Night People (1954)

NUNNALLY JOHNSON

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5USA, 1954Story by , , Screenplay by Cinematography by Produced by Nunnally Johnson.  Music by . Production Design by , .   Costume Design by Film Editing by Academy Awards 1954.

Gregory Peck in Night People

An American soldier says goodnight to his German sweetheart in a divided, post-war Berlin and is, without warning, snatched up by Russian operatives and whisked away to their corner of the city. The American embassy is quickly on the case, determined to get him back and avoid an international incident that could reignite a war, while back home the kidnap victim’s industrialist father (Broderick Crawford) decides to take action. Flying immediately to Berlin and bringing all his blustery American swagger with him, Crawford shouts orders at what he feels is an inferior operation headed by a military officer (Gregory Peck) whom he sees as lazy and incompetent.  Peck is actually savvy about how to do things in a place where things are done differently, and knows how to keep peace in a place where opposing international interests have turned one city into a hotbed of dangerous unrest. As these two argue about how to get their man back, Peck’s personal relationship with an East German woman () has an influence on the possible deal to swap prisoners that could solve the entire problem, except for the fact that no one knows who to trust. Working from an exceptional screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, this film is Cold War cinema at its very best, incorporating strong characterizations with beautiful cinematography and a constant sense of danger.  Crawford’s character is sort of a template for what Jack Lemmon would later do in Missing, a surprising case of an American studio film criticizing American exceptionalism, not something you see a lot of in this era. Peck, who usually relies on little more than his deep phone-sex voice and wooden good looks, is in his element, the cynicism and duplicity of the character revealing more humanity from him than just about any other role he ever had in his pre-Atticus Finch career. Prints that preserve the original Cinemascope ratio of the film are unfortunately, and shamefully, very rare, but the quality of this film’s direction and writing are unharmed by even the worst pan-and-scan transfer.

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