The Long Night starts well, only to lose its way in the third act.
The story opens with a murder. We’re inside an apartment building on the working-class side of the tracks. We hear gunshots. A man staggers out of a unit holding his gut and tumbles down the stairs. The police arrive. They attempt to extract the shooter. Through a door, the shooter says he wants to be left alone. We recognize the voice as Henry Fonda’s.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Henry Fonda plays Joe, a veteran recently returned from World War II. He’s a wholesome guy. He drinks milk and uses exclamations like, “No kidding!”
One day, while working as a sandblaster at the local plant, Joe meets a young girl named Jo Anne, played by Barbara Bel Geddes. Joe and Jo Anne hit it off. The film would have us believe this is natural since they’re both orphans and they’re both named Joe. They begin dating. Joe falls hard.
One night, Jo Anne cancels a date with Joe. She has something to do. Joe says that’s fine, but takes Jo Anne’s favorite stuffed animal hostage as a bit of insurance that she’ll see him again. It’s a nice touch that gives Joe some edge and helps make the film’s later events more plausible.
Joe ends up tailing Jo Anne to a dingy club where a magician is performing. Vincent Price plays the magician. We recognize him as the man who was shot during the film’s opening.
At the bar, Joe meets Charlene, played by Ann Dvorak. Through Charlene, we learn the magician’s name is Maximilian. Charlene was one of his assistants. She’s just now decided to leave him, having grown tired of his manipulative ways.
Joe watches Jo Anne. She seems enraptured by Maximilian’s performance and approaches him after the show. Maximilian’s tells her to meet him at his table. Joe’s seen enough.
Before joining Jo Anne, however, Maximilian approaches Joe and Charlene at the bar. It’s here we get our first taste of Maximilian’s condescending wit. He tries to cajole Charlene into changing her mind. Joe tells Maximilian to scram. Maximilian replies with a sarcastic grin, “My friend, there is no one I would like disagreeing with more than you. However, under the circumstances, there’s hardly any point in continuing our conversation.” Then, to Charlene, “Till tomorrow, my dear.”
Charlene develops a torch for Joe. Joe, feeling hurt by Jo Anne, uses Charlene for companionship. She’s more or less emotional collateral damage by the film’s end. Dvorak makes the most of a part that exists only to show Joe turning to the dark side when he thinks he’s lost Jo Anne.
As the story goes on, we learn the depths of Maximilian’s debauchery. How he’s seduced and manipulated countless naive young girls like Jo Anne. Each new bit of knowledge cuts at Joe.
It all builds to a showdown between Joe and Maximilian. The confrontation doesn’t disappoint. Price is great in the part despite being a decade too young. Like all of Price’s best roles, he plays a showman, one capable of immense charm on stage, and immense debauchery off stage. He talks circles around Fonda, each word dripping with condescension. Fonda plays on this, his frustration building and building until it boils over.
Which brings us to where we came in. And here’s where movie goes wrong. The tone shifts from noir to populist drama. The town rallies around Joe in his standoff with the police. Jo Anne fights through a never-ending mob in an effort to reach Joe. She’s knocked down by someone carrying a bicycle. Won’t the police please just let her talk to Joe, she pleads. But they won’t. Which leads to more shots of Jo Anne fighting her way through the crowd. As if this all weren’t bad enough, the film closes on a cornball line. As he’s escorted out by the police, Joe asks one of the crowd for a light. The man lights Joe’s cigarette and asks, “How you doing, Joe?” Joe replies, “I think we’ll make it, Freddy. Just about make it.”
No Joe, not with a disingenuous ending like that, you won’t.