Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall would make for a great B movie in a double feature with Joseph Losey’s The Prowler as the A picture. Both films undermine the lulling siren call of post-war domestic tranquility by treating the urge to get ahead at all costs as a festering canker in the midst of so much all-American abundance. Tourneur’s film should be the backup feature in any hypothetical double bill because while there’s a lot of dense subtext behind its rote but exceptionally realized stock noir plot, it’s too polite in outing burly anti-hero James Vanning (the sufficiently beefy Aldo Ray) for his fundamentally amoral motives. Vanning is a white-hat-wearing good guy running for what looks to be his life but is really only his own greed.
When push comes to shove and the exceptionally brutal black hats come to get him, Vanning only has himself to blame for the maelstrom of violence that follows and prevents him from settling down and marrying the woman he falls in love with at first sight. The American dream he fantasizes about is impossible as things stand, and as such is never even fantasized about because Vanning’s past actions just won’t go away until he’s admitted that he did something wrong in the first place. Too bad Vanning’s admission of guilt is as damning as a tender pat on the wrist.
Vanning is a blond-haired, baby-faced Navy vet camping out in the shadow of a pristine, snow-blanketed range of mountains in Wyoming that one character describes as the “Alps of America.” Amid this Rockwellian landscape, Vanning’s troubles inconceivably begin after he does a couple of a strangers a good turn by running over to help them after their car tumbles off a nearby country road.
At first, the crash looks like a perverse act of divine intervention for Vanning, as he’s just about to tell his camping companion Edward “Doc” Gurston (Frank Albertson) about the unsavory moves the good doctor’s wife has been putting on Vanning behind her spouse’s back. Vanning doesn’t have to wait long until he trades a relatively insubstantial burden on his consciousness for a boulder-sized one. Shortly after Doc and Vanning reach the car, the pair discover that its passengers, the leering, bloodthirsty Red (Rudy Bond) and relatively taciturn but no less ruthless John (Brian Keith), are armed bank robbers on the lam after a recent heist. It’s just plain bad luck that Vanning should try to play the Good Samaritan with these hoods, but it’s a bad setup whose consequences he’ll have to live with for the rest of the film.
Nightfall‘s central plot takes place years after this altercation. Vanning is now trying to pass himself off as Art Rayburn, a new face in town with seemingly no ulterior motive save for a desire to meet a nice girl and forget his looming troubles. He’s essentially a passive hero, as he never really has control over his actions, which are ultimately dictated by his need to escape his past. Still, even after Red and John come back for the loot they’re now convinced he stole from them, Vanning’s got everything going for him, even if he doesn’t know it.
Shortly after popping into a nondescript bar, Marie (Anne Bancroft), a fashion model and the girl of his dreams, almost flies into his lap and makes an instant connection with Vanning’s everyman with a faraway Byronic gaze shtick. Even Ben Fraser (James Gregory), an insurance investigator we’re almost immediately introduced to as the first of two interested parties that’s tailing Vanning, is cordial in his first encounter and even all of his subsequent encounters with Vanning. As Fraser tells his obedient homebody of a wife, Laura (Jocelyn Brando), he’s come to identify and even relate to Vanning after having tailed him for so long. Vanning’s got a gorgeous woman, one that falls in love with him in the blink of an eye and a guardian angel on his side. He may be in trouble but only for so long.
The stakes in Nightfall are subsequently rather low, even if it’s never completely certain whether or not Fraser fully understands what’s going on or even is totally sympathetic to Vanning’s plight. Still, based solely on his soft-spoken interactions with Marie and the fact that Fraser does vouch for him, Vanning’s image as a hero is too sterling to be completely torn down, even by the revelation that he has in fact taken Red and John’s money, and though he has considered giving it back to the police as evidence, he’s simply never acted on that impulse. Vanning only admits his culpability to himself when the two bank robbers confront him face-to-face with the money in hand. Though Vanning professes early on in the film that he’s not guilty of any malfeasance when John threatens to let Red break his legs, he admits in a later flashback that he never handed over the loot because he thought his story would be thought too preposterous and didn’t want to take the rap for Red and John’s crimes. A nice cover story unless you consider its flimsy logic and realize that there were witness to John and Red’s supposedly victimless crime and that Vanning took the time to hide the cash he stole in a secluded cabin just near Wyoming’s own pseudo-Alps. He’s no angel, just a nervous opportunist.
Ultimately, Fraser takes Vanning’s side and he gets away scot-free in an ending that completely shirks the mounting tension of the increasingly soupy ethical morass that surrounds Vanning as the film meanders toward an inevitable final confrontation. Nightfall‘s tepid ending lets Vanning of the hook much too easily because everything in the film leading up to its denouement hinges on his realization that there was something more to his roadside encounter with Red and John than he remembers, something that implicates him for his inability to follow through on his good intentions and go to the police with the stolen money when he had the chance. As it is, he gets to have everything that, according the film’s prevailing logic, he doesn’t deserve, making his need to review his actions just another striking variation on a theme that Tourneur considered with more depth and grit in his 1947 noir masterpiece Out of the Past. In spite of that tantalizing potential, Nightfall will always just be a promising B picture.