Sunday, February 28, 2016

Christmas noir: Remember the Night

Four years before they appeared as the fatally attracted couple in Billy Wilder's film noir classic Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck co-starred in Remember the Night (1940, directed by Mitchell Leisen, screenplay by Preston Sturges). Up until now I've always thought that the bleakest holiday movie was Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but Remember the Night manages to be even darker. The DVD cover calls it "a heartwarming holiday classic"; heartwrenching is more like it.

The movie begins a few days before Christmas. Amid the New York holiday throngs, "Lee Leander" (Stanwyck) is arrested for shoplifting an expensive bracelet. [1] It's clear that she does so deliberately and with premeditation—it's not a misunderstanding or a moment of forgetfulness. Despite being caught red-handed, she pleads not guilty and is put on trial. Rising young assistant district attorney John Sargent (MacMurray) is picked to prosecute the case because of his track record of convicting women: he uses his "niceness" to sway juries whose sympathies might otherwise lie with the accused.

We learn during the trial that Lee has a history of thievery, committed under a series of aliases; this is far from her first offense. But with a dramatic closing argument her lawyer is about to get her acquitted when Sargent, seizing on a technical error by the defense, presses for a continuation until after the holidays. Lee, on the verge of freedom, is remanded to spend Christmas and New Year's Eve in jail. Sargent feels a twinge of conscience, and in an impulsive moment of generosity asks bondsman Fat Mike (Tom Kennedy) to bail her out.

Fat Mike brings Lee to Sargent's apartment. He thinks that Sargent has bailed her out in exchange for sex, and she thinks the same thing:
Sargent: "What are you doing here?"
Lee: "I don't know yet, but I've got a rough idea." [2]

After Sargent explains that he isn't expecting any favors, the conversation takes a turn:
Lee: "You mean, I don't have to stay here if I don't want to?"
Sargent (trying to get her to leave): "You most certainly do not."
Lee (after a moment's thought): "Then I'll stay—but I won't be forced."
Sargent: "Hey, now, wait a minute!..."
Lee: "You know, there's nothing so dangerous as a square shooter. If all men were like you there wouldn't be any nice girls left."
It's remarkable that in an era which was governed by the puritanical Production Code, the heroine of Remember the Night—a serial thief who has clearly faced sexual coercion in the past—can frankly express her willingness to sleep with the hero. Stanwyck, of course, often played hardbitten but sympathetic women with complicated histories; it's difficult to imagine any other actress in this role.

One reason Lee is willing to stay is that she has no other place to go: the hotel where she's been staying has locked her out for non-payment (perhaps this was the motive for shoplifting the bracelet). Sargent, though, just wants to get rid of her. He's about to drive back to Indiana to see his mother for Christmas, and Lee is a complication he doesn't need. But then he finds out that Lee grew up just 50 miles away from his home town:
Sargent: "How long since you've been home?"
Lee: "Never."
Sargent: "Why?"
Lee: "I ran away."
Sargent: "Well, I don't know what the circumstances were, of course..."
Lee: "Not so hot."
Sargent tries to give her some reassurance: "Time takes care of those things." (The very next thing we learn is that Lee's father is dead; perhaps time has taken care of some of those things.)

Sargent has a brainstorm: he offers to take Lee back to see her mother for Christmas, and pick her up on his way back. As the sentimental "My Indiana Home" plays in the background (with an uncredited Martha Mears on vocals), Lee—overcome by Sargent's kindness, and feeling a surge of misplaced nostalgia—lets her emotions sway her judgment. As we know from other films noir, that's never a good idea.

