What if you woke up one day to find that you couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, and—even worse, perhaps—had no idea who you were? And that when you set out to find out, you opened up a can of worms? That every other person you met seemed to be wanting to beat you or kill you (or ended up dead)—and you had absolutely no idea why?
Some years back, watching Hitchcock’s excellent Lifeboat, I was fascinated by John Hodiak. It was the first time I’d seen this actor, and I wanted to see more of him. After some searching, I discovered this intriguing example of film noir which starred Hodiak as the amnesiac who sets out to discover his identity—and ends up with some even more baffling answers.
Somewhere in the Night begins in 1945, in a makeshift military hospital in the South Pacific, where a very badly wounded marine (John Hodiak) is lying, wrapped in bandages from head to toe, with only his eyes showing. He’s had a narrow escape—a grenade exploded under him—and, as he’s lying in bed, opening his eyes for the first time, this man realizes he has no idea who he is, where he is, or what has happened to him.
Worse, his jaw has been wired, so he can’t speak, can’t ask questions.
From various snatches of conversation—between the medical staff attending to him—the marine discovers that his name is George Taylor. He discovers, too, the extent of his injuries.
Several days later, when he’s well enough to sit up, George happens to open the drawer of the night stand. Inside it, he finds his wallet (with his name embossed on it), and—inside, besides a few currency notes, a very crumpled letter. The letter has no name to whom it’s addressed, and no signature at the bottom, but George realizes (of course) that if it’s in his wallet, it must have been addressed to him.
George is unsettled by it all. Obviously, there’s some dark secret to his past life—and he can’t remember anything of it.
When he’s finally discharged (not just from the hospital, but from service too, since he is too patched-up to be able to return to military life), George comes to know, from the clerk who’s completing the formalities, that George is from Los Angeles, and that his last address before enlisting was the Martin Hotel.
So George goes to the Martin Hotel in LA, and asks the clerk at the front desk to check the guest register for a George Taylor who’d stayed at the Martin 3 years earlier—and to tell him (George) what the man’s address was. The clerk is reluctant (it is against the hotel’s policy to divulge such information), but George manages to convince him of the urgency of his request. He agrees to at least look at the register.
George, even more puzzled than before, checks into the hotel and shortly after goes to a local bus station to withdraw a bag that had been deposited there 3 years earlier. [How did he know to go to the bus station? One assumes that the ticket stub was there among the items handed back to him when he was discharged, but it is never shown].
He doesn’t have the key to unlock the bag, so he bashes it open. Inside, he finds two things: a revolver, and a typed letter. The letter is addressed to George Taylor, signed ‘Your pal, Larry Cravat,’ and informs George that $5,000 have been deposited by Larry in George’s name at so-and-so bank.
George, having got himself some civilian clothing, goes to the bank mentioned in Larry’s letter. He asks the teller for Larry Cravat’s address, and the clerk, murmuring something polite, quickly goes to talk to the manager. George panics and runs off. What on earth is happening? Who is Larry Cravat, and why does the mention of his name make the bankers suspicious?
Fortunately for George, he has another lead: the letter from Larry was on the letterhead of a public bath. He goes there, and is told by the bath attendant (who’s been around for the past several years) that there’s no Larry Cravat among the patrons. The man does add, though, that the regulars at The Cellar Café next door often come to the baths after a drink. Perhaps someone from there had come over to the baths, filched a letterhead—the stationery lies about unattended—and used it.
So George goes to The Cellar, and asks the bartender if a Larry Cravat frequents—or used to frequent, 3 years back—The Cellar. The bartender is cagey, denies that he’s ever heard of any Larry Cravat—and immediately slips away to the other end of the bar counter, where he whispers something to two thuggish-looking goons. These two get up and make their slouching, jutting-lipped, hard-eyed way to George, who is smart enough to realize when he’s in danger. He manages to give them the slip, and takes advantage of the crowd on the dimly lit dance floor to slip through, into the back…
…where, entering a door, he comes face to face with Christy (Nancy Guild), who is the pianist/singer at The Cellar. Christy is obviously both surprised and annoyed at having her privacy invaded thus. She tells George off, then goes out of the door, telling him she’s going to fetch the bouncers. If he’s not gone by the time she returns with them… well, that’s his lookout.
As soon as she’s left, George pushes her chair up under the doorknob, pulls the window open, and goes to turn off the lights rimming the mirror Christy had been sitting at (this is her green room). As he bends over the dressing table, something catches his eye: a postcard addressed to Christy from someone called Mary, who’s written that she’s very excited, because the next time Christy hears from her, Mary will be Mrs Larry Cravat!
