Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Night Visitor, The (1971)

... aka: L'assassino arriva sempre alle 10 (The Murderer Always Arrives at 10)
... aka: Lunatic
... aka: O visitante inesperado (An Unexpected Visitor)
... aka: Papegojan
... aka: Perfekte Rache (Perfect Revenge)
... aka: Salem Come to Supper
... aka: Tappaja yöstä (The Night Killer)

Directed by:
László Benedek

The first image we see in The Night Visitor is of a tall stone building silently sitting atop a snow-covered hill at night. A shadowed figure soon comes into frame, scales down the rocky embankment and begins hurriedly running through the woods. When the figure finally comes into view, we realize the guy's wearing only a t-shirt, underwear and boots. No, he's not a member of the Polar Bear Club, but an escapee from that tall building (an insane asylum), and he - Salem (Max von Sydow) - is about to head home. Er, what used to be his home. Once he arrives, he sneaks inside through an upstairs window and makes it there just in time to eavesdrop on an argument his sister Emmie (Hanne Bork) is having with their other sister Ester (Liv Ullmann) and her husband Anton (Per Oscarrson). Ester and Anton want to sell the home and farm and move elsewhere so that Anton, a doctor, can make more money. Emmie refuses. As for Salem, he has other ideas in mind, namely revenge for being convicted for a crime he may not have actually committed.

Salem steals a neck tie, a syringe and three bottles of morphine from the doctor's bag and manages to run back outside without being noticed. His first stop is the bedroom of a startled young girl named Britt (Lotte Freddie). After strangling her to death, he sneaks back into his former home to return the tie and bashes in Emmie's skull while he's there. Salem makes sure his presence known to his brother-and-law before fleeing into the night once again. When a police inspector (Trevor Howard) shows up to look into matters, Anton finds himself in the rather precarious situation of having to explain matters. Not only were his tie and his paper weight used to kill both victims, but the man he claims has murdered them had never even left his cell at the asylum. That is, according to the hospital staff, who claim he's carefully locked up in his cell each and every night. The Inspector even goes on a tour of the drafty seaside hospital and learns from Dr. Kemp (Andrew Keir) just how impossible it would be to escape from there. Of course, where there's a will, there's a way.

All of these bizarre events transpire because someone took an axe to an inquisitive farmhand who stumbled upon something incriminating two years earlier. Salem, who had full control of the farm prior to being incarcerated, ended up taking the fall despite having no hand in the crime. That turns out not to be coincidental or a miscarriage of justice, but a frame-up by design. Both of his sisters, his girlfriend, his brother-in-law and his worthless lawyer (Rupert Davies), who was paid off to change the plea from innocent to guilty by reason of insanity, all had a hand in getting him put away. But there's nothing like spending two years in a nuthouse to get the cerebral hamster wheel spinning and Salem has devised an ingenious way to finally get his revenge.

A great film in many ways, this is well-made and nicely shot by Henning Kristiansen, has an effectively minimalist score from Henry Mancini, is very well acted (especially by von Sydow) and boasts a very clever premise. One particularly interesting touch is a talking parrot that ends up becoming the 'Poe Black Cat' of the story. There's wonderfully chilly atmosphere, with the windy, wintry landscapes of Scandinavia (parts were filmed in both Sweden and at the Asa and Laterna Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark) making for a perfect backdrop.

People frequently compare this to Ingmar Bergman and that's one thing I cannot really agree with. Sure, it was filmed in Sweden and, sure, it features Bergman stars von Sydow and Ullmann, but the similarities pretty much end right there. I wish it were true, though. This film suffers most from shallow characterizations and a curious absence of psychological depth, so if anything it could have used a little shot of Bergman. The best moments here are found in the suspense department and the director has managed to stage several great, heart-racing sequences. The resolution is simultaneously clever and unsatisfying; clever in that it's completely unexpected and unsatisfying because it doesn't feel fully realized.

This was the second-to-last film for Hungarian-born director Benedek, who began his career in Europe at the tail end of the silent era and eventually came to the states to work for MGM. His greatest claims to fame came early on: directing the classic adaptation of Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman (1951), which won him a Golden Globe, and then following that up with the controversial (and now somewhat iconic) biker flick The Wild One (1953) starring Marlon Brandon. While the latter was a hit with teenagers, it caused a stir with critics and conservative moralist groups at the time and was even banned in several countries. Its success was sort of a double-edged sword for the director, who'd spent most of the rest of his career working on television. While Visitor isn't all that widely-seen, it's still probably the director's most widely-seen outside of the two films just mentioned. Actor Mel Ferrer was the producer.

Visitor debuted in February 7th, 1971 in Sweden (under the title Papegojan) and would make its U.S. debut (distributed by Universal Marion Films with a GP / PG rating) just three days later in New York City under the Night Visitor title. A critical blurb from Look Magazine used in many of the ads - "If your flesh doesn't crawl, it's on too tight!" - was later reused as a tagline for Bob Clark's proto-slasher BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). The reviews were mixed and it quickly sank from view. In 1981, it was briefly re-released by 21st Century Film Corporation under the new title "Lunatic" and again disappeared. United / VCI Home Video released it on VHS at least three different times here in America (twice in the 80s and once in 1991) but it took them until late 2013 to finally get this one out on DVD. I didn't watch the new remastered version, but I'm sure you already knew that looking at the screen caps.


1 comment:

kochillt said...

This was a film I viewed with my father on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater back in 1978, and we've enjoyed revisiting it several times since. Now that he's passed on it remains one of our joint favorites.

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