The world of film noir is full of passive patsies and benighted saps, and one of the most passive and benighted is Vincent Grayson, played by skinny young DeForest Kelley in his debut film. The low-budget wonder Fear in the Night is one of the most oneiric and dreamlike of noirs.
The first reel is surreal in several ways. It opens with wavering montages of superimposed images to indicate the hero’s dream state. These images showcase a room with multiple mirrors and doors. This must naturally remind noir fans of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, which came out the following year. Of course, the Welles version is even more flashy and disorienting, although it wasn’t a dream sequence. But then, maybe this one isn’t either. One of this uncanny movie’s mysteries is whether or how much of what we see is a dream. Crime films discovered the power of surreal dreams following Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and this trend was hitting stride in “psychiatric” items like Spellbound (1945) and Shock (1946). Fear in the Night is a high point.
After disorienting, fragmentary images of a struggle that leaves a man dead, Grayson awakens in his hotel room and gradually discovers evidence that his nightmare really happened. When he consults his policeman brother-in-law (Paul Kelly), the latter brusquely berates him instead of helping him. He comes across as a judgmental bully, and this probably matches his line of work. The fun continues during a picnic when Grayson somehow leads the party (including Ann Doran as his sister and Kay Scott as his girlfriend) to the house of his dreams, and then the facts begin to look very grim indeed.
This movie is based on a tale by Cornell Woolrich, who retold variations of dream-murder and amnesiac guilt in many stories. His protagonists are among the most haunted in crime fiction, forever struggling to free themselves of some dark night of the soul and stumbling about in search of uncertain allies. Maxwell Shane, who directed this uneasy, claustrophobic little tale, remade it as the better-budgeted Nightmare (1956), another excellent version with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy. Shane later produced the TV series M Squad.
I have distant memories of catching the funky, surreal Fear in the Night—one of those movies that makes you wonder if you dreamed it—on a late ‘80s syndicated package of public-domain films called Movie Greats Network. I was convinced they’d scoured the country for the worst possible prints, and then beat them against a rock. A company called Film Chest, which has done an excellent job of digital clean-ups on certain films such as The Red House, has been largely defeated on this “digitally restored” item, which remains blurry, dark, and jumpy while the soundtrack is thick, tinny, and plagued by a continual noise like metallic insects. Perhaps it will never look or sound better, always like a nagging, half-forgotten celluloid memory.