Honestly, I love it for a whole lot of reasons but only one in particular that I often share with readers here: I see film noir as a black-and-white existence most often populated with broken people making broken choices, and I like to call these characters ‘monsters of a sort.’ That’s why I’ll occasionally cover noirs in this space – along with the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror features – when I get the inkling, and that happens a lot when I can squeeze in the screenings.
Such is the case today as I was graciously provided a complimentary Blu-ray set by Kino Lorber: Film Noir – The Dark Side Of Cinema, Volume XIII.
Today’s viewing: another late 1950’s noir-lite potboiler that goes by the name of The Night Runner. Credited to writers Owen Cameron and Gene Levitt, the film was directed by Abner Biberman. It stars Ray Danton, Colleen Miller, Merry Anders, Willis Bouchey, and Harry Jackson in major roles.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A mental patient with a violent past is released from the institution, against the advice of his doctors, and sent back to his old neighborhood. Realizing that he can’t handle the pressures of big-city life, and not wanting to commit the kinds of crimes that got him put away in the first place, he hops a bus heading out of the city and winds up in a small coastal town. Taking a room in a small motel, he falls for the daughter of the motel’s owner, and everything seems to be going well for him, until the girl’s father starts to get suspicious about his past.”
Once again, I find myself asking the seminal question: “When is a film noir not a film noir?”
To a great degree, I’ve always believed that the characters best representative of this unique sub-genre of the traditional film thriller are always in charge of their actions. This means that – while what they experience may or may not be directly attributable to steps that they might make along the way – they’re mostly in control of their fate because they choose poorly. Some of them are pure evil – that’s just how they were built – and some of them come to evil as a necessary response to their environment and other cultural or social influences. But – in the final regard – they exercise free will and make a bad or ultimately flawed decision directly as a consequence of who they’ve become.
So … I have to point out that 1957’s The Night Runner presents a bit of difficulty for me, mostly because I liked so many of its performances.
Also, the fetching Colleen Miller manages to squeeze a good degree of small-town sex appeal into the otherwise bland Susan Mayes. Never pining for a life that got away or an existence in the big city, she’s contented with being a small fish in a small pond – well, big ocean, anyway – and it’s easy for audiences to imagine that she’s happy growing old in a menial, unimportant job while taking care of dear ol’ dad (Willis Bouchey). Never one to complain, these days just might be the best she ever gets, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Where I struggle with Runner even being considered as a noir is the fact that if Ray is truly mentally incapable of making the right decision, then how can we fault him for continuing to break down? Granted, some might see this as splitting hairs or making a mountain out of a molehill; I’ll admit that it might seem insignificant, but if the man is so catastrophically hard-wired to resort to murder when his stressors are sufficiently triggered, then his desire to remain behind bars (or, at least, in the mental hospital from the beginning) was his best impulse. Society refused it, so … who’s really to blame here? Ray? Or the ones who threw him carelessly to the four winds?
The Night Runner (1957) was produced by Universal International Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the good people at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought the sights and sounds to his reported brand new 2K remastering were very, very good. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? The disc boasts a commentary track from author Lee Gambin and Dr. Eloise Ross along with the theatrical trailer.
Recommended, but …
As I tried to be clear above, The Night Runner is a very good film. It has a good story along with a measure of socially conscious messaging about both how society treats some innocent victims as well as what causes them to potentially snap as a result. The acting is quite good, though maybe a bit ham-handed and/or simple in a few spots. But, overall, where I struggle with its noir elements is I never saw our lead even remotely in control of the choices he made given his pronounced mental state. Some might dismiss this as a kinda/sorta chicken/egg conundrum, and yet I still expect my noirs to show me broken people making broken decisions of their own accord. Call me old-fashioned, if you must, but maybe that’s just how I’m wired.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary The Night Runner (1957) – as part of their Film Noir: The Dark Side Of Cinema XIII collection – by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.