movie review: Nightfall (1956)

What did you watch: the 1956 crime redemption film Nightfall

Oh, this is about how Batman got beat up by Bane? What? No.

Nightfall is an odd but fun crime movie starring Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. Aldo is Jim, a commercial artist who tries to not draw attention to himself. A stranger on the street tries to start up friendly conversation with him so Jim ducks into a bar where he’s then accosted by Marie (Bancroft), a model. Who doesn’t want to have dinner with a model? Even if you might be on the run for a murder and robbery you didn’t commit, but c’mon guys, you gotta risk it to spend time with the ladies.

With some exposition from the stranger, who turns out to be an insurance investigator, and some flashbacks from Jim, we find out he’s wanted for the murder of his best friend, the result of an unlikely meeting with two oafish but violent bank robbers (John & Red) in the middle of nowhere, while Jim and his bestie were out hunting. Jim and his pal witness a car accident and go to help, and discover two armed men who force them to take the two friends back to their camp. They taunt the two, making their plans to have Jim as their fall guy and then killing Jim’s friend with Jim’s hunting rifle. Jim makes off with the stolen money and disappears into the vast snowy fields of Wyoming, eventually hiding the money.

Because he previously had an affair with his best friend’s wife, and the bank robbers having shot his friend with his own rifle, it looks like Jim had killed his bestie and the motive was the affair. It also happens that John & Red had also tracked down Jim, having used Marie as bait at the bar to distract him and lead him their way. Jim has to escape again, but also rescue Marie from the criminals as now she could tie them to Jim in the future.

There’s a lot of moving parts for a simple frame up crime caper, mostly because this story is told out of order thanks to Jim’s flashbacks to the murder in Wyoming. The stranger’s narrative of his attempts to find Jim also provides a lot of detail about how such a seemingly nice guy (albeit in a brooding intimidating way, I guess) like Jim could just murder his best friend over a woman who also wasn’t in love with her husband to begin with. As Jim comes clean to Marie, it’s even strangers that she agrees to accompany him to the middle of nowhere in Wyoming to find the money to give it to authorities and explain his side of the story with the added twist of meeting John & Red in the middle of nowhere.

I’m trying my best to describe the plot as simply as possible with no spoilers, but it’s difficult because of the way the flashbacks are inserted. The first appears when Jim is threatened by John & Red, the next are when he’s describing to Marie what happened in Wyoming. Does he at some point backtrack to the first flashback, “oh, I forgot this earlier part that I was thinking about as John & Red were beating me up, you weren’t there. So, what happened was” or do we infer that she understands this part of the story?

That’s not really a big deal compared to other questions like “how did John & Red know that Jim would end up in that bar?” “Why didn’t the stranger call for backup as he tracks Jim to Wyoming, if he’s factoring in the robbery that happened in the area?” “why does Jim take Marie with him to the middle of nowhere?” Maybe it was because it was a spur of the moment, he had no chance to drop her off to the cops or somewhere safe as John & Red were closing in on him. But why agree to run away with him to begin with? If you’re a busy model you don’t just hang out at bars where violent oafs pay you to sit and wait for another oaf to walk in and buy you a drink. I know this because I’m a big oaf and no one wants me to buy them a drink.

I kid, movie. I kid. The bad guys chew the scenery because that’s some scenery! This is one pretty movie to look at, with the juxtaposition of this beautiful land where Jim and Marie can escape to and maybe build a life if they’re falling in love, if the ugly evilness of John & Red’s crimes wasn’t lying in wait for them to track down Jim first.

There’s a standoff, there’s a horrific murder trap planned, there’s an awkward fist fight as Jim and the bank robbers fight over Jim’s new friends’ lives while an errant snow plow makes it way to them. Maybe the flashbacks that bring you up to speed on Jim’s plight helps cover up the conveniences and contrivances of the plot, but the forest defeats the trees in this case, and this ends up being a pretty good thriller.

A lot of that has to do with John & Red, played by Brian Keith and Rudy Bond respectively. Even with John being the level headed planner to Red’s gleeful sadism, they’re both a danger to everyone, even to someone with a badge. Maybe the plot didn’t need them to turn on each other, but the movie didn’t have a lot of other characters to confront or separate them to drive the other into a desperate fight with Jim for the last man standing. I’m just theorizing the whys for certain plot points. It’s not a great story, it could be a confusing one, but the movie is solid enough despite the room you get to think about the hows and whys it asks you to overlook. Recommended!

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