Nightfall was David Goodis’ metier. It was his primary compositional material, his inspiration, his preferred period to work. Of all the noir writers of the classic period, he was perhaps the darkest; while his books didn’t feature the raw, violent edges or the grotesque details of Jim Thompson, no one could touch him for pure despair. Other noir artists may have outstripped the eccentric Philadelphian in terms of prose style, popularity, or even productivity (though his output in his prime was prodigious); but he alone seemed truly committed to the doomed fatalism which was the most sweeping characteristic of noir. His best work, which includes Cassidy’s Girl, Street of the Lost, the desperately grim Black Friday, the utterly bleak The Wounded and the Slain, Shoot the Piano Player, and the brutal Night Squad, combined an inescapable storytelling inertia with a palpable sense of universal hopelessness; the characters in these books, most of them impoverished, marginalized, or irreparably damaged in some way, are so driven by their own obsessions and so likely to crash into the rocks sown by others equally damaged, that they cannot seem to move an inch in any direction, and simply wait for the bad ending they know is coming.
Nightfall is also the name of one of his earliest novels, and a 1957 film based on it. Goodis had to make a living, and despite his myriad personal aberrations, he developed a reputation in the pulps as a quick, efficient worker capable of churning out massive quantities of material. This characteristic made him attractive to Hollywood, and he wrote a number of screenplays himself, including The Unfaithful, The Burglar, and Destination Unknown, as well as seeing his own books Dark Passage, Shoot the Piano Player, and Nightfall adapted for the big screen. Though all his works contain a through-line of darkness and resignation, his early works were more commercially oriented products; he could never have made a living off of the pervasive gloom off his later books. Such is Nightfall, a Columbia picture released just as crime dramas were beginning to curdle into their fractured final days.
Columbia put together a terrific crew to bring Nightfall to the screen. Director Jacques Tourneur had been hit and miss in his career, but no noir aficionado could ever forget he was responsible for the nearly perfect Out of the Past a decade before. Goodis had fled Hollywood and returned to living the low life in Philadelphia, and wasn’t willing or able to write the screenplay himself, but it was handed to Stirling Silliphant, who had similar sensibilities if not capabilities. And Tourneur brought in Burnett Guffey to lens the picture, an underrated cinematographer who had turned in terrific work in the genre with My Name is Julia Ross, Night Editor, In a Lonely Place, The Sniper, and many others. Nightfall‘s opening scene bears his hallmarks as well as Goodis’; filmed in the witching hours of the evening, filmed at low angles to make everything (including stone-faced leading man Aldo Ray) look outsized and menacing, and with neon lights of an urban jungle buzzing to life and illuminating Ray’s face — the face of a man who would clearly rather not be seen.
That’s because he’s a man on the run, from forces known and unknown. While hunting in north woods, Ray (as a beefcake commercial artist named Jim Vanning, whose occasional aggressiveness really bears down the resemblance between him and his son Eric DaRe, the nasty Leo Johnson of Twin Peaks) and a friend run afoul of two stranded campers (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond), who turn out to be escaped bank robbers sitting on a small fortune. They murder Ray’s pal and intend to do the same to him, but through a twist of fate, he not only escapes the criminals, but gets away with the stolen cash as well. That puts him firmly in the sights of not only the vengeful hoods, but insurance investigator Ben Fraser (played by gruff character actor James Gregory with his usual sneering, cynical panache), who doesn’t particularly care about the men but badly wants to get hold of the money. Stalked by all three, Ray ducks into an L.A. nightclub to hear some sounds and runs across the temporarily inconvenienced Marie Gardner (a slightly out-of-place Anne Bancroft), and they hit it off, giving him a reason to stop running.
No sooner do Ray and Bancroft meet cute than Keith and Bond get the drop on him and drag him out to a seaside oil rig to find out where he’s stashed the $350,000. The calculating Keith tries to be reasonable with him, but Ray insists he hasn’t got it; “That’s in the hearts and flowers department,” Keith hisses when he hears Ray’s explanation. He turns him over to Bond, who’s a grinning, giggling psychopath who’d just as soon write off the money for a chance to put Ray in the grave, but by another stroke of luck, Ray escapes again. The two hardcases have gotten hold of Bancroft’s address, so to protect her (after an initial and uncharacteristic bout of hostile banter), Ray packs her onto a Greyhound, and they set off for Montana, where the boodle is actually stashed away. From there on out, it’s a deadly race to see who finds the money first, and what they’re going to do with it.
Nightfall isn’t one of Goodis’ most pitch-black creations, but there are hints of the themes he would develop later on, particularly in Bond’s murderous nature, and in Ray’s paranoia and helplessness, the way he only ever seems to escape fate through sheer chance, and his essential passivity in the face of his ill fortune, where it’s only the flaws and prejudices of others that spare him from what seems to be coming next. The film itself inevitably suffers from comparison to Out of the Past, but what wouldn’t? Taken just on its own merits, though, it’s an excellent minor noir, with some striking urban and rural location shots (in a reversal of the normal noir scheme of things, the countryside is a symbol of peril and danger, while the neon-lit city streets at night promise some degree of safety and anonymity).
Its clever structure, with its well-timed flashbacks and aspect-to-aspect editing (a very skillful job by William A. Lyon), helps create a lot of tension, and for those who like to follow the genealogy of film images, there are a lot of soundings of Fargo here, from the suitcase full of cash lost in the snow to the criminals who double-cross one another just when they could finally get away clean. And Bancroft aside, it’s full of very compelling performances in every moral shade, including a touching cameo by Jocelyn Brando — Marlon’s big sister — as James Gregory’s supportive wife. Short and efficient (it’s not even an hour and a half long) and without the pure black soul of Goodis’ later work, but it’s still a sharp portrait of a man who reacts to inevitable bad circumstances with a mixture of acceptance and fear. “You don’t know what it’s like to live with your back against the wall,” Ray tells Bancroft; Nightfall, and many of Goodis’ other books, is all about teaching us what it’s like.