Night People (Blu-ray Review)7 Aug, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Stars Gregory Peck, Broderick Crawford, Anita Bjork, Buddy Ebsen.
Though its Russian political/historical particulars obviously differ from today’s, 1954’s Night People comes along on Blu-ray at an apposite time — while offering, in addition, a primer on the higher IQ that old-school Hollywood frequently assumed, rightly or wrongly, the average moviegoer had six decades ago. (Or at least non-camp-fanciers with enough savvy to stay away from The Red Menace, Big Jim McLain and that risible ilk.) Anyone raising an eyebrow over this assertion will say, “Well, what about Bridge of Spies?” — our own screen era’s Cold War prisoner exchange drama and admittedly, a better movie. But whereas the Spielberg drama was an awards hopeful plunked with cause into the year-end awards race, People was a relatively unassuming March release that I saw as a politically unsophisticated kid at a walking-distance theater, double-billed with Demetrius and the Gladiators. Those were the entertainment days, even though few 7-year-olds (myself certainly included) were going to comprehend People’s political backdrop: the carve-up of Germany and then Berlin at the end of World War II.
Contemporary to its time, People takes place not quite a decade later, and it had to have been one of the first Hollywood releases — following all those aforementioned Red Scare money-losers the studios churned out to in a doomed attempt to keep HUAC off its tail — to treat American vs. Russian espionage in cat-and-mouse fashion the way John le Carre books and movies eventually did. Even Cecilia Peck (daughter of People lead Gregory) says in the Blu-ray bonus interview she shares with two male siblings that she finds it a challenge to follow the plot twists here. But compared to the screen le Carres starting with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the navigation here isn’t all that daunting.
Peck plays an army colonel stationed in Berlin who gets handed a doozy when a young American corporal gets snatched, apparently by Russians, just after kissing his German girlfriend goodnight at her door. Making matters worse, the lad’s Ohioan father (initially played by Broderick Crawford with full-metal Highway Patrol bellicosity) is apparently the most prominent Trump-like power broker in Toledo. Pushy pop thinks that if he calls enough U.S. senators, the Soviets will shake hard enough in their boots to generate an automatic change of heart. Peck, who has seen it all and already works enough hours to make sleeping in his office a regular routine, isn’t about to tolerate Crawford for a second.
By multiple accounts, the role in People was one of Peck’s personal favorites — a reunion with screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (here making his directorial debut) a few years after the latter’s scripting of 1950’s The Gunfighter. That one and Twelve O’Clock High contain my two favorite Peck performances, and the character he plays here has something with common with his hard-ass general from the latter film — albeit with notably softer edges (at times), some sexual history plus a sense of humor. Somewhat unexpectedly, Buddy Ebsen (as a sidekick sergeant) makes an excellent comic-relief foil for Peck — though Ebsen’s legacy is more formidable that one might think when you combine his “buddy” role in Disney’s Davy Crockett, successful leads in TV long-runners “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Barnaby Jones” plus that wonderful cameo in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Just think what his baby-boomer standing would be had he also been able to complete his original casting as the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz — which isn’t to deny that Jack Haley remains my favorite of the completed film’s performers.)
Because we’re dealing here with Russians and Germans, old wartime tensions (which really weren’t that much in the past at the time) play a part in a web-like universe where double agents are often not what they seem and sometimes don’t even represent their presumed country of origin. Thus, the movie brandishes an extremely complicated morality for its time. Somewhat frankly (again, for the day), Peck has been involved with a slippery informant played by Anita Bjork, who gives off a fishy smell (to us, if not necessarily to him), though one tough to pinpoint with exactitude. Bjork, by the way, is the Swedish actress who’d scored in director Alf Sjoberg’s onetime art house staple of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie before showing up at Warner Bros. (with lover and out-of-wedlock child) to play the female lead in Hitchcock’s I Confess. Having just witnessed the Ingrid Bergman scandal that kept her off Hollywood screens for seven years, an aghast Jack Warner would have probably been happy even to replace her with Cass Daley, though it was Anne Baxter who got the call.
Director Johnson was a former newspaper reporter who never developed much visual style in his brief directorial career, though a lot of his scripts were welcomely grown-up (think The Grapes of Wrath), and he did direct the young Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve to her 1957 Oscar. Even so, the location exteriors here are fun to see, and People came early enough in ’54 to qualify as one of the first CinemaScope movies back when 20th Century-Fox was still employing Technicolor. Better yet, this rendering is in the original, full 2.55:1 when even the picture’s previous Region 2 DVD import didn’t go all the way with the full aspect ratio width.
This is no small deal because incredibly — assuming you’ve never read all the Internet chat-roomers who’ve been perpetually chapped from shelling out for most of the widescreen “Fox Archives” releases — the domestic DVD of Night People is panned-and-scanned. But at least we have Blu-ray to save studio’s home-market movie division from itself.