Night People
Kino // Unrated // $29.95 // July 25, 2017
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 7, 2017
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Graphical Version
The earliest features shot in CinemaScope were typically big, showy affairs, biblical, historical, and adventure epics intended to show off the new widescreen process, many offering spectacle at the expense of all else. An interesting exception to this is the inaptly titled Night People (1954)*, a Cold War thriller starring Gregory Peck. For years it was a difficult movie to see at all; when it finally turned up on DVD as a Fox Cinema Archives release, an unbearable panned-and-scanned master was utilized.

But that's rectified now with Kino's excellent Blu-ray. Directed, produced, and co-written by Nunnally Johnson, Night People is eccentric and unpredictable, slightly off-kilter in intriguing ways. Atypically, Peck plays a cynical, almost cruel character, while the movie is peppered throughout with odd but effective moments of humor. The story seems to be heading in one direction, but then turns off in another with more depth than one might have expected. It was Johnson's first film as director, and his staging of scenes is on the clunky side, though not too different from visual learning curve of many filmmakers working in the new format. He uses the frame unimaginatively, with few close-ups, quite a contrast to, say, Samuel Fuller's work in Hell and High Water that same year.

The movie opens with an unusually long pre-credits sequence. In present-day West Berlin, shortly after kissing his German girlfriend (Marianne Koch, of Fistful of Dollars) goodnight, American Army Cpl. Johnny Leatherby (Ted) is kidnapped by Soviet agents, presumably whisked away to somewhere in East Berlin.

Influential millionaire industrialist Charles Leatherby (Broderick Crawford), the boy's father, outraged by the seeming lack of progress in getting his son back alive, flies to Berlin to take charge of the investigation. Used to having his way, soon after being met by State Department representative Hobart (Max Showalter), in front of the international press there he recklessly presses for a meeting with Russian agents to buy them off.

Coarse, impatient Leatherby is finally introduced to the provost marshal assigned to the case, Lt. Col. Steve Van Dyke (Gregory Peck). In a marvelous scene, Leatherby blunders in Trump-like in while Peck lazily gargles, puts on his shoes, etc., before mercilessly berating Leatherby for his arrogant, counter-productive actions.

In fact Van Dyke has been working with an East Berlin contact, "Hoffy" Hoffmeir (Anita Björk), with whom he's had an on-again, off-again romance. She tells him the Russians are willing to exchange young Leatherby for two seemingly innocuous Germans, elderly pianist Frau Schindler (Jill Esmond) and her blind husband (Anton Färber).

Night People works in mysterious ways. Crawford's Leatherby starts out as a single-minded jerk determined take whatever steps may be needed to secure his son's release. But when Van Dyke from afar introduces him to the harmless elderly couple, victims of the Nazis, he begins to realize just how foolish he's been. It lacks the moral complexity of Kurosawa's High and Low (1963), but it's interesting to see it play out, with Van Dyke almost sadistically forcing Leatherby to confront the price that might have to be paid for the return of a single foot soldier. Johnson's script also has Van Dyke questioning whether Americans should be trading human lives with an enemy at all, especially considering they won't officially acknowledge the international laws they're violating. Peck's Van Dyke is morally conflicted as well, and an unusually fallible hero whose own foolish behavior gets an entire family killed.

Though Night People was shot in West Germany, including interiors filmed at studios in Munich, and thus touting some impressive, fascinating location work (including some of the same places seen later in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three), at times it's almost like a filmed stage play. Nearly the entire last third takes place in utilitarian army hospital corridors and sparsely furnished rooms. A subplot involving Peck's East Berlin counterpart, which plays an important role in the story later on, is alluded to but never shown. The short running time for such an important A-picture and a few awkward, confusing scenes hint at a longer film cut prior to release. One scene has Van Dyke and his men playing poker apparently in the apartment of Van Dyke's assistant, Ricky (Rita Gam), who lounges on a bed in the next room. Why are they there? Is Ricky a former or current lover of one of the men? No explanation is offered.

Unobtrusive little bits of humor aid the picture. Buddy Ebsen, playing Van Dyke's Master Sergeant aide, rushes around the hospital following Van Dyke's orders, constantly stopping to check the ballgame playing on a radio in a break room. An army doctor (Walter Abel) confident that he's quit smoking bums cigarettes from everyone, often at awkward moments. Such bits could have been painfully unfunny, but Ebsen and Abel nicely underplay these moments, which come off as genuinely amusing.

Video & Audio

Filmed in CinemaScope (and presented here with an aspect ratio of about 2.50:1), Night People looks quite good, despite some blurry dissolves and obvious distortion at the extreme edges of the frame. This is billed as a new 4K restoration, and while not perfect, maximizes what was still an imperfect process at this point. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is good mainly when the film's score is channeled to front and back speakers. Compared to other early CinemaScope releases, the directionality of the audio is rather limited. English subtitles are included on this region "A" disc.

Extra Features

There's an early pre-release trailer, but the real draw is a short (under nine minutes) featurette with Peck's three adult children remembering their father's particular style of film acting, with comments specific to Night People.

Parting Thoughts

A good, eccentric thriller, Night People is Recommended.

* An even less appropriately descriptive one, "The Cannibals," was favored early in production.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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