Nightfall (1956)

A late film noir and criminal fable, Nightfall (1956) features Anne Bancroft, Aldo Ray, Brian Keith and is urban, violent and twisted ― while also taking a dip in the snow.

With an unravelling story that doesn’t in the end bear too much close inspection, Nightfall is a late period film noir which follows form fairly closely, with its pair of malignant hoods ― one smart (played by Brian Keith) ― and one plain dumb and brutal ― played by Rudolph Bond.

There’s a case full of money, the final word in thriller MacGuffins, and a man adrift in the urban jungle.

There are a pair of gangsters, armed and dangerous and unrelenting in their pursuit and their cruelty. There’s a model, innocently wrapped up in the fearful chase ― and to make a difference, there are snow-bound scenes aplenty, shot in the wilds of Wyoming.

You might already be forgiven for thinking that Tarantino had been here before you too, and you would be right on that count also. 

While not entirely compelling from start to finish, Nightfall does have its moments, and most of these are down to the goons ― Brian Keith is great and when he and Rudolph Bond are working together, it is even possible to imagine you are watching a kind of proto-Tarantino noir, simply in the attitudes they strike, and the high levels of anti-social criminality with which they are imbued. 

That is indeed what Tarantino brought forth from film noir and into his own early output ― that quite terrifying idea of the society of crime ― a world in which the libertine criminal violence of men reigns free ― only inches from our own rather fragile civilisation.

Accordingly in fact, it’s a fact that Nightfall was influential in Quentin Tarantino creating the Bruce Willis character in Pulp Fiction.

Tarantino said, Willis "reminded me of a 50s leading man... a Ralph Meeker, Aldo Ray and Brian Keith kind of man. I went to his house and we did actually watch one print of an Aldo Ray movie, we watched Nightfall. Ray and Brian Keith have fantastic banter. And Brian Keith is excellent. "

Brian Keith is indeed excellent ― and he became one of the most familiar faces in Hollywood, for a spell ― whether it was as Jocko in Hooper (1978), or as George Tanner in The Yakuza (1974). Keith’s best line is when he says of his psychotic partner:

“When Red was a kid they didn’t have enough playgrounds. He’s sort of an adult delinquent.”

Aldo Ray’s career was different, and began in 1951 and concluded in 1991, and in that time it could be said he was rarely wreathed in glory. The Naked and the Dead (1958) may have been as good as it got, while divorce and alcohol, according to the man himself, certainly played a part in the slow decline for which he may be remembered.

Ray’s machismo was of a certain type ― a sullen, silent type, and as the era of B-list action features and independent horrors dawned in the 1970s and 1980s, he began to appear more and more in the kind of fare that was always seen and then ― for a generation at least, forgotten. 

There are thankfully always people willing to watch a pirate of a film like Don’t Go Near The Park (1979) ― the kind of thing that in the UK at least, gained notoriety as a so-called ‘video nasty’.

Meanwhile, the going was still tough, even at this end of the film noir cycle. And Nightfall must be one of the last, as it seems to give up some of the hopes of film noir for expressing deeper psychological doubt and social questions, we are instead here moving into that more unstable and psychotic world, the world of the professional gangster, a genre in its own right once the film noir cycle was fully spent in the later 1950s.

The image of a woman is often a lurking spur to disaster in film noir

Urban scenery is key  . . . 

. . . although Nightfall detours marvellously into the wilds, a rare setting in film noir.


Nightfall does attract high critical praise, as does much if the work of Jacques Tourneur. The similarity to Out of the Past is evident ― the contrasting scenes flitting between past and present, city and country, and the use of flashbacks ― but the chance encounters are also a theme. The opening chance encounter between Vanning (Aldo Ray) and Marie (Anne Bancroft) recalls the chance meetings between Irena and Oliver at the zoo in Tourneur's Cat People (1942), and Dr. Bailey and Cissie on the train at the beginning of Experiment Perilous (1944).

The pacing is always taut and the mood gritty, making Nightfall pretty much the perfect film noir, certainly an outstanding example of the style form the late 1950s, when the psychological man-against-the-world and anti-heroics of film noir, were starting to be replaced with more directly criminal fare, and disturbing imagery and menace started to be replaced by Technicolor on an increasingly regular basis.

It was a time of changing tastes however ― and audiences were nosediving out of the cinemas and into television sets. Nothing would ever be quite the same again in film.

Meantime, Jacques Tourneur used his smarts to turn small-budget films into varied and exciting movie-going experiences. If Out of the Past is one of the best films noir to be released in the 1940s, then Nightfall must be one of the best from the 1950s. The movie seems to change tone and deepen, with threatening scenes near the start at some oil wells, and the amazing snowy photography which takes up about a third of the action. Then there is the interesting aside of the insurance investigator, who trails the tale and adds a further voice, a further angel, a further set of eyes.

And the immortal line from Nightfall, could barely sum up the film noir style any better:

“This is what they call the point of no return, friend.”

This is exactly what we are supposed to feel. In film noir cinema, the aim was to psychologically lower the viewer into a murky world where they ― at the centre ― began to doubt the familiar structures of modern living.

The Film Noir of Jacques Tourneur

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