March 11, 2012

"He's dead, Jim!": DeForest Kelley's Film Noir Debut

Fear in the Night (1947)

If you've followed this blog any, it probably comes as no surprise that I'm something of an oddball. I've had a soft spot for the underdog all my life. In a Curly kind of world, I'm a Shemp fan. My favorite character from the original Star Trek series is not the hard charging Captain Kirk or the aloof, logical Spock, but rather the skeptical, irascible Doc Leonard "Bones" McCoy. And of course, I love old B movies that manage to overcome all the odds against them -- low budgets, no name actors, tight shooting schedules -- and still entertain in surprising ways.

So imagine my delight when several years ago I discovered (courtesy of Alpha Video) an obscure little B movie gem that combined several of my favorite things: film noir, Deforest Kelley, and a screenplay inspired by the great Cornell Woolrich (for more on Woolrich, see my review of The Chase, 1946).  The only thing it lacked was a cameo appearance by Shemp Howard, but then, comic relief would have ruined the dark atmosphere of the film.

Fear in the Night is classic, textbook noir in its theme of an ordinary Joe (in this case Vince) suddenly being caught up in forces beyond his control, committing crimes in spite of himself, and then having every avenue of escape cut off by circumstances and the grim, relentless arm of the law. A dark feeling of dread slowly builds and then envelops the protagonist, keeping him in its grip almost to the very end. Where it parts company with classic noir is the absence of the deadly dame, the femme fatale who lures the unsuspecting man to his doom like a flame beckoning a moth. (Actually, a scheming female does figure into the story, but she appears in only in one short scene, has no lines, and is more backdrop than anything else.)

Fear opens with an hallucinogenic dream sequence as Vince Greyson (DeForest Kelley) describes in voice over suddenly finding himself in a strange mirrored room in a strange house, interrupting what looks like a burglary as he confronts a man and a woman breaking into a closet safe. He struggles with the man, and ends up stabbing him with an awl that he pulls out of the woman's hand. After the woman disappears, Vince hides the man's body in another closet.

The next morning, it all seems like a bad dream, until Vince discovers blood on his wrist and a button and mysterious key in his pocket. With doubt clawing at his mind, Vince takes his concerns to his brother-in-law and homicide detective Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly). Cliff at first dismisses Vince's concerns out of hand. Then, out on a family picnic designed to cheer up the morose Vince, a bad thunderstorm drives the group into the car. Not knowing the area well and with the windshield wipers out of commission, Cliff declares that they need to find a place to stop pronto. Almost in a trance, Vince directs Cliff to nearby country house, even though supposedly he's never been out that way before.

This hard-boiled dame makes a brief
appearance in the dream sequence.
There's no one home, but Vince also somehow knows where a key to the front door is hidden. As the women (Lil Herlihy played by Ann Doran and Vince's girl Betty, played by Kay Scott) dry themselves off, the men go exploring the house. Coincidence of coincidences, Vince seems to know his way around, and ends up with the now suspicious Cliff in the mysterious mirrored room of his nightmare. There is a hole in a closet safe, as if someone were trying to blowtorch it open, and there's dried blood in another closet, the one where Vince stuffed the body in his "dream…" With the evidence mounting against Vince, Cliff believes he's been conned, and launches into this brother-in-law with some of the most colorful, hard-boiled language to ever grace a B crime drama (see the clip below):
"If you weren't Lil's brother, I'd push your lyin' face out through the back of your head!"
It's a good thing that Vince is Cliff's brother-in-law, because the detective delays throwing his posterior in jail just long enough to start sorting out what really happened. When Vince attempts suicide back at his hotel apartment, Cliff backs off and begins to believe that the quivering man just might be telling the truth after all. (This bit of logic didn't quite work for me-- wouldn't a hard-bitten cop be just as likely to see a suicide attempt as an admission of guilt?) Upon further questioning, Vince recalls the unusual behavior of a neighbor shortly before the "nightmare" happened. An older man, a neighbor, had knocked on Vince's door, claiming that the power in his adjoining apartment was out. He had a candle in his hand, and was waving it slowly in front of Vince's eyes, speaking slowly and strangely…

Uh-oh! Vince seems to be slipping into another trance!
Fear in the Night packs a lot of noirish punch. Its 72 minutes fly by with disturbing nightmares, ghostly faces floating in and out of the protagonist's tortured mind, dream houses, strange mirrored rooms, rough language, suicide attempts, and malicious hypnotic suggestions. With a small cast, the film is carried by the two male leads. This was DeForest Kelley's first feature-length role of any substance, and he does a very creditable job as an ordinary working stiff who slowly stumbles into the realization that he's killed a man. (After this role, DeForest jumped feet first into TV, where he alternated between westerns and detective shows before landing his storied role on Star Trek.)

But the real star is Paul Kelly. At the point where Kelly's character thinks he's being conned by Vince, his words come shooting out like firecrackers. Kelly's cop is so vehement, DeForest looks like he's actually afraid that he'll be throttled. According to Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, author of Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir (McFarland, 2003), Paul Kelly's life could have been the subject of a film noir potboiler. In 1927, after having worked for years in silent movies and the theater, Kelly got into a fistfight with musical comedy star Ray Raymond over Kelly's supposed dalliances with Raymond's wife, actress Dorothy Mackaye. The morning after the confrontation, Raymond died of a brain hemorrhage. Both Kelly and Mackaye were convicted, he for manslaughter and she for conspiracy. Incredibly, after Kelly got out of prison, he resumed his acting career and married Mackaye, adopting the daughter she'd had by Raymond. Fate stepped in again when Mackaye was later killed in a car accident. In spite of his sordid past, Kelly was almost universally respected and admired by his show business colleagues.

Almost 10 years after the release of Fear in the Night, writer-director Maxwell Shane would re-make it as Nightmare (1956), with Edward G. Robinson in the Paul Kelly role and Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) as the tortured young man. In spite of Robinson's presence, this one is more difficult to find on DVD or online.

In these hard times when it seems like we're all clueless noir protagonists caught up in forces beyond our control, films like Fear in the Night help to remind us that the darkness has always been around, but the sun always rises, and occasionally it brings with it happy endings. Check out the Alpha Video DVD edition, or download it at the Internet Archive.

Hard-bitten homicide cop Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly) has some choice words for his quivering brother-in-law Vince (DeForest Kelley):


  1. "Where it parts company with classic noir is the absence of the deadly dame, the femme fatale who lures the unsuspecting man to his doom like a flame beckoning a moth." -- Actually femme fatales (femmes fatale?) are not as common in noir as you would think. Of course, one of the fun things about noir is that everyone has a different definition of what noir is and is not.

    FEAR IN THE NIGHT is pretty ludicrous (naturally, it's Woolrich!) but a lot of fun with a nice edge to it. Suicide isn't often handled so bluntly in 1947.

    NIGHTMARE, the remake with Edward G. Robinson, is equally good. Great use of the New Orleans setting with a jazzy score.