Monday, May 23, 2016

Nocturne (1946)

A George Raft film noir is something that will always attract my interest. Raft is not everybody’s cup of tea but he’s one of my favourite movie tough guys. Nocturne was made by RKO in 1946 and the idea sounds promising enough.

The movie opens with smooth womanising songwriter Keith Vincent giving his latest girlfriend the brush-off. Vincent thinks he’s pretty good at this sort of thing but this time it doesn’t go too smoothly - he ends up with a slug from a .38 in his brain. Some dames just don’t take kindly to getting their marching orders.

When the police arrive they don’t take long to decide this is a clear-cut case of suicide. Vincent’s fingerprints on the gun and the powder burns make this fairly obvious. 

It isn’t obvious to Detective Lieutenant Joe Warne (Raft). Why would a rich guy like Keith Vincent shoot himself right in the middle of writing a song? Joe is one of those cops who worries when things don’t look quite right. When he worries he gets obsessive. It makes him a good detective but it gets him into a lot of trouble as well. At the moment Joe is already in trouble. In fact he is always in trouble with the Chief of Detectives. Joe has a rather pro-active approach to investigations and he tends to tread on people’s toes. The Chief of Detective admires Joe’s skills as a detective but he doesn’t like Joe’s habit of treading on the toes of the sorts of citizens who like to lodge complaints with the Department. Sooner or later Joe’s habits are going to get him kicked out of the force and it looks like it might definitely be sooner rather than later.

Joe Warne is not the kind of guy to let that stop him. And he does have a lead. Vincent’s last girlfriend was named Dolores. The only problem is, all of Vincent’s girlfriends were named Dolores. If they weren’t named Dolores he called them Dolores anyway.

George Raft was very much a tough guy both on the screen and off but as an actor he does the tough guy thing with a fair amount of subtlety. He plays the sorts of guys who are so tough they never have to make a big noise about it. The sorts of guys who never raise their voice because people soon learn that it’s healthier not give them a reason to do so. Raft’s performance is flawless. 

Raft was clearly a natural for playing villains but he grew tired of it and by the 1940s he was keen to play heroes instead. Nocturne gives him the chance to play a reasonably interesting hero in a good film. Sadly good parts like this would become increasingly rare for Raft by the end of the 40s.

Lynn Bari gets the femme fatale role as one of Keith Vincent’s Doloreses. Virginia Huston as her kid sister, night club singer Carol Page and Joseph Pevney as the piano player in the club where she sings provide fine support.

Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay provides plenty of juicy hard-boiled dialogue and Raft and Bari make the most of it. In his novels such as Headed for a Hearse Latimer combined hard-boiled style with very generous amounts of humour. He tones the humour down somewhat in this script. 

This is not in any sense one of those Hollywood mysteries played primarily for laughs. The tone is mostly dead serious but there’s plenty of wit. There’s only a small amount of outright comic relief, provided by Joe’s mother and one of her friends who are keen detective story fans who just love a good murder, and these brief interludes are actually quite funny.

So is Nocturne film noir? It has the noir visual style and the atmosphere. It has the ingredients needed for a film noir. Having the ingredients is not enough - they have to be utilised in the right way. Nocturne shows signs at various times of veering off in a decidedly noir direction, but generally seems content to be a hard-boiled murder mystery. It happens to be a very very good murder mystery that has a great deal of style and wit.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is absolutely barebones (not even a trailer) but it’s an excellent transfer.

Nocturne is a top-notch noir-flavoured mystery thriller. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this outstanding review. For me Nocturne is a noir-styled murder/detective mystery. It is on the edge of noir. Nevertheless, a beautiful film and superb story. George Raft is not the typical anguished noir hero but he's a real police detective who wears out shoe leather.
    I liked the ambiguity of many of the characters. Fantastic cinematography and Los Angeles forties atmosphere. Many other enjoyable elements- the mother relationship, the romance with Lynn Bari, the music threaded throughout the story.