“Don’t ask me how but the more you hear the less you know.”
There’s a certain mood to most eras of film making. And the 40s might be the most foreboding, the most cynical and the most impressive. There’s a darkness, literally and thematically that seems to hold that decade together. Noir may have been the standout, but there’s more to this literal and tonal darkness than trench coats, deceitful dames and the gumshoes who fall for them against their better judgment. And it’s on display at its best in The Long Night.
Opening on a murder in a tenement building, gun shots are heard before a man falls dead, through the door of a top floor apartment. The gunman (Henry Fonda as Joe) makes no effort to conceal his involvement. Instead, he decides to bunker down in the apartment as more and more police arrive, attempting to flush him out. The story then plays out, flashing back and forth between the titular long night of the apartment siege, and the events that lead up to it.
Those events start with Joe meeting Jo Ann (Barbara Bell Geddes) when she delivers flowers to the factory where he works. They bond over their shared origins in the local orphanage, are both immediately smitten, and a 1947 style courtship ensues. Almost immediately, Joe’s thinking marriage while Jo Ann has a slightly more level head. One night, Joe meets an old friend and showgirl, Carlene (Ann Dvorak). She’s mixed up in something with sleazy nightclub entertainer, Maximilian the Great (the perfectly sleazy and creepy Vincent Price), who might also have a connection to Jo Ann. From the instant Maximilian is introduced, it’s clear he’ll play a major role in what leads to Joe’s opening scene shoot out.
Through movies like The Grapes of Wrath and even in his supporting role in Jesse James, Fonda perfected his take on the brooding, conflicted and tragic martyr. Even without the gimmick of the flash back / flash forward structure, and the opening shoot out, there’s something in Fonda’s eyes and delivery that you know instantly that the character of Joe is more than likely doomed. And even if he does make it through, you know it won’t be unscathed.
Apart from the intrigue created by the opening scene shooting, the structure is basically just a speedbump every time the movie gets any real momentum. Add to that Jo Anne telling Joe a story at one stage that is essentially a flash back within a flashback, and the clunkiness of The Long Night almost runs it off the rails. Luckily, the performances, especially from Price and Fonda, more than make up for the awkward structure. They both really are that good.
I can’t say that very much about The Long Night surprised me. And even though it’s framed as a mystery, that lack of big twist or reveal never did anything to make me enjoy it less. The mystery isn’t there to keep the audience guessing and second guessing everything these characters say. The mystery is there to put the Joe character through the wringer so we can watch him disintegrate and fight his futile fight. And while that might sound depressing, The Long Night is never anything less than immensely entertaining.