Monday, September 14, 2009

Manny Farber on The Devil Strikes at Night

In The Devil Strikes at Night, Robert Siodmak (The Killers) is working at second speed on an unglossed Vuillard-plain image of a women-strangler whose fifty or more murders cast a dreadful spot on the inferiority of Aryan police. Most of Siodmak's comment on Hitler's Reich is a dated recall of Hitchcock-Reed thrillers, plus an even sadder use of West German "politics" (as in The Young Lions, The Enemy Below) which shows the Reichland overrun with anti-Nazis and infected with a murderous disaffection for war. However, it is almost worth the admission price to follow the portrait of a hummingly normal looney, which starts on the infantile "science" level of M and becomes a more interesting picture of violence, played suicidally as far into gentleness as credibility allows.

Using a wonderful roughened stone (Mario Adorf) as the shambling killer and shifting between a curious lack of technique and gymnastic inventiveness out of the old experimental film kettle, this ghoulish portrait accomplishes a feat that is rare in current mixed-goodies films. Where Dassin's international potpourri, He who Must Die, has a helpless discomfort about its Potemkin mimicry, as though he were trying to change a diaper in midstream, Siodmak's best moments, flexibly relaxed or tight, seem comfortably inventive. In the movie's peak scene, the village idiot (always on the hunt for food, always eating) wanders into a pick-up meal with a spinsterish Jewess, and the movie settles down, as though forever, as idiocy meets hopeless loneliness in a drifting conversation played as silently as any Vuillard painting of inverted domesticity.

--Manny Farber (March 9, 1959 / The New Leader)

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