Saturday, 17 September 2022

Movie Review: Night People (1954)

A Cold War front-line drama, Night People delves into spy and counterspy tensions. The dialogue-dominated plot veers from suitably complex to plain silly.

In the post-war divided city of Berlin, American soldier John Leatherby (Ted Avery) is kidnapped by Soviet agents. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Van Dyke (Gregory Peck) is in charge of negotiating his release, and learns through his well-connected East German source (and former lover) "Hoffy" Hoffmeir (Anita Bj√∂rk) that the Soviets want a swap. Meanwhile, the kidnapped soldier's father Charles Leatherby (Broderick Crawford), a well-connected businessman, arrives in Berlin demanding action.

The Soviets want to trade Leartherby for the elderly Schindlers, a husband-and-wife couple. Frau Schindler (Jill Esmond) is now a nightclub piano player, and her blind husband was a German officer during the war. They are both sure to face torture or death if handed to the Soviets. Van Dyke grapples with the morality of handing two German citizens to the Soviets to free an American soldier, and his task gets more complex when more deceptions come to light.

Despite being mostly set in nondescript governmental offices and hospital rooms, Night People is wastefully filmed in CinemaScope. The technology is a mismatch with the subject matter: the needless widescreen expanse punctures what should have been the drama's intensity. 

Nevertheless, producer, director and writer Nunnally Johnson just about rescues decent entertainment from the imagery's far-flung corners. The intrigue surrounding the missing soldier and the echoes of the Second World War still resonating around Berlin provide a good foundation for a spy drama. Gregory Peck is reliably stoic and self-confident as the man entrusted with rescuing a messy situation, and Broderick Crawford adds the bluster of a father pushing for simplistic solutions. The cast is rounded out by Rita Gam as Van Dyke's capable assistant, along with support roles for Walter Abel, Buddy Ebsen and Peter van Eyck.

But Johnson is happy to talk rather than walk his way through the complexities of the Cold War, and too many critical events take place off screen. The film entirely ignores events happening in East Berlin, robbing the plot of counterpoints. Plenty of words are used to describe one of Van Dyke's key Soviet contacts being compromised, and many more words are used to try and describe the Schindlers' backstory. Actually showing these events would have resulted in a richer experience.

The details of the third act are best left unscrutinized. Van Dyke's resolution can only result in an escalation of subsequent enemy action, and why the Soviets didn't just kidnap the Schindlers instead of bargaining for them remains a mystery. Night People posits a good scope, but at the wrong scale.



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