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This Could Be the Night (DVD Review)

21 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$17.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Jean Simmons, Anthony Franciosa, Paul Douglas, Julie Wilson.

For a director who twice won Oscars, Robert Wise made a significant number of indifferent clunkers — but one of his least known movies is not among them, even if I have to keep re-convincing myself every decade-and-a-half-or-so with a fresh viewing. This said, I know of only one other friend (a female film critic) who is even familiar with this mildly eccentric sweetheart of a nightclub comedy that essentially plunks Snow White into a bookie den. But she is a fan as well and actually once brought it up to me unsolicited.

Certainly not the most easily typed filmmaker who ever lived, Wise sandwiched this one in between Somebody Up There Likes Me and another Jean Simmons starrer (Until They Sail) — just before embarking on the Gable-Lancaster submarine drama Run Silent, Run Deep and Susan Hayward’s anti-capital punishment Oscar vehicle I Want To Live! (Did he have ADD or something?) As Wise said in an interview book writer Sergio Leemann did on his career, he liked the script by Isobel Lennart (who later wrote the book for Funny Girl) but really had to be cajoled into doing a film he knew MGM wouldn’t promote. Which is exactly what happened after the director was promised otherwise, irking him so much that he instantly set forth plans to bolt the studio where he had made two of his most acclaimed films up to that time (Somebody Up and Executive Suite).

Kinetically directed and shot (by the great Russell Harlan), Night is a kind of a fairly tale about a moonlighting schoolteacher (Simmons) who takes an unlikely secretarial job at a Manhattan nightspot run by an Italian tomcat who lives over the club (Anthony Franciosa in his screen debut) and a gruff but soft-hearted Prohibition veteran (Paul Douglas) who wants to protect her from lowlifes who include his partner. Along the way, she ends up charming every oddball in the place — and there are quite a few of them.

For one thing, we’re treated to the sight of J. Carroll Naish in a chef’s cap. There’s also Rafael Campos, a couple years after he played one of the classroom hoods in Blackboard Jungle, playing a busboy who gets beaten up by other teens because his name is “Hussein Mohammed” — and not for the reasons he might get beaten up today but as part of the razzing he gets for all the “harem girls” he is assumed by peers to have. There’s also cult cabaret singer Julie Wilson belting out a few numbers as the joint’s impressive headliner, and short-haired Neile Adams as a “built” dancer in glasses (her in-house mother is played by Joan Blondell) whose real desire is to cook. (In real life, Adams was already married to Steve McQueen, and nearly a decade later, Wise would direct McQueen’s greatest performance in The Sand Pebbles.) Trumpeter Ray Anthony either plays himself or another guy named Ray Anthony (I can never tell in these kinds of movie situations), but in any event leads the house band.

There is almost always “bustle” here: in the kitchen, in Douglas’s office, and in the club proper — which places a bar at the front of the CinemaScope frame and the performers’ stage in the back. Perhaps because Wise once spent some time in a restaurant he co-owned, he’s extremely assured at frame-filling and movement in the widescreen canvas (quite a relief to see after having just watched the gorgeous but inert early-Scope Désirée on Blu-ray). And I am continually floored by the number of visually impressive movies that Harlan photographed. Just some: Red River; Gun Crazy; Blackboard Jungle; Land of the Pharaohs; The Last Hunt; Lust for Life; King Creole; Rio Bravo; black-and-white To Kill a Mockingbird and Technicolor Hatari! in the same year (and Oscar nominations for both); The Great Race; and Darling Lili. Anybody could look at two minutes of Night and know that someone great shot it. And someone did.

Franciosa had four movies come out in his debut year 1957, and this was the first. He was prone to over-emoting and no real favorite of mine, but is perfect here opposite Simmons’ proper ladylike persona (though she is such a quietly gorgeous photographic subject for Harlan that you can see why she “bothers” both of her bosses on different levels). Though Douglas did a lot of TV in the last two years of his life, this was among the last features  — a most likeable performance by one of the great character-actor leads of the day, though it’s sad to note that he looks like a heart attack waiting to happen here. And this, in fact, was the outcome. Douglas died at just 52, just before he was prepping to take what became the Fred MacMurray heel role in The Apartment — which given the distinct differences in the two actors’ personas would likely have made the Billy Wllder Oscar winner a different movie altogether.

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