Like Edgar G. Ulmer or Roger Corman, Joseph H. Lewis is the kind of director devoted cinephiles like to discover. Routinely saddled with shoestring budgets and week-long schedules, these Poverty Row auteurs dealt with their slapdash screenplays and inept casts by focusing on visual ingenuity—so much so in Lewis’ case, in fact, that the filmmaker was sarcastically nicknamed “Wagon-Wheel Joe” for his habit of augmenting compositions by framing scenes through foregrounded objects (not just wagon wheels, but also ceiling fans, lattice fences, and fireplaces). In many of his early films, the ambition of Lewis’ camerawork lies in stark contrast to his disinterest in their stories and performances: Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942), for instance, limps along shoddily until its climactic courtroom scene suddenly unfurls in one unbroken, mobile take, like a rough-draft for Hitchcock’s experiments in Rope. But when he did connect to the material, as in Gun Crazy or The Big Combo, the result was not just flourishes in a vacuum but an intricate style fascinatingly attuned to the characters’ anxieties and perversities.
Released in 1946, So Dark the Night follows My Name Is Julia Ross, the sleeper hit that became Lewis’ breakout film. As in the earlier picture, it’s a canny studio evocation of darkening European façades, kicking off in sun-dappled Paris rather than rain-swept London. Described (half admiringly, half concernedly) by his superior as “the most relentless machine I’ve ever known,” Henri Cassin (Steven Geray) is a diligent police detective on a much-needed holiday. When he arrives at a countryside village, the first impression belongs not to him but to local lass Nanette (Micheline Cheirel). Eagerly peeking from behind sheets on clotheslines, she looks right past the middle-aged visitor to his big-city car, giving rise to a quick montage of glossy auto parts from door handles to hubcaps. (A shot of Henri beaming at the young belle with lustful curiosity suggests that a different montage — one that the censors would have very much objected to — is running through his mind.)
Henri’s unlikely romance with Nanette is encouraged by her mother (Ann Codee) — who pushes her ambitious daughter to “make the most of it” — but disputed by her father (Eugene Borden), who prefers her to stick to her fiancé Leon (Paul Marion). After the engagement festivities are interrupted, Nanette and Leon run away together and Henri slips into a depression only broken by even more shocking news: the couple is found dead. Up to then a leisurely May-December drama, So Dark the Night snaps into tense whodunit mode, following the dogged protagonist as he searches for clues and receives anonymous letters promising more deaths still to come. The bright style of the early sequences modulates toward murky lighting, and long shadows start creeping into the frame; the edge of the river that had previously set the scene for a romantic encounter now reveals a strangled corpse. Sinister duality spreads. In a key sequence, the camera tilts upwards from the reflections in the muddy water to the detective leaning against a bridge railing, framed against the cloudy night sky while chatting with a doctor about a past “illness.”
So Dark the Night has some of the problems that mar the director’s weaker efforts. The French atmosphere is stock, and the cast is almost uniformly bland. (One amusing bit of trivia: The village hunchback is played by none other than German-born, avant-garde comic Brother Theodore, last seen giving Tom Hanks the stink eye in Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs.) Yet the film represents a remarkable leap in stylistic confidence for Lewis, a thriller in which the mystery is pieced together via an accumulation of evocative details that gradually come to embody what a character calls “the imposition of a disordered brain.” Fluidly maneuvering his camera through his ragged set—little more than a bombed-out Columbia back lot—Lewis and cinematographer Burnett Guffey endow the images with the loaded sense of menace seen in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s portraits of Gallic nastiness (Le Corbeau, Quai des Orfevres, Manon). When Nanette’s mother is found dead, all that’s shown is a lifeless hand framed between a dripping faucet in the screen’s foreground and a steaming teapot in the deep-focus back.
Above all, there’s the motif of windows. From the half-circular glass at the Paris police station to the multi-pane rectangle at the rural tavern, windows constantly figure here as suggestive frames within frames which grow more baroque as the film goes on and a manhunt transforms into a subjective dive into a disturbed psyche. Characters gaze at each other through these windows and, more alarmingly, at their own reflections, leading to a vision of submerged selves exposed in the literally shattering climax. “Murders depend on the element of surprise,” says Henri, and in So Dark the Night Lewis’ rich visual texture—no longer mere decorative surfaces, but an expressionistically piercing eye—startles more than the ultimate outcome of the plot’s investigation.