The Night Holds Terror, 1955. 6.5/10

Kind of late to the film noir landscape, The Night Holds Terror has a split focus. The first part is pretty tense noir, but, then a Dragnet-like (voice-over) police procedural tone hijacks the plot, leaving us wondering what movie we’re watching. Actually, once this hitchhiker-turned-home-invasion plot gets rolling, the domestic scene has already worn out its welcome, so to speak.

Jack Kelly is our primary victim, Gene Courtier; Hildy Parks plays Doris, Gene’s wife. John Cassettes, Vince Edwards, and David Cross are the criminals Robert (the leader), Victor (the easily-led kid), and Luther. And there’s neighbor Phyllis (Joyce McCluskey).

Our too-trusting hero Gene picks up Victor, a Farley Granger type guy, on the desert highway. In short order Gene’s about to be executed by the trio of hoods. An excellent beginning, both because the creeps toy with him, and we wonder if they’re too chicken to really kill. Also the complete randomness of the abduction rolls straight out of the existentialist noir garage.

That is, if their mark had more cash on him (hood #1 Robert mistaking Gene’s car for a luxury model) probably not much more than an everyday robbery would’ve occured. But the shifting sights of the criminals, along with consequent unintended developments, determines that we have our story.

Typical of this sort of movie–but mindful of its true-crime origins–there’s more than a few opportunities for Gene to either escape, or turn the tables on the bad guys. Well, he does try, especially once we get to the home front.

That transition is deftly-handled. Doris naturally freaks, but doesn’t start drooling or getting manic; she’s hostile of course, but savvy enough not to show how much, as she has to protect the kids. Luckily, the kids aren’t directly victimized. Gene gets beat up here and there though; and the creep master tries to make out with Doris.

What’s interesting is the cliched–but believable–device of the loose-cannon/weak link of the criminals. It’s obvious from the beginning that Victor doesn’t want to be there; later he admits that he doesn’t really know the other two guys, but was just in it for some quick bucks.

In any case, there’s the inevitable hurdles of inquisitive callers–both in person, and on the phone. This type of movie works best when every bit of ordinary life–a delivery, the ringing phone–is full of meaning. One divisive bit is Gene selling his car to meet the hoods demands; there’s the small complication that the net cash is short; Gene owed on it.

Or did he? That’s apparently a ruse the two domineering creeps foist on Victir to up their share. “Of all the cheap, low-down, lousy, double-crossing…!!” True enough, man. Then Gene gets sneaky–he’s got the advantage of knowing what’s in every nook and cranny–and almost cuts one of them in half with a huge pair of scissors. Then the weakling actually pulls his gun on the sharpie who retaliates.

Finally, (50 minutes in) they leave the house–with Gene as hostage; they’ve actually got a plausible idea. Shake down Gene’s apparently wealthy dad for a couple hundred Gs. Anyway, the house setting was getting stale, so the change is welcome. But this is where the Jack Webb-like police presence chimes in.

What’s clever, though, is that the bad guy’s car is wired into the police band; so, we don’t need a voice over to hear the dispatcher, etc. The other cool thing is that they’re going to know right away if Doris has called the cops. Then there’s a spike of tension when the dispatcher calls out a nearly identical crime.

Since the goons are gone, Doris can afford to at least let her neighbor-friend in on the deal. When the miscreants are tooling around in the desert with Gene, the rich dad kidnapping idea comes up. It’s such a no-brainer, that Victor calls them “a couple of chrome-plated jerks!” for overlooking the obvious.

They, however, find a reason to call Doris a “tomato.” Shortly thereafter, the narrator jumps in with both feet and the kitchen sink. Thankfully, TV is used to spice up the info; news of a similar case’s nasty outcome for those criminals perks up our perpetrators’ ears. The boss goes into town to get a different car.

The punk kid and Gene overcome the other goon, but the boss returns before they can escape. The kid gets shot. Anyway, pops gets on the line with the boss to discuss the money drop. This time the cops are able to trace the call; the law is rolling, converging on the phone booth.

This is a good sequence–a lot of action, no narration. The ensuing shoot- out is partly shown, and partly just heard by Doris, who’s still on the line with Gene. That’s original, and draws out the scene, in effect multiplying it’s impact. Gene’s cool. Bad guys lose–the end.

A fine beginning, good built-up, and crackling ending. But a big chunk of this movie kind of wanders off; maybe it’s not so much the narration stuff as the slowed pacing just before the ending, and some needless scenes stuffed in. If this were ten minutes shorter it would be much tighter and more memorable.

The acting wasn’t at all bad–the three criminals, in particular, had distinct motives and personalities. Gene was earnest enough, but kind of a cipher; Doris, on the other hand, showed a great deal of nuance. She added quite a bit of authenticity; her role made the key domestic aspect of the plot flow as well as it did.

Despite its flaws, The Night Holds Terror manages to entertain. 6.5/10.

Finally,

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