Wednesday, February 7, 2018
DVR Diary: THE NIGHT VISITOR (1971)
To answer the theoretical question, "What if Ingmar Bergman made his film debut directing a Monogram mystery film?" Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and fellow Swedish star Per Oscarsson performed in English for director Laszlo Benedek and producer Mel Ferrer. Scripter Guy Elmes adapted a story by American writer Sam Roeca set, like many a contemporary Italian giallo, in Great Britain, with the Swedes playing Britons alongside such authentic but indifferent performers as Trevor Howard and Andrew Keir. By this point von Sydow was quite fluent in English -- he's one of the very best English-as-second-language actors -- but Ullmann in particular, in a largely thankless role, strikes me as rather wooden in her first or second English performance (depending on what language she spoke on the set of Terence Young's Cold Sweat), while Oscarsson gets a pass because he's playing an escalating hysteric. The Night Visitor is meant to be a shocker, and it shocks right at the start by showing us von Sydow running amok in a wintry landscape in his skivvies. The fire of revenge keeps him warm, apparently, since his character, Salem, proves to be a wrongly convicted, allegedly insane prisoner who's escaped to punish those who framed him, particularly Dr. Jencks (Oscarsson). Jencks sees Salem during his first rampage, but the escapee sees no need to silence his enemy. He