Henry Levin never met an American film genre that he didn’t like or – maybe more accurately – that didn’t like him.
Levin was a genial extrovert who though he took the craft of directing films seriously showed no inclination at all towards making ones that were self-important or portentous. To him a successful movie was a good-story-well-told and told in a lively and entertaining way. He wanted most to please audiences and to give good box office.
For nearly four decades this quintessential Hollywood director cheerfully marshalled a very long parade of popcorn projects which included westerns, adventure stories, musicals, comedies, family dramas, crime pictures, spy thrillers, and nearer the end of his career, action flicks.
‘Night Editor’, a tightly-wound little crime chiller released in 1946, was one of Levin’s earliest assignments. Even then, Levin showed that he had the ability to deliver the goods and with panache. The film clearly describes the brisk yet personable directorial style that would mark his work until the end.
Though the low-budget Columbia programmer was never intended by the studio to have a long working life, the film has stubbornly refused since its release to turn in its badge and continues to slap pleasure ‘cuffs on most who’ve see it.
Fortunately, getting to view this demented little chiller - other than at festival screenings or via some murky video iteration - recently became easier with Columbia’s inclusion of the film in a DVD box set with the summarily provocative title of ‘Bad Girls of Film Noir’.
And aren’t we glad, because ‘Night Editor’ is as about as solid a hard-boiled artifact of early classic B-noir as can be found, outshadowing even ‘The Devil Thumbs a Ride’ when it comes to dishing out low-rent seediness.
The movie had its origins amid the darkened universe of pulp fiction and was based upon an earlier weekly radio series in which a newspaper editor gives the ‘inside’ on some tawdry crime. In ‘Night Editor’, the tale is specifically cautionary, recounted for the benefit of a young reporter who’s been boozing, dogging it at work and neglecting his family.
The story unwinds in flashback and centers on a cop named Tony Cochrane (William Gargan), a dour, charmless cop and faithless husband who’s got it bad for a high-class society babe, Jill Merrill (Janice Carter) who’s also married.
While parked in a lovers’ lane one night, the two witness a woman being beaten to death with a tire iron. Cochrane goes to respond but Merrill holds him back. He ends up neither pursuing the killer nor reporting the murder. This reckless inaction leaves him in a bad situation which only gets worse when the body is found and Cochrane is assigned to the case as the investigating detective.
Compromised from the outset, he now has to work hard to cover his tracks both figuratively and literally (his car’s tire tracks have been found at the crime scene and now are what his boss Ole Strom (Paul E. Burns) believes to be the most important clue).
Eventually what little that’s left still up propping up Cochrane’s whole pretense gets kicked out from under him when a man whom the detective knows for certain is not the killer is arrested, tried and sentenced to death.
However, Cochrane’s troubles on the job fall away in comparison to the personal torment delivered to him by Jill Merrill, one of the iciest, most treacherous, morally unhinged femme fatales in all of film noir.
It has to be said that it’s not at all clear why the likes of Merrill would ever bother with a lumpen character like Cochrane, unless he’s got a gorilla in his pants. The glamor doll does seem to have a thing for sex, though of what kind we’re not sure. In the film’s most notorious scene, she’s about to launch like a rocket, shouting, ‘I want to see the body’!’ Cochrane reacts by getting out of there as fast as he can, unsettled as much by Merrill’s voyeuristic frenzy as by the murder itself.
It’s also never been clear – at least to modern audiences - why Janis Carter, a strikingly beautiful, vivacious and not untalented actress, did not have a bigger career than she did. Carter featured in thirty-odd films but never came close to achieving lasting stardom. If it were not for her (in)famous turns in a number of more minor noirish crime dramas such as ‘Framed’, ‘I Love Trouble’, ‘The Missing Juror’, ‘The Woman on Pier 13’, as well several titles of ‘The Whistler’ series, Carter would be all but forgotten. Karen Burroughs Hannsberry’s ambitiously inclusive biographical dictionary,’ Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film’ (1998) even fails to reference her contribution to film noir.
Arguably, Carter’s recognition problem stems from the fact that in the overall she presented a rather bifurcated screen persona. On one hand, she was the personification of a 1940’s calendar pin-up as painted by Edward Runci or T.N. Thompson – a tantalizing mix of both movie star beauty and sophistication and idealized girl-next-door exuberance and playfulness. As defined by those attributes, Carter might reasonably have been expected to have found sure footing in comedies and musicals (her background had been in opera and theater).
On the other, she just as much could play it aloof, willful, calculating, and wicked - probably too easily and too well. By default or by choice, her career path would seem to have been one of least resistance, a path which took Janis Carter down some of B-noir’s seediest side streets to places where she would often and shamelessly act out her inner bad-girl. If conventional stardom eluded her, certainly status as cherished cult-actress has not.
And Carter’s Jill Merrill is bad. But even as obsessed with her as Tony Cochrane is, he knows what she’s about and early on tries to rid himself of her in an exchange that’s as ripe as good pulp noir gets:
Him: ‘You’re no good for me. We both add up to zero. I’m sick of the whole crazy mess. I’m sick of playing games. You’re worse than blood poisoning. You’re rotten-rick through and through. Like something that’s served at the Ritz that’s been laying out in the sun too long’
Her: ‘To hear you talk you’d think I was crawling after you. I don’t need you and I can buy and sell you. That’s right, Tony, you’re not my kind. But your little tootsie-wootsie loves her great big stupid peasant’.
While ‘Night Editor’s exterior framing device - that of a troubled young reporter - is unapologetically sentimental and dopey, the movie’s interior narrative, the story of Tony and Jill, is unapologetically unsentimental, tough, and sleazy.
The film also is strikingly well-constructed and fluid both in the direction and camerawork – the latter thanks to the work of cinematographer Burnett Guffey who became one of the film noir’s most subtle and emotionally attuned visual stylists e.g. ‘In a Lonely Place’, ‘Nightfall’, ‘The Brothers Rico’, ‘Scandal Street’, ‘Tightspot‘, ‘The Harder They Fall’, Knock on Any Door’, ‘The Reckless Moment’, ‘Human Desire’, ‘The Sniper’.
Levin’s ‘Night Editor’ initially was intended as a pilot for a series of like films to follow, with stories further told by veteran police beat reporters. The series never happened but at least ‘Night Editor’ did.
And thank heaven for that. Without it and similar small mercies with some of the same deranged impulses, film noir would hardly be as compelling - or as much fun.
Other NOTW’s by Night Editor:
They Made Me a Fugitive
The Big Steal
Look in Any Window
Cast a Dark Shadow