(Night Editor was screened along with Alias Nick Beal on Monday evening at the San Francisco Castro Theatre as part of the film noir festival, Noir City 7.)
Night Editor is a stalwart “B” film noir that paddles through an appealingly tawdry narrative with characters who are not among the more virtuous committed to celluloid. Based on the radio program of the same name, the film is shackled to a cumbersomely clunky and illogical framing device—a group of newspapermen conversing about old stories to one another late at night (the device utilized for the radio show)—but this matters little. The actual plot is not outstanding, either, but it does provide the habitat in which its bracing characters move about. William Gargan plays Tony Cochrane, a man who grew up poor and became a cop, becoming a homicide lieutenant. His unfaithfulness to his loving wife and child, and compulsive attraction to a wicked sadomasochistic socialite named Jill Merrill, played to hyperbolic delirium by the shapely blonde beauty Janis Carter, seals his fate as the archetypal dupe. Night Editor's dyspeptic narrative is lively and allows these two characters carte blanche to display all of their unsightly traits. Night Editor is a mammoth-sized, slightly viscid cheeseburger that is only scarcely grilled and all the better for it.
Directed by Henry Levin and adapted from Hal Burdick's radio program and Scott Littleton's story, “Inside Story,” by Hal Smith, the film's most pronounced presence is doubtless Carter's Jill. Carter is Night Editor's fire-breathing, coldblooded embodiment of the exteriorly hot but interiorly icy femme fatale. Carter's interpretation of her character, adorned with an eerily itchy, equally playful and disconcerting leering smirk, is what lingers well after the picture has ended. Wracked by neurosis, Jill is sexually excited by violence, and, when she and her illicit lover enjoy one another's company in a parked car, they witness a ferocious murder-by-tire iron. Tony wants to act, and nearly does—but finally heeds Jill's shrill commentary on the situation, which is that scandal will erupt if he intervenes in catching or killing the murderer. Shamed by his inaction, Tony returns to the car, where the aroused Jill maniacally squirms and writhes in her seat, demanding that he show her the battered body.
This set-piece is the springboard for the rest of the tale, and what abides in the viewer's mind days after watching the film is the pulchritudinous but pernicious Jill. Carter's performance is gloriously histrionic but never deleteriously so. She outshines the rest of the cast, most of whom are men. Like many a femme fatale—crafted at a time supposedly more sociologically askew in its male-dominant perspective—the femme figure is, while definitively peccant, also far more charismatically bedecked than all of her male counterparts combined. Carter's performance—underneath all of the immoral maneuvering and aberrant amorousness—is simply nectarous. Her allure is overwhelming, but she is so mentally imbalanced and perverse that Tony knows she is completely wrong for him. Tony's somewhat humorously mousy wife, Martha (Jeff Donnell), serves as the contrast to Jill—upstanding and good, but bland, and lacking the spicy sizzle that the incorrigible Jill brings with her.
Femme fatales in Hollywood film noirs are formed from varied shades, but they do share commonalities. Their origin is particularly historically and culturally rich. As ancient as the Hebrew mythological figure Lilith, from Sumerian wind and storm demons like Lilitu at approximately 4,000 BC, a Judaic night demon and a screech owl in the King James Bible. Eve herself is depicted as an easily tempted creature of sensuality whose misleading of Adam doomed man. Other figures from the Judaic and Christian history include Delilah and Salome, the latter of whom used her physical endowments and wiles to ensure John the Baptist's beheading. Greek mythological goddesses, historical figures and specters like Aphrodite, the Sphinx, the Siren, Helen of Troy and Agamemnon's murderous wife, Clytemnestra set the Hellenistic foundation for modern depictions of unsavory females. Just as noir's femme fatales are noted for their exotic magnetism, Cleopatra's manipulations of Roman men established her as a permanent fixture of Roman antipathy.
Night Editor is arguably a minor noir, but the depiction of the femme fatale makes the film deserving of greater recognition. Other aspects of the film are chronically conventional to the genre, including Burnett Guffey and Philip Tannura's cinematography, but Hal Smith's scorching screenplay, pied with livid, exceptional pieces and dialogue, and Carter's gusting performance recommend it, and in a way pay great homage to the fatales of history and literature. Indeed, Jill is not unlike John Keats's Matilda, whose tempting of the once-incorruptible hero (Keats's The Monk) through the luridly “transgressive” (pace the literary term) and duplicitous means at her disposal entrap him. Night Editor is not nearly a film wholly worth comparisons to such past representations of such dramatic tales, but Jill's irrepressible constitution stands apart from anything that could be termed generic.
The film hits its stride just when it should—its conclusive passage—as the femme fatale once again disarms and enchants her male victim through her beguiling beauty, only to violate his being in the most personal of ways. The sequence is scary, sad, funny and powerful all at once, a flamboyant feat perhaps only a “B” film could achieve. Gargan and director Levin must have known that he (along with his character) was no match for Carter's Jill, and the actor underplays everything, including this most noteworthy moment of the film. Gargan does not cover much range, yet when the screenplay demands that he be shocked and horrified by events encircling him, he does so well. The apathetic, practically suicidal foreknowledge he has—he is insane, stupid or simply so pathetically overcome by Jill and her sex, to even barely trust her—enriches his actions, making him both more and less pathetic all at once. Levin's mise-en-scene is mostly unremarkable, but he paces the action sufficiently well, and occasionally stages his actors in ways that heighten the tension. The film belongs completely to its leading lady, however, whose feigned, wide-eyed innocence seems to ensnare every male viewer with a pulse, despite their being endowed by the verisimilitude-separating knowledge that they are watching a film, and Carter is playing a character of sheer villainy. Jill is perverse in a way that is rare even among the rottenest femme fatales. That feminine nastiness has rarely been so much fun; when Gargan's Tony refuses to basely satisfy Jill's needs, it would not be difficult to find many a fellow watching the film who would gladly volunteer.