‘The Long Night’ starring Henry Fonda

The Long Night, directed by Anatole Litvak and released by RKO in 1947, is a remake of Marcel Carne’s French poetic realist film Le jour se leve. It stars Henry Fonda as Joe, the role Jean Gabin played in the original. Fonda is no Gabin, and the film loses much of its dramatic weight thanks to Hollywood conventions thrown in throughout.

At the beginning of the film, Joe (Fonda) kills Maximilian (Vincent Price) and refuses to let anyone in his room, even the police. The film then travels inside Joe’s mind to explain how he got to this point. It is revealed that he is a “cockeyed optimist” about life and love. He meets Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), who seems to confirm his positive outlook. But when he follows her to a bar, he meets Maximilian and his cynical assistant, Charlene (Ann Dvorak). And when he realizes that Maximilian has a twisted relationship with Jo Ann, it throws his complete world view askew. We learn how an optimist can become a murderer.

The Long Night is really good during its first part, when Litvak does his best at imitating Carne’s style. But, as previously noted, the film starts to fall back on Hollywood cliches at the end, gutting the original story of its power. Henry Fonda is the star, so he can’t die, but he’s also a criminal, so he must pay for his crime. In the French original, Gabin’s plight is so desperate that there is no way he can make it out alive. But the moment it appears that John Wexley’s screenplay is going in the complete opposite direction, The Long Night loses its opportunity to be great.

Of all the performances in the film, Barbara Bel Geddes is the stand-out. While she wasn’t able to establish herself as a leading lady (her most famous role is James Stewart’s long-suffering friend in Vertigo), she shows promise here. She would go on to an Oscar-nominated role in I Remember Mama the following year (and Dallas, of course).

Le jour se leve is a much better film, so you need to see that first. Unfortunately, both Le jour se leve and The Long Night are out of print on DVD. Le jour se leve was released in Criterion’s Essential Art House series, but that’s only available on the secondary market. The Long Night was included in a Kino box set that is now OOP.

The Long Night aired on TCM on Jan. 1.

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