After downing a couple of scotches (it's 1940, after all), they hit the road. Our first sign that things aren't going to go smoothly on this trip is that in the middle of the night they encounter a detour, take a wrong turn and wind up stranded in a cow pasture. The next morning a shotgun-toting farmer arrests them for trespassing, destruction of property (his fence), and petty larceny (a thermos of fresh milk), hinting that Sargent has brought Lee across state lines for immoral purposes. They're dragged before the local justice of the peace, where it's clear that the farmer and the justice make a nice supplemental income from wayward travellers. After giving obviously false names, they're facing jail time when Lee tosses a lit match into an overflowing wastepaper basket; in the ensuing chaos they escape. Both literally and metaphorically, Sargent has left the straight and narrow:
Lee: "It must feel kind of funny for you to be a fugitive from justice."
Sargent: "Very funny"...
Lee: "It's better than going to jail, isn't it? I told you my mind worked differently!"
Sargent: "Do you realize that house is probably in flames a mile high?"
Lee: "I hope it is."
Sargent: "Well so do I—but what's that got to do with the morals of the case?"
Lee: "What have morals got to do with it? You've treated me like your sister."
By the time they roll into Lee's home town, night has fallen again, and she's feeling very apprehensive about seeing her mother for the first time in ten years. The dark, gloomy family home does not make her feel less nervous:

And for good reason. What follows is one of the most harrowing mother-daughter confrontations in American film. Ten years has not dimmed the anger of Lee's mother (Georgia Caine) or softened her animosity towards her daughter. By the end of their brief but bitter conversation the tough, cynical Lee is in tears. "I've forgotten how much that woman hates me...and how much I hate her," she says, a line still retains the power to shock.

Sargent realizes that it would be cruel to leave the desolated Lee on her own, and on the spur of the moment he decides that he's going to bring her home with him. Sargent's family is everything that Lee's isn't: warm, welcoming, and nonjudgmental, even after he's revealed to his widowed mother exactly who Lee is, and what awaits them when the holidays are over. Mrs. Sargent (Beulah Bondi) refuses to believe that Lee is a hardened criminal:
Mrs. Sargent: "Do you remember when you took my egg money I was going to buy a new dress with? And then how hard you worked to pay it back when you did understand?"
Sargent: "You made me understand."
Mrs. Sargent: "No, dear. It was love that made you understand."
Love was missing from Lee's home, but she finds it in Sargent's. His mother and his Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) give her acceptance and trust, and she discovers in herself some unexpected yearnings for domesticity. She is falling in love with Sargent and his world, but he's steadfastly oblivious to his own developing feelings. At least, that is, until the night of the "old-fashioned" barn dance on New Year's Eve, when Lee appears in Aunt Emma's old wedding dress:

Up until now, Lee has generally worn black; in a white bridal gown, she appears transformed, and Sargent suddenly realizes how dazzling she is. If their journey together has caused Sargent to bend the laws he is sworn to uphold, it has shown Lee what it might mean to have a loving home and family. As Sturges later wrote of Remember the Night, "love reformed her and corrupted him." [3]

But Sargent is not the only one who is newly aware of his feelings; his mother also perceives them, and is troubled. That night after the dance she visits Lee as she's getting ready for bed. The conversation that follows is devastating, as Mrs. Sargent gently pleads with Lee not to allow her love for her son to destroy everything that he has worked for, and everything he might become. For the second time in the journey, Lee faces the blasting of her hopes, and is left in tears.

On the way back to New York Sargent and Lee drive through Canada. (When asked at the border crossing for his reason for entering Canada, Sargent replies, "I'm a fugitive from justice." The border guard laughs.) At Niagara Falls, Lee tries to convince Sargent that neither of them loves the other. But, if he didn't before, Sargent now knows his true feelings. He spins a fantasy of their marriage and honeymoon:
Sargent: "You know where we're going on our honeymoon? Niagara Falls."
Lee: "Aren't we there now, darling?"

The spectacular falls (even if they are a studio effect) and their association with weddings and honeymoons sweep away the lovers' hesitations for one night. But when they return to New York, reality sets in. As Lee says to Sargent, "People aren't responsible for what they say in Niagara Falls. This is New York, this is today, and this is different." A resumption of her trial awaits.

Sargent now faces a critical choice. If Lee is acquitted, he can marry her, but the marriage would put an end to his career in the D.A.'s office and to his potential future in politics. If he wins a conviction, Lee will be sentenced to jail, and they'll be separated, possibly for years. Of course, Lee also has a critical choice to make, and it turns out that her choice will be decisive...

