.
Through his East German contact, Frau Hoffmeier, Van Dyke discovers John has been kidnapped by East German agents who want to trade him for a pair of elderly anti-Nazi Germans, Herr (Anton Färber) and Frau Schindler (Jill Esmond). Previously, they tortured the couple, even gouging Mr. Schindler’s eyes out. Learning of the trade, the couple elects to poison themselves with strychnine rather than face whatever fresh hell is brewing for them on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Prior to this, Van Dyke takes Leatherby to dinner at the Katacombe restaurant, because he wants Leatherby to see firsthand the two humans that will be sacrificed so his son might live. Van Dyke’s due diligence spares Mrs. Schindler’s life. Alas, the strychnine has taken hold of her husband, who later dies from it while in hospital under the care of Major Foster (Walter Abel). Now for the wrinkle: Sgt. Eddie McColloch discovers ‘Frau Schindler’ is actually Rachel Cameron – a British agent and wife of Gen. Gerd von Kratzenow, an anti-Nazi conspirator involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler during the war. It now becomes clear to Van Dyke the people who want the ‘Schindlers’ back are not Russian but former Nazis working with the communists.
Meanwhile, Van Dyke learns from his Russian contact, Sergei Petrochine (Peter van Eyck) that his good friend and Soviet counterpart, Col. Lodejinski has been betrayed while attempting to smuggle himself and his family to the West; instead, forced to commit suicide along with his entire family. Who betrayed Lodejinski? Hoffy, it seems; as she is not who she appears to be. Still playing the part of a semi-devoted lover, Van Dyke coaxes Hoffy out of a sticky detainment, assuming full responsibility for her release. He negotiates a trade: Mrs. Schindler for Johnny, the latter to be delivered by ambulance at the hospital. Instead, upon her early arrival at the hospital to supervise this exchange, Hoffy is detained by Van Dyke, who, placing his hands about her throat, next proceeds to knock her unconscious and disguise her as Mrs. Schindler. Hoffy’s body is quickly put in the back of the ambulance and Johnny hurriedly ushered inside the hospital to assess his injuries. To ensure the ‘Russians’ cannot renege on their deal; Van Dyke uses a noisy military escort to flank their return to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Having narrowly averted disaster and also spared Rachel Cameron from a fate worse than…, Van Dyke retires to breathe a sigh of relief. Sometime later, he is reunited with Johnny, his fiancée and Leatherby who, having once contemplated sacrificing his own flesh and blood, now is eternally grateful for Van Dyke’s ruthless maneuvering on Johnny’s behalf. The picture ends with Van Dyke staring across a balcony at the cityscape, a look of sly satisfaction overtaking him.
Night People ought to have been a better thriller than it actually turned out. There is, in fact, a lot of good material here. But it almost always gets submarined by Nunnelly Johnson’s overly wordy repartee between these characters – too much talk and way too little action, with locations arbitrarily inserted to assure the audience Fox has spent the extra money to take its cast and crew abroad. Alas, most of the picture is shot on sets; none particularly inspiring or adding to the suspense that ought to have been generated. Cyril J. Mockridge’s underscore is sparse, but even so, overly melodramatic, while Charles G. Clarke’s cinematography leaves a good deal to be desired. Placing people at the fringes of the vast Cinemascope screen, the severe warping inflicted upon them by the limitations of early ‘scope’ lenses, the effect is repeatedly laughable and ugly; actors gaining and losing 20 lbs. as they negotiate their marks from one corner of the frame to the other; heads stretched like toy balloons. Nunnelly Johnson’s lack of experience with Cinemascope results in a most clumsily staged proscenium. He is trying way too hard to fill every last corner with movement of some kind. As such, his visual compositions look cluttered and very static. He also appears to have some difficulty lighting his night exteriors, with edges of the frame disappearing into a very murky darkness.
Acting wise: Gregory Peck does his level-headed best at pretending cold-hearted arrogance. He is only partly successful. In the movie’s rooftop reunion with the Leathery, Peck lets this ruse slip. He becomes the Greg Peck we have known and loved elsewhere – compassionate and interested in other peoples’ lives. It’s a complete one-eighty about face from the character as written or portrayed thus far. More consistent on the whole is Anita Björk’s devilishly unscrupulous double agent; evil incarnate with an Aryan Nation crop of bleached blonde tresses to remind us where her loyalties dwell. Buddy Ebsen is woefully wasted in Night People; thankless comic relief that never quite comes across as one half of a buddy/buddy alliance with Van Dyke; more like Nigel Bruce’s bumbling Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. The other unforgivable sacrifice; Rita Gam – as a sharp-shooting secretary who burns the candle at both ends because of her transparent – if unrequited – affections for Van Dyke. The best performance in the picture arguably belongs to Broderick Crawford, only because he runs true to form while suffering a major conversion and change of heart midway through the plot – willing to tempt fate by allowing Johnny to remain ‘out there’ on his own in order to spare Rachel Cameron’s life. Crawford always played a blowhard and herein he gives us shades of Harry Brock; the unscrupulous mug he portrayed to perfection in 1950’s Born Yesterday. As far as it goes, it’s competently rendered, if hardly distinct.
Night People’s debut on Blu is advertised as a new 4K scan from Fox made available via Kino Lorber’s distribution. It has taken Night People forever to get a DVD release. But when it did, it went directly to MOD burn-on-demand via Fox’s severely botched Cinema Archive Collection in a notoriously faded pan-and-scan transfer that outraged virtually every videophile on the block – as well it should. Fox’s movie legacy is, of course, at the mercy of a prior regime’s shortsightedness in improperly archiving its past for future generations to study and enjoy. What is here is more impressive than I would have expected, but nevertheless inconsistently rendered. When the image snaps together as it should, color fidelity is frankly ‘odd’ and ‘off’; the image leaning slightly to a blue tint, though mercilessly not to those egregious levels we are used to seeing from some of Fox’s other ‘scope’ DeLuxe color transfers.
Black levels are particularly problematic; weak, milky, and with hints of scattered pixelization. Well-lit scenes are often a showcase for the more detailed costumes and set decoration. But colors generally veer toward muddier hues and flesh tones remain very pasty throughout. Also, the middle portion of the picture is very softly focused; from about 39 minutes in to almost 79 min. in. Dupes? Don’t know, exactly but with Fox anything is possible. Contrast is also weaker than anticipated, everything settling into a sort of mid-register that belies any sort of shadow delineation. There are no age-related artifacts. That’s something, I suppose. And we do get a DTS repurposing of the vintage 2-channel ‘scope’ stereo. I’m not a fan of the horrendously truncated ‘conversation piece’ featuring all three of Gregory Peck’s adult children waxing affectionately about their father. It ends as abruptly as it began. Honestly, just spend the extra time and coin to do a proper interview or don’t do one at all. Snippets and sound bites are a snore and a bore. Kino Lorber has flooded the ‘extras’ tab with a ton of trailers for other Peck classics either presently out on Blu, or soon to arrive from this distributor. Bottom line: recommended for Peck completionists only! Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)