Long Night, The (1947): Litvak’s Noir Crime Drama, Starring Henry Fonda

Anatole Litvak produced and directed The Long Night, a noir crime-drama, a loose remake of Marcel Carné’s classic, Le Jour Se Lève (1939).

The title of the original French film is an idiom, which translates roughly as “dawn is breaking.”

The drama stars Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price and Ann Dvorak.


The Long Night

theatrical release poster


The Long Night marks the screen debut of Barbara Bel Geddes, after which she was signed by RKO to a seven-year contract.

In the first scene, a dead man tumbles down a flight of stairs. When the police arrive at the top-floor apartment of Joe Adams (Henry Fonda), he shoots at them through the door. The sheriff calls in reinforcements and sets up snipers on nearby rooftops.

Adams then begins a recollection of the occurrences leading up to this event.

The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks, and even a flashback within a flashback, as Joe recalls what Jo Ann told him about her life before they met.

He recalls his first chance encounter with Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), who works in a flower shop. It turns out they had been raised in the same orphanage.

Finding her behavior suspicious, he follows her to a nightclub where Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price) is performing a magic act on stage. At the bar, Joe gets to know Charlene (Ann Dvorak), who recently quit as Max’s assistant.

Max claims to be Jo Ann’s long-lost father. She was picked out of the audience one night by Charlene and brought on stage to take part in the act, then continued a relationship. Jo Ann fiercely denies to Joe, however, that Max is related to her. In fact, she insists that she had to physically fend off Max’s romantic advances to her.

The two women have feelings for Joe but leave him mystified, particularly when both appear to have received exactly the same brooch from Max as a gift. Jo Ann naively believes that hers is a rare antique that once belonged to Montezuma’s daughter. The more worldly-wise Charlene suggests she believed Max’s line at first too, but she now has a whole display card of them marked at a price of 85 cents each. He is not sure whom to trust, and when Max comes to his apartment to kill him, Joe shoots first, sending Max falling to his death.

When Max first arrives at Joe’s shabby boarding house room, he demands that he leave Jo Ann alone. In the ensuing argument Joe pushes Max halfway out of the window but cannot bring himself to kill his rival. Max observes that it is not so easy to kill a man, and shows Joe the pistol he brought with the intention of shooting him.

Max, who has always been pretentiously snobbish, begins to taunt Joe. He tells him that he thinks Joe is beneath him, and then begins to insinuate that he and Jo Ann had a sexual relationship. Joe becomes enraged and shoots Max.

Police are about to smoke him out with tear gas when Jo Ann arrives. She manages to talk Joe into giving himself up, promising to wait for him if he is sent away to prison. Joe had considered himself friendless, but most of the assembled crowd, including Joe’s coworker and neighbor Bill Pulanski, and Frank Dunlap, a blind man who lives in the neighborhood, support him.

When RKO acquired distribution rights to Le Jour Se Lève, they also sought to buy up all available prints of the original film and destroy them. For a time, it was thought that the French film had been lost completely, but copies of it reappeared in the 1950s and its classic status was re-established.

The score for the film makes extensive use of the famous Allegretto second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

The Life magazine review panned the movie, blaming “Hollywood commercialism and the stultifying institution of censorship” for the film’s poor quality, noting that, “because anything having to do with incest is banned from U.S. films by censors and because Hollywood considers sad endings unprofitable, a moving and mature tragedy has been remade into melodramatic goulash.”

A commercial flop, the film earned less than $1 million at the box office.

Henry Fonda as Joe Adams
Barbara Bel Geddes as Jo Ann
Vincent Price as Maximilian
Ann Dvorak as Charlene
Howard Freeman as Sheriff Ned Meade
Moroni Olsen as Chief of Police
Elisha Cook Jr. as Frank Dunlap
Queenie Smith as Mrs. Tully
David Clarke as Bill Pulanski
Charles McGraw as Policeman Stevens
Patty King as Peggy


Directed by Anatole Litvak
Produced by Litvak, Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim
Screenplay by Jacques Viot, John Wexley, based on the screenplay of Le Jour Se Lève by Jacques Prévert Jacques Viot
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Sol Polito
Edited by Robert Swink
Distributed by RKO Pictures
Release date: August 6, 1947 (US)
Running time: 101 minutes