Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Night Was Our Friend (1951)

There’s nothing more satisfying than coming across an obscure B-movie with a slightly dubious reputation and finding that it’s actually a lot more interesting than might have been expected. Night Was Our Friend, a very low-budget 1951 British mystery thriller, certainly falls into that category.

Sally Raynor (Elizabeth Sellars) has lost her husband. He was killed when his plane crashed in Brazil. Only Martin Raynor (Michael Gough) wasn’t killed. Two years after the crash he walks out of the jungle, in a bad way but very much alive.

This could be a little embarrassing for Sally since she now has a new love, handsome young Dr John Harper (Ronald Howard). Sally and John agree that their dalliance must end. Martin needs Sally now.

Martin is not the same man who disappeared two years earlier. He has changed. He can’t sleep and when he does sleep he has nightmares. He cannot bear the sunlight. He is emotionally distant, nervous and irritable and he drinks rather more than he should.

None of this is surprising given the experiences he went through in Brazil. He and the three other men were held captive by tribesmen. They eventually escaped but only Martin made it back to civilisation. And he paid a very high price for his escape.

While Sally and John have ended their affair John Harper is still very much in evidence. He is after all an old friend and if he suddenly made himself scarce that would look more suspicious. And perhaps Sally and John still have feelings for one another?

It’s a tense situation. The sort of situation that might lead to murder. In fact we already know it will lead to murder since that fact was revealed right at the beginning of the movie. The bulk of the movie comprises an extended flashback. We know there was a murder, we even know the verdict of the jury, but what really happened? Needless to say what actually happened is not quite what it appeared to be on the surface.

Michael Pertwee wrote the screenplay, based on his own play. The plot is rather outlandish but it has a few nice twists and the outlandishness works in its favour if you’re prepared to go with the flow. This was one of the first films to be directed by Michael Anderson who went on to have a career that was nothing if not varied. He adds a few pleasing stylistic touches that you don’t necessarily expect in a run-of-the-mill low-budget mystery.

Opening the movie with the verdict in a trial and then telling the story in flashback can be a risky technique. Obviously we have to believe that we haven’t been told the complete story or the real story but at the same time we don’t want to end up feeling that we’ve been too actively misled. This movie pulls off the trick pretty well.

Elizabeth Sellars is able to make Sally both sympathetic and ambiguous, the ambiguous quality being vital given the film’s opening sequence. Ronald Howard was an underrated actor and he delivers a solid performance as Dr John Harper, a character about whom we might also feel just a little ambivalent. 

The picture belongs to Michael Gough though. There’s no point in casting Michael Gough in a film unless you’re prepared to allow him to overact. Overacting was what Michael Gough was all about. In this case he does to splendid effect. Martin Raynor is not a monster but he’s a decidedly disturbing individual. He is obviously not playing with a full deck but just how crazy is he? Gough overacts but he knows just how far he can push things. This is controlled and finely judged overacting. Gough knows that the audience has to find Martin a bit scary but they have to feel sympathy for him as well. We have to suspect that he’s crazy but we also have to suspect that maybe he isn’t.

Renown Pictures have released this movie along with two other British mystery obscurities on a single DVD. Three short movies on one DVD is really no problem and it’s a very good transfer.

Night Was Our Friend might not be a great movie but it’s interesting and enjoyable and Michael Gough’s performance is enough on its own to make it worth seeing. Recommended.

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