After years as an experienced writer-producer at Twentieth Century-Fox, screenwriter Nunally Johnson made his first film as director with this virginal Cold War espionage thriller set in postwar Berlin, and while Jed Harris and Tom Reed’s story was critically well-received by some critics and nominated for an Oscar, time hasn’t been kind to what’s a stilted, stolid, semi-petrified production.
Ostensibly a kidnap story, the film’s inaugural snatching of an American soldier from Berlin’s American Sector into the Russian Sector launches two story threads: the boy’s industrialist father (Broderick Crawford) who personally flies to Berlin and uses his influence to pressure the U.S. Army into not abandoning his son; and savvy, wry Colonel Steve Van Dyke (Gregory Peck) forced to broker a prisoner swap when he inadvertently has two pre-war double-agents the Russians want for some payback.
Eventually father and Colonel meet, greet, and argue, albeit with a strange civility that the screenwriter Johnson probably intended to show a level of quiet cynicism among those wise to the weird world of occupied Berlin where East was starting to really annoy West.
Prior studio productions used Berlin for similar situations where innocents were trapped behind a Communist curtain, but Johnson was aiming for something more cerebral, if not topical to the news of the day, but by subjugating any physical action after the pre-credit kidnapping (and even that’s over and done with in a crane shot in a nondescript, rain-soaked street), he’s left with the Colonel walking into and out of rooms after long, boring conversations with forgettable side characters.
Hot secretary Ricky Cates (Rita Gam) serves coffee, follows clerical orders, and may have had an affair or has current interactions with the Colonel, but she’s just a wan Hawksian guy-girl in a short haircut and sweaters filling out her torpedo figure.
The Colonel’s assistant, Sergeant Eddie McColloch (Buddy Ebsen), is his sidekick, and Ebsen’s only moments of character development involve checking baseball highlights when the aging double-agents are brought to the U.S. Military Hospital after attempting suicide by poison, and getting lost in the paternoster elevators in the I.G. Farben Building, which in 1954 was used as a central military headquarters of the Supreme Allied Command.
The hospital doctor (Walter Abel) has less function beyond trying to save the two spies, and a terrible running gag where he repeatedly bums cigarettes from characters (and smokes in hospital quarters).
The Colonel does have a former flame in one Ms. Hoffmeir, a blonde lass he brands “Hoffy” (played by Swedish import Anita Bjork) whom he uses to ferry info between East and West officials, and later to handle the spy exchange when Hoffy coordinates the delivery of the missing soldier at the hospital.
The film’s finale, though, has Hoffy being sent back to the East to her doom when she’s revealed to be an imposter, and the only shock in the twist revelation has Peck punching Bjork in the head – a surprisingly brutish method to knock out the Colonel’s ex-lover, so she can’t ruin his bait-and-switch plan.
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Bjork and Peck are the clear stars of the film, whereas Crawford’s character arc moves from an articulate, strangely detached father spewing macho bluster to a somber figure who shows little annoyance when he’s left standing around hospital hallways, unaware of the Colonel’s plan.
The chief flaw in the film’s story lies in the kidnapping: Why snatch the boy if the real goal is snatching ex-double agents and former anti-Nazi figures wanted by what the Colonel himself describes as ‘a mob.’ There’s no clarification whether ‘the mob’ is Soviet, a rebel faction of the Soviets, pro-Nazi Soviets, pro-Nazi East Germans, or vestiges of postwar anti-Allied rebels wanting payback.
In today’s nasty climate, one could see the snatch as a means to build up equity for a future trade – much like Israeli soldiers held captive outside of their homeland – but the film’s espionage plot is just too feeble; Johnson tries to create intellectual subterfuge, but such tension (and cynicism) worked much better in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), as well as Martin Ritt’s bleak The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) – a film not shot on location in Berlin, but far more evocative of the city and East Germany than Johnson’s production.
Johnson was the writer, director and producer, so he’s to blame for the film’s deadly dull demeanor. One can blame the early CinemaScope lenses – but only to the extent that directors had to be wary of technical limitations. Night People was shot in Berlin, but it looks like a Hollywood backlot production with a handful of second unit sequences shot in the real divided city.
