The set-up for 1956’s Nightfall: How’s this for a hard luck guy? Aldo Ray is camping in the Tetons with a buddy, when two bank robbers careen into a car accident, kill his buddy and frame poor Aldo. Aldo manages to escape, and, in the chaos, the crooks misplace their bag of loot which is soon obscured by an early Wyoming snowfall. Both Aldo and the robbers need to wait for the spring thaw to recover the treasure. In the mean time, Aldo – now in hiding from both the police and the outlaws – skips from town to town.
As the movie opens, we’re in a neon-lit LA night. Just as Ray meets a beautiful but broke model (Anne Bancroft), the bad guys appear with lethal intent. Brian Keith made for one coldblooded bank robber, and his partner (Rudy Bond with a machine gun laugh) is psychotically blood thirsty. Ray and Bancroft go on the run through LA, and then head for Wyoming to locate the money. Unknown to both the good guys and the bad guys, James Gregory (most well-remembered as Inspector Fran Kruger in TV’s Barney Miller) is also closing in on the loot on behalf of the bank’s insurer. It’s a crackerjack plot, adapted from a novel by David Goodis (Dark Passage, The Burglar). The final confrontation involves a death by snow plow.
The LA scenes are dark and shadowy, no surprise since Nightfall was directed by noir master Jacques Tournier (Out of the Past). Tournier evokes Hitchcock with a set piece when the killers hunt Ray and Bancroft at a poolside fashion show where Bancroft is on the runway. Bancroft bolts, and Ray has to pick her up because she can’t run in her long, clingy gown.
An important part of the appeal of Nightfall is the chemistry between Ray and Bancroft. Ray is a sympathetic Everyman, trying to make the best out of a hopeless circumstance. Bancroft was 31, ten years before her Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, and very believable as a stunning model down on her luck. Because of the Production Code of the time, these two spend a lot of time not having sex when it’s clear that they should be having sex. Bancroft purrs to Ray, “You’re the most wanted man I know”.
Nightfall is available on DVD from Netflix and occasionally plays on Turner Classic Movies.