Review of “Fear in the Night” (1947) by Wes Sterling

The below article was written by Wes Sterling, one of our devoted readers, as his entry in A Midsummer Dream Blogathon. Since he has no website, we are proudly publishing it here.

I have been enjoying Code films from the Breen era (1934-1954) for several years now, but only until recently have I begun exploring more in the genre of Film Noir.  So, when PEPS announced their blogathon for films about dreams and dream sequences, I thought this would be a good opportunity to do my first review of a Film Noir that I recently watched called “Fear in the Night” from 1947.

Before I begin reviewing the film, let me give a quick personal definition of what Film Noir is in case anyone is not familiar with the term.  Basically, it is a genre of crime dramas mostly from the 1930s-1950s that is characterized by an artistic use of black and white photography, a common man antihero who gets caught up in a crime (usually a murder), and often includes a duplicitous femme fatale causing emotional conflict with the main character. They are also often very pessimistic and without a happy ending.

While “Fear in the Night” does not have all of those characterizations, it is certainly Film Noir.  It stars DeForest Kelley in his screen debut as Vince Grayson, the main character, Kay Scott as his girlfriend Betty Winters, Paul Kelly as Detective Cliff Herlihy, and Ann Doran as Cliff’s wife and Vince’s sister, Lil.  It was directed by Maxwell Shane, who also wrote the screenplay, and was produced by William Pine and William Thomas.  It was based on the book, “Nightmare” (a.k.a. “And So to Death”) by Cornell Woolrich and was distributed by Paramount.

The Plot:

The film opens with Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) having a nightmare where, during a struggle, he stabs a man in a mirrored room and locks the body in a closet.  He wakes up and is shocked to discover thumbprints on his throat and blood on his hand, as well as a button and door key in his pocket, all of which he received in the dream.  He is beside himself and calls in sick to the bank in which he works as a teller.  His coworker and girlfriend, Betty (Kay Scott) is concerned about him and tries to call but there is no answer.  Vince has left his hotel apartment to visit his brother-in-law, Cliff (Paul Kelly) and sister, Lil (Ann Doran).  Cliff is a detective and Vince tells him about his dream and shows him the strange key in his pocket.  Cliff dismisses it as Vince being overworked and in need of rest and that Vince must have acquired the key sometime in the past and forgotten about it.

To help Vince relax, Cliff and Lil take him and Betty on a picnic where they get caught in a rainstorm.  The wipers on Cliff’s car malfunction, so they try to seek shelter in a vacant home that Vince is certain exists in the vicinity, even though he does not know why he knows about it.  They arrive to find the house vacant, but Vince is certain he knows that a spare key exists outside, by which they let themselves in.  Vince soon discovers that the upstairs bedroom is the very mirrored room in his dream, and the key in his pocket indeed fits the closet door where he locked the body in.  He and Cliff discover no body there but do find blood on the lower wall in the closet.  Cliff believes that Vince has made up the story of a dream and tried to use his relationship with Cliff and Lil to get sympathy after committing murder.

While in the house and in the midst of an argument, Cliff and Vince are interrupted by Deputy Torrance (Jeff York) who has been keeping an eye on the house since it has been vacant.  When Torrance discovers who Cliff is, he proceeds to tell them that the house was owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Belknap and that a double murder had happened in the house a few days prior.  One man was killed upstairs and Mrs. Belknap was run over by a car in the driveway.  At first Vince is relieved that he couldn’t be the killer because he doesn’t know how to drive, but he soon recognizes the two victims in pictures that are shown them as being from his dream.  He is so convinced of his guilt, even though he has no memory of committing the murders, that he attempts suicide but is rescued by Cliff.  He decides to stay with Vince overnight and keep an eye on him and make sure he does not make another attempt.

At this point, I need to give a spoiler warning.  As Cliff and Vince talk into the night, it is revealed that Vince had a visit from his neighbor down the hall the same night of his dream saying that the light in his apartment went out and was checking to see if Vince’s had or not.  We come to find out that this man was actually Mr. Belknap who owned the house where the murders took place and was a professional hypnotist.  He had hypnotized Vince.  The killing in the mirrored room was done under Belknap’s hypnotic influence and in self-defense while Belknap himself killed his wife in the driveway with his car.  Cliff then has Vince go back to the house and confront Belknap, recording their conversation in hopes of getting evidence against Belknap.  During the confrontation, Belknap hypnotizes Vince again and tries to get him to drown himself in a nearby swamp.  Cliff and the police are hot on their trail though and he rescues Vince while Belknap is killed in a car accident trying to get away.

My Thoughts:

The premise of the story is intriguing:  A man wakes up from a dream and all the evidence shows that his dream actually happened in real life.  I enjoyed how the director, Maxwell Shane, brings the audience alongside Vince and reveals things to us as they are revealed to him.   We form a good relationship with him as the audience, but I think he and all the characters are a little underdeveloped.  It would have been nice to meet them all before Vince’s dream and what their personalities and relationships were like so we could see a sharper contrast after his dream when things get strained between them.

Having said that though, all the performances were carried out very well.  DeForest Kelley does a great job as Vince.  It is a little unusual for someone’s film debut to be a lead role, but he carries the film quite well.  Of course, Kelley is mostly known as Dr. Leonard (“Bones”) McCoy in the original Star Trek series.  This film is from 1947, so it is 19 years before Star Trek first aired in 1966 and he is quite a bit younger here; about 26 or 27. 

Paul Kelly, likewise, gives a fantastic performance as Cliff.  Kelly had been in over 90 films in his career, but this is the only one I have seen.  He has a commanding screen presence, and I am anxious to see more of his work.

Ann Doran and Kay Scott give very good performances as well for Lil and Betty, respectively.  I would have liked to have seen a larger role for their characters, though.  They get adequate screen time, but it would have been nice to have their characters developed a little more thoroughly so that we as the audience could connect with them more.  They mostly serve as supporting characters for Vince and Cliff.

Interestingly, this movie was filmed in just ten days and for a budget of around $200,000, which is cheap by filmmaking standards.  To compare, Casablanca (1942) had a production budget of just under $1 million.  It goes to show that good films need not have an enormous budget and great special effects in order to tell a good story.  In fact, when a film does not have a large budget and must rely on the quality of script and the skill of the actors, it can really showcase their talents in advancing the story.  And that is what we are really after when watching movies isn’t it?  A good story.  A story that takes us out of the daily routine of life with its trials an tribulations and puts us in another world or situation.  A story that introduces us to compelling characters that we can identify with and root for.  I think that’s one of the satisfying things about Film Noir; it does just that.  It puts us in the lives of compelling, but ordinary people and their extraordinary circumstances.

But as Film Noir goes, “Fear in the Night” is one of the lighter ones as it ends on an upbeat note.  While Vince must go to trial, we are confident that he will be acquitted, and that he and Betty will soon be married and begin a new life together.  Some may find the plot a bit far-fetched, but the story still plays out well by its talented cast.  While it is not generally regarded as one of the best of Noir movies, I certainly recommend it. 

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