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The Night Holds Terror

Posted by martinteller on November 10, 2012

“How do you want it, buster?  Straight in the head while you’re lyin’ there, or do you want to run for it and get it in the guts?”

Gene Courtier (Jack Kelly) is driving his usual route between home and work when he stops to pick up a hitchhiker (Vince Edwards).  Needless to say, bad move.  He points a gun at him and takes his wallet… which contains a measly ten dollars.  The robber has him drive on a remote desert road to rendezvous with his two buddies: one a fresh-faced young fella (David Cross), the other is the cold-hearted leader of their little gang (John Cassavetes).  They’re just about to murder him in the desert, when he bargains for his life with his car, pink slip and all.  They sell the car to a dealer but have to wait until morning to cash the check.  So they take Gene back to his house, and for a long night hold him, his wife Doris (Hildy Parks) and their two children hostage.  But when the morning comes, the nightmare’s not over.  Not by a long shot.  The stakes are about to be raised.

The film’s intro makes it clear that this is based on a true story (in fact, the Bogart flick The Desperate Hours is based on the same tale).  It even opens with a photograph of the real victims.  But it turns out much of the movie’s story was fabricated.  No matter, what counts is the film itself, not how true to life it is.  And the film is quite a good one.  Andrew L. Stone — working as usual with his wife, Virginia — has two earlier noirs that I was unimpressed with: Highway 301 and A Blueprint for Murder.  This is a big improvement.  It does lose some tension here and there in the second half, but for most of the film’s running length it’s quite gripping.

There isn’t any one thing about it that stands out, it’s just a nice gestalt of elements.  The real locations give the piece a feeling of verisimilitude.  The story, although not quite how it really went down, feels genuine.  The situations aren’t entirely predictable, there’s an edgy, anything-can-happen vibe.  The kids are wisely kept out of the picture most of the time (an area where Desperate Hours fumbles).  When the police get involved, they don’t come off like superheroes.  The widescreen camerawork is rock solid… not impressively stylized, but it all works in telling the story and isn’t just plop the camera in the most obvious place.  There’s a lot of interesting little bits of business, like the detail in the phone tracing.

The performances are all pretty good.  Edwards isn’t reaching the heights he does in Murder By Contract, but his wolfish menace is felt, as in the terrific scene where he forces Parks to dance with him.  Likewise, we’re not seeing Cassavetes at his best, but he fares quite well, fully in control with just a hint of sadism.  Cross is fully believable as the most reasonable and reluctant of the three.  Hildy Parks was a surprise.  Her career was almost entirely on Broadway and television.  This was her first screen role, and except for a couple of bit parts in the mid-60’s, her only one.  But she’s really good, projecting a compelling mix of both fear and strength.  She’s not a glamour gal — which unfortunately is probably why she didn’t get much work — but she’s a fine actress.  Kelly comes off the weakest of the primary cast, but he has the least interesting role.  His voiceover isn’t that hot, either.

The IMDb average is a mediocre 6.3 for this one.  I dunno, maybe I’m overrating it.  Maybe the dialogue is a little too overcooked or maybe it loses too much steam in the second half.  Maybe it doesn’t break the mold.  But I enjoyed it, maybe even more than the Bogart take on the same story.  I’d definitely watch it again.  Rating: Very Good (82)


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