The few ‘genuine Berlin’ moments include Crawford wandering onto a terrace at an apparently long-gone hotel that overlooked the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Cathedral. Seen below the spire, the ruined edifice is nevertheless impressive for its obvious size, and the brief scene has the camera panning with Crawford’s movements, allowing for a view of the huge intersection with boarded up, bombed out buildings on the side, as well as a streetcar line that turned in front of the cathedral – a line no longer extant.
There’s also a ground-level terrace where the Colonel meets Hoffy, and a splendid view of a lake with an island nestled in between; and footage of a streamlined plane slowly pulling into the covered area of Tempelhof Airport, where Crawford steps out. Aside from some post-credit footage of U.S. tanks and troops marching down a Berlin thoroughfare and brief views of the I.G. Farben Building (as well as some scenes shot inside, including the unique paternoster elevator system), everything else takes place indoors.
The hospital exterior and the Soviet ambulance vehicle passing through Checkpoint Charlie feel real, but they’re shot at night, masking evidence of peripheral Berlin details, and knocking down the film’s production value to that of a standard Hollywood backlot.
Cyril Mockridge’s score consists of march music that bookends the film, as well as the bombastic credit music (which must have sounded marvelous in the film’s original 4-track stereo mix) – and that’s it. With the exception of a burlesque song performed by a vaudeville troupe in a Berlin tavern, the lack of a music score makes already talky scenes brutally dull; the aim may have been a docu-drama feel, but the dialogue is too smart-assy and clichéd to evoke any realism.
Johnson’s use of ‘scope improved in the drama The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (boosted as well by Bernard Herrmann’s sterling, melancholy score), but Night People’s visuals are too concerned with keeping an ordered, linear line of action. Actors blab at frame extremes (as when the Colonel snatches Hoffy from a military brig prior to the bat-and-switch finale); and an attempt to create ornamental ‘scope design fails laughably when one actor, placed at a frame’s edge, looks to the camera’s side even though he’s having a conversation with an actor sitting far behind.
Johnson also failed to allow his cast do ‘bits of business,’ so when not involved in talking, they just sit like statues with frozen faces. One amusing moment has the doctor placed in the middle of the Colonel and another character; when the two side characters get up and exchange words the frame’s centre, the doctor suddenly gets up and walks out of frame to avoid cluttering up the background.
When actors enter scenes where another is already seated, they position themselves at awkward angles so that their faces are seen, but their figures manage to sprawl a little across the massive 2.55:1 ‘scope ratio (a framing that was eventually trimmed and standardized to 2.35:1). One can only imagine how the dialogue ping-ponged among the original Perspecta Surround Sound speakers from shot to shot (a common convention to create directional sound).
As an espionage thriller, Night People fumbles big time, and as a rare glimpse into Berlin’s emergence from the rubble with infrastructure slowly being rebuilt among surviving ruins, there’s little to see. Johnson’s script does present one long-gone vantage point, though: U.S. military and their presence and entrenchment in a city devastated.
There’s also the weird absence of real Germans in the film; Hoffy is the token German, but she’s also the classic duplicitous female German who tricks Allies, a cliché present in Carol Reed’s otherwise clumsy The Man Between (1953), where secretive Hildegard Knef allows her British husband’s sister to be courted by an East Sector mob man; and George Seaton’s The Big Lift (1950), where German women, like Knef’s character, are seen as liars who survive by extracting comfort, supplies, and wealth from Allied innocents, or naïve dopes, depending on one’s view. (The caricature also showed up in The Young Lions, a 1958 production set during America’s entry into WWII, where May Britt portrayed the sultry, slutty wife of a Nazi General.)
Allied Berlin thrillers were arguably (if not covertly) as biased and damaging as the ‘yellow peril’ thrillers made by the studios during WWII. As late as 1953, Germans were sufficiently untrustworthy, and they were relegated to social miscreants and clichéd characters; what’s odd is how these unflattering roles were used by the studios to test out their latest European imports. In the case of Knef, the actress enjoyed some success in more classic dramas such as Fox’ The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), whereas Bjork, who’d achieved acclaim in Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie / Fröken Julie (1951) went nowhere in Hollywood, and returned to Sweden to enjoy a steady career.
Night People is a historical footnote, but dramatically, it’s just a dud.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan