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I Can Explain If You Let Me
'Somewhere in the Night,' an amnesiac soldier seeks his true identity.
Now Streaming: Before coming to Twentieth-Century Fox, Joseph L. Mankiewicz had established himself as a writer at Paramount Pictures and as a writer/producer for MGM, but he wanted to direct. His third picture as a director was the mystery thriller Somewhere in the Night (1946), scripted by Howard Dimsdale, who was a working writer into the 1980s, and Mankiewicz, from a story credited to Marvin Borowsky, with an on-screen credit to Lee Strasberg for "adaptation."
Later, Somewhere in the Night would be identified as "film noir," but on its own individual merits, it's a satisfying, briskly-told picture that is enhanced by the visual stylings that contribute to its identification as noir. The mystery is established from the outset, as a soldier (John Hodiak) wakes up after stepping on a land-mine that blew up his body and wiped out his memory. He recovers from his physical injuries first without admitting to anyone that he can't even remember his name. The Army medics and hospital staff call him George Taylor, so he adapts that name, and accepts the idea that he should return "home" to a hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
Once in Los Angeles, he immediately begins putting scattered clues together and following an uncertain trail that he hopes will get his life back on track. (No spoilers here -- this was a first-time watch for me -- but I absolutely love how all of his actions paint a picture of what kind of man he is, in reality, even though he doesn't know it yet.) He crosses paths with people who react strongly to his sudden presence, three years after he mysteriously disappeared, including Christy Smith (Nancy Guild), a singer at a nightclub owned by successful businessman Mel Phillips (Richard Conte). Christy and Mel take an immediate interest in George's mystery, the former for romantic reasons and the latter for financial possibilities.
The script is thick with sharp one-liners and elaborate exposition, and much of the action remains indoors. Even so, it moves at a quick pace (studio veteran James B. Clark served as editorial supervisor) and the black & white photography by Norbert Brodine, who also shot the seminal noir The House on 92nd Street, makes great use of the shadows that dominate the scenery in the second half of the picture, especially scenes set in San Pedro, in the neighborhood and at the docks.
The mystery becomes more complex as the film progresses, and the story takes turns that I wasn't anticipating, including major third-act resolutions that feel very well earned for the characters and very well justified by the script. As Mankiewicz' third film as a director, some unintentional rough edges remain, which he would sand off as his career progressed, replacing those uneven spots with intentional, and welcome, jagged edges.
Hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, John Hodiak stepped into the absence of star actors who were away serving in World War II, leaving space for him -- he evidently suffered from high blood pressure (?!) -- when MGM leant him out to Fox, where is where he made this picture. His relatively anonymity to my eyes lends credence to his role as an everyman type of character who is desperate to figure out his true identity.
The other leading players, such as the debuting Nancy Guild, are perfectly fine, though my eye was especially drawn by actors who became better known later on, such as Richard Conte (he of the suave, clipped dialogue delivery), Lloyd Nolan (as a police detective), Sheldon Leonard (as a brutish, suspicious husband), Jeff Corey (as a bank teller) and Harry Morgan (as a bathhouse attendant).
The film is included as part of the "Fox Noir" collection and makes for rewarding viewing. [The Criterion Channel]