Night People (1954): Cold War Thriller Starring Gregory Peck

Nunnally Johnson directed this Cold War spy thriller, with an all-star cast, headed by Gregory Peck and Broderick Crawford.

Shot on location, the story is set in Berlin after World War II, when the city was divided by the three Western Allied powers but not yet isolated by the Berlin Wall.

Corporal John “Johnny” Leatherby, a young American soldier in Occupied Berlin is kidnapped.  Lt. Col. Steve Van Dyke, the American marshal assigned to investigate, learns through his East German contact Frau “Hoffy” Hoffmeir that the U.S. soldier has been kidnapped by East German agents who want to trade him for elderly Germans, a man and woman living incognito in West Berlin.

The Soviet Union has closed border posts into Berlin, leading to impending international crisis. Johnny’s father, Charles Leatherby, is a wealthy and politically influential industrialist from Toledo, Ohio. He flies to Berlin to bully the military bureaucracy into finding his son. Accustomed to being in charge and never refused, he issues a demand that the military attempt to bribe the East German government using Leatherby’s money. Van Dyke, offended by Leatherby’s arrogance and ignorance, says he could have Leatherby arrested for attempting to buy his son’s release.

Van Dyke wants to show Leatherby the cost of the trade: the elderly female piano player and her blind husband (caused by the Nazis during the War) are the ransom demanded for Johnny’s return.

While the Americans move to detain them for forged identity papers, the couple attempts suicide. Van Dyke then takes them to a U.S. military hospital under the care of Major Foster, the doctor in charge. The husband is near death, while the wife is in better shape. In interrogating her, Eddy discovers that she is English and demanding to talk to someone in British Intelligence.

The woman identifies herself as Rachel Cameron, wife of Gen. Gerd von Kratzenow, an anti-Nazi conspirator, and that the people in East Berlin wanting them are not Russians but former Nazis working now with the communists.

Leatherby begins to understand the complications involved: Friends are really enemies, and adversaries secret allies. Van Dyke learns that Col. Lodejinski has been betrayed attempting to escape to the West and has committed suicide with his family. He is told that Rachel acted as a spy for the Allies during the war. Van Dyke considers submitting to the demands and trading the elderly couple for the soldier.

While using Hoffy, with whom Van Dyke had once engaged in a love affair, as an intermediary, he causes jealousy on the part of his secretary, Ricky Cates. Hoffy’s loyalty comes under question, as she is the common. Van Dyke arranges for Johnny to be delivered by Russian ambulance to the American hospital, but concocts a dangerous double-cross in which he has to poison himself to succeed.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Motion Picture Story: Jed Harris and Tom Reed.

Oscar Awards: None

The winner was Philip Yordan for Broken Lance.

Cast

Gregory Peck as Lt. Col. Steve Van Dyke

Broderick Crawford as Charles Leatherby

Anita Björk as “Hoffy” Hoffmeir

Rita Gam as Ricky Cates

Walter Abel as Maj. R.A. Foster

Buddy Ebsen as M/Sgt. Eddie McColloch

Max Showalter as Frederick S. Hobart

Jill Esmond as Frau Schindler / Rachel Cameron