ONE MIGHT LOOK for the effects of ten years’ time—the era-straddling span between Jacques Tourneur’s noirs Out of the Past (1947) and Nightfall (1957)—in the voice of Aldo Ray. Playing, in the later film, a war vet who’s pursued by bank robbers, the bull-necked actor speaks with a baggy hoarseness, as if his character, Jim Vanning, has spent too many nights drinking and too many days keeping still till the shadows fall and give relief. Vanning looks a little worn out, but not glamorously so, and his savoir faire is that of the underdog who is called upon to hold his own rather than Robert Mitchum’s cool. Even his would-be femme fatale, Marie, who asks the underemployed illustrator (“Soup cans or sunsets?”) for a five-spot in a bar, turns out working-girl ordinary, played with something between understatement and resignation by a young Anne Bancroft.
Vanning’s nightmare begins, as explained in flashback, with an exploded 1950s idyll in the countryside: Hunting buddies (Jim and a doctor friend) investigate a crashed car only to find two fugitives who want no witnesses. “I can’t believe this is happening,” the shell-shocked doctor says. (Later, Marie: “Things that really happen are always difficult to explain.”) The cheerful brutality of one thug (Rudy Bond) is as unsettling as the likability of the other (later TV star Brian Keith).
The chase continues into the movie’s present, Jim and Marie teaming up, with efficient filmmaking that reflects ex-editor Tourneur’s talent for editing with the camera. Tourneur’s director of photography, Burnett Guffey, who shot In a Lonely Place, expresses Jim’s open-air paranoia at an oil derrick, an outdoor fashion show, and a cabin (in a scene whose sounds, snow, and sadism are cribbed in Fargo’s wood chipper climax). Select, fearful point-of-view shots help make a noir that’s not did-they-do-it or would-you-do-it but—streamlining David Goodis’s 1947 source novel—a question of can-they-make-it.