'Fear in the Night' Speaks the Indecipherable Language of Noir

Noir, as a definitive term, is elusive and always out of reach, as are dreams. So what are we to do with Fear in the Night, a noir that traffics in dreams?

Fear in the Night

Director: Maxwell Shane
Cast: Paul Kelly, DeForest Kelley, Ann Doran, Kay Scott
Distributor: Film Chest
Rated: N/A
US DVD release date: 2014-08-26

Noir is a tricky genre, if one can even call it that (some call it a “cycle,” some a “visual style,” others still a “phenomenon”). Even now there is continued debate as to what designates a film as a “film noir.” So, naturally, the first question we should ask upon watching a melodramatic crime film released between 1941 and 1959 is whether it can legitimately be categorized as noir.

Like most film noirs, Maxwell Shane’s Fear in the Night (1947) revolves around a scandalous murder rendered in low-key black and white photography. Also, like many noirs, it is based on a piece of pulp fiction, in this case a work titled “And So to Death” (later “Nightmare") by Cornell Woolrich. But what really solidifies the film as noir is that Fear in the Night allows its protagonist access to a voiceover. In films noir the formal technique of a flashback/voiceover allows the protagonist to retell and reform his story, the voiceover creating interpretive distance between his present situation and the unstable, incoherent affairs of his past. (In noir, the narrator is almost always male.)

But where Fear in the Night distinguishes itself from other noirs is the utterly bizarre nature of its main character’s voiceover. Vince (DeForest Kelley) is a despairing bank teller, troubled by a disturbing dream in which he killed a man. He brushes it off as mere nightmare, but evidence, such as bruises and blood on his body, points to the contrary. His cop brother-in-law Cliff (Paul Kelly) first scoffs when Vince tells him about his fitful sleep, but as more eerie evidence accumulates against the dreamer, Cliff must label Vince a suspect. Throughout the film we hear Vince’s voice as he both explains and tries to come to grips with his plight—his expressed unease becomes our own, thanks in part to a phantasmagorical musical tone played under the voiceover and also to its curious linguistic properties. Upon seeing blood on his wrist he explains that “suddenly the room started spinning,” but soon after he describes his plans for “tonight”—there is no constant tense to Vince’s language. Is he beyond the events of the film, or encountering them exactly when we do? The film offers no clear answer. It’s a strange voiceover, vacillating as it does between past and present tense, but, then again, the film deals with the strange and irrational subject matter of dreams.

It’s difficult to appraise films that depict dreams, almost as difficult as considering dreams themselves. Irrationality, exaggeration, simplicity, and nonsense can all be defended under the auspices of film form mimicking film content. Vince’s voiceover is a manifestation of what makes the film so abstruse: is it purposefully hypnotizing the viewer into the same dreamlike state of its main character, or is it incompetently failing to adhere to the logic of continuity? Vince passes out so many times that no fade or cut can be trusted. Is what we are seeing current, a flashback, or part of Vince’s nightmarish imagination? The film’s oneiric qualities and tone bathe it in interpretive opacity just as its chiaroscuro lighting threatens to drown the characters in darkness.

These characters, by the way, are cardboard at best. Vince has a love interest named Betty (Kay Scott), but they share screen time so rarely that any show of endearment seems forced and truncated. And without giving too much of the plot away, the villain emerges so late in the film that he seems more deus ex machina than character, his fate conveniently ushering in Vince’s. Is it a weakness of Fear in the Night that its characters are underdeveloped? Or its greatest strength, given that, after all, you never think twice if characters in your dreams appear and disappear without exposition?

Thinking twice and the act of self-evaluation contribute most to Vince’s unraveling. The more he considers himself and his unconscious, the more he is filled with dread. An unrelenting fear drives him and the film: can unconscious actions be found guilty? Vince’s most important (and strained) relationship is not with Betty but rather with his cop brother-in-law Cliff, such that the two seem the only necessary characters in the film. A cop and an unwitting suspect, one searching for clues and the other bemused by them. More than once, Vince rues by voiceover that he cannot make sense of anything because his “brain was handcuffed,” a vivid encapsulation of his brooding over a police apparatus that could arrest him for a deed he was not conscious of performing.

Ultimately, Vince’s plight is ours. Once aware of what dwells in our unconscious, we develop means by which to lock it away; and yet, every so often, it manages to speak out through the bars. Film noir is often its most expressive language, but Fear in the Night offers a sketchy translation.

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