George realizes that this might be another chance at finding out where Larry Cravat is, so he takes the postcard, and—in order to let Christy know where he’s to be found—leaves a match cover from the Martin Hotel in its place. He then leaves, and heads back to his hotel…
…where, outside his room, he encounters a stranger, a woman named Phyllis (Margo Woode). Phyllis’s conversation is punctuated by the odd French phrase now and then, and she’s obviously trying to pretend to be very upper class. She tells George she’s been waiting for a Larry—a Larry Thompson, her father—and literally bulldozes her way into George’s room when he opens it. She’s hitting on him, and George is smart enough to figure out that Phyllis is as phony as they come. She’s no high society girl; she was waiting for no-one but him; and what is she up to?
Phyllis reveals nothing of why she’s come, but leaves—obviously frustrated and annoyed at George for rebuffing her. Just as she’s leaving, George receives a phone call from the bartender at The Cellar, summoning him to The Cellar if he wants to know more about Larry Cravat. George is so desperate, he goes there, even though The Cellar is shut for the night. Outside, a car pulls up and a man (Fritz Kortner) sitting inside invites George to join him so that they can have a chat.
…and when George comes to, he’s in the crooks’ den, surrounded by goons. They’ve been going at him with what looks like an iron pipe, so George is pretty badly busted up. And what the chief goon wants to know is: where is Larry Cravat, and what is George to Cravat? When George says Larry was his friend, the goon (whose name, we later discover, is Anzelmo) retorts that Larry had no friends. When Anzelmo realizes George really doesn’t know anything, he has his thugs bash George a bit more, and then dump him at the only address they find in George’s pockets: Christy’s house, its address written on that postcard from Mary.
She is sympathetic enough to even offer a patient hearing and her friendship to George, when he admits that he doesn’t even know who he is, let alone whether he has a single friend in the world. George ends up telling her everything.
He tells her, too, there’s one way she can help: if she will tell him Mary’s address, he can get in touch with Mary—who, of course, is by now Mrs Larry Cravat.
Christy bursts his bubble. No, Mary is not Mrs Larry Cravat. In fact, she isn’t even alive any more. On the day she was to be married, Mary waited for her bridegroom for three hours, and he never turned up. Eventually, realizing she’d been stood up, Mary left—and so upset that she wasn’t looking where she was going, was run over and died.
While that clue may have led nowhere, Christy offers some help, instead. The owner of The Cellar, the man who hired her, is Mel Phillips. Mr Phillips is very well-connected and might be able to help George find Larry Cravat.
George agrees, so Christy calls Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) and Mr Phillips, who arrives soon after, is able to suggest someone useful: a canny cop, Lieutenant Don Kendall (Lloyd Nolan), who knows just about everything there is to be known about anyone.
The next day, at lunch (at a Chinese restaurant), Mel Phillips, George and Christy meet Lt. Kendall. And Kendall has some astounding information to share: Larry Cravat, he says, was a private eye. He disappeared 3 years earlier, in the wake of $2 million of Nazi money, sent over to the US by canny Nazis trying to stash away a nest egg in case Germany lost the war. The money had arrived on the east coast, and—pursued by various people—had ended up in Los Angeles, with Larry Cravat on its tail. Then, one fateful night, both Larry Cravat and the money vanished. One man was killed.
That is not the end of it, as George already knows—because there are certainly some people who think he knows something about Larry Cravat’s whereabouts. And how far they’re willing to go is anybody’s guess.
Somewhere in the Night isn’t listed in the all-time great noirs; it isn’t in the same league as some of the big names in that genre, such as Cape Fear, The Big Sleep or The Night of the Hunter. It is, however, an interesting enough film in its own right, and certainly worth a watch.
What I liked about this film:
The pace of it, which is breakneck. Somewhere in the Night never begins to flag; something is happening all the time (more, in the next section, on whether or not this always works). At any rate, this isn’t a film where you can slip away for a snack and come back without finding yourself pretty lost.
Secondly, the big twist in the plot. There are twists every now and then in Somewhere in the Night, but there’s one whopper which I’d never seen coming. Deliciously unexpected.
What I didn’t like:
The results of that hectic pace. When things move so very fast, some of us tend (or, to be more precise, I) tend to lose track of what’s been happening, and how a certain event came about. The synopsis of Somewhere in the Night which I’ve given above is not even halfway through the film, and the twists and turns, the events that follow, come just as fast and thick. The result is confusion.
Confusion, too, it seems for the scriptwriter, who introduces too many people, too many elements too fast, and tends to sometimes lose track of them, creating unnecessary diversions, leaving questions unanswered, or simply not following through on an element. (As an example, there’s the question of that crumpled letter George had found in his wallet at the start: this, towards the end, is explained, since we discover who had written it and to whom—but it throws up another important question which is never addressed).
Still, an engrossing enough film. If you like noir, put this on your list.