With its excellent cast, sharp dialogue, and understated direction, Remember the Night has all the ingredients of a Hollywood classic. So why isn't it better known? While its subject matter is pretty dark—a manipulable, corrupt, and unjust legal system; poverty; parental violence and abuse; social stigma—that's also true of other films that are far more famous: Double Indemnity, for one.

Perhaps one issue is Remember the Night's ambiguous ending; we're unsure of the couple's future, although it's clear that the odds are against them. But perhaps another reason this film hasn't quite achieved the same classic status as some of Sturges' other movies is the depiction of Sargent's manservant Rufus. Rufus is dimwitted, cringingly servile, and speaks in broad dialect. Near the beginning of the movie, Sargent's superior calls his apartment, and Rufus answers the phone:
Sargent: "If that's the office tell 'em I've already left."
Rufus: "Yassuh...yassuh....well, if dis is de office he's already lef'."
District Attorney: "Oh, my, no, this isn't his office! You just tell him a young woman wants to make an appointment with him."
Rufus: "It ain't de office...a young woman want to make an appointment wid you." [4]
Etc. The actor who portrayed Rufus was Fred "Snowflake" Toones, listed in the credits only as "Snowflake" (as my partner said after the credits, "I wouldn't want my name associated with that role either"). Toones, a dark-skinned black man—thus the "hilarity" of his stage name—was frequently cast in stereotypical servant, janitor, waiter, or shoeshine boy roles. (It must be noted, though, that his appearance as a cowering club car porter in Sturges' The Palm Beach Story (1942) hasn't seemed to affect the reception of that film.) Toones may have laughed, or seethed, all the way to the bank, but he can't be blamed for the racist caricature he was repeatedly called on to play. His scenes are hard to watch, though, and they mar what's otherwise a bleak masterpiece of Christmas noir.

  1. Stanwyck's character is rarely addressed by name in the movie, and it's clear that Lee Leander is not her birth name. In the trial scene her lawyer calls her "Anna-Rose Malone, sometimes known as Lee Leander," and her mother's name will turn out to be Malone. However, Preston Sturges' script (reprinted in Three More Screenplays by Preston Sturges (University of California Press, 1998) and the film's credits refer to her as Lee Leander, and as we'll see, there are significant reasons beyond her need for criminal aliases for her to have taken on a new identity. The one time that Sargent introduces her, midway through the film, it's highly significant that he calls her by her chosen rather than her birth name.
  2. This and all following quotes except the last one are transcribed dialogue from the film, which differs from the script published in Three More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, University of California Press, 1998. In my view, in every case where there is a difference between the scene as it appears in the film and the published script, the scene as shot is superior.
  3. Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, Simon & Schuster, 1990, p. 288
  4. Three More Screenplays, pp. 337-338. I've quoted from Sturges' published screenplay so that I can't be accused of exaggerating the representation of Rufus' speech.


  1. Sounds like a great movie, though possibly not 'heartwarming.' Have you ever read Connie Willis' collection of short Christmas stories, "Miracle"? She has a great introduction about the trickiness of writing good Christmas stories with a detour into the awful heartwarming Christmas movie:

    "In the twentieth century, the Andersen-style tearjerker moved into the movies, which starred Margaret O'Brien (who definitely deserved to die) and other child stars, chosen for their pallor and their ability to cough. They had titles like All Mine to Give and The Christmas Tree, which tricked hapless moviegoers into thinking they were going to see a cheery Christmas movie, when really they were about little boys who succumbed to radiation poisoning on Christmas Eve."

    1. Jean, many thanks for the quote from Connie Willis (of whom I was unaware, but this excerpt makes me want to read her stories). I think one of the remarkable things about Remember the Night is that it avoids typical tearjerker tropes. Lee, a serial thief who propositions the hero (and indeed, the couple apparently consummate their symbolic marriage when they reach Niagara Falls) is hardly innocent or virtuous in the eyes of the world. And Sargent, the representative of order and decency, takes a major detour from his law-abiding and -enforcing course. But both characters are all the more touching because they are so human.

      Many thanks for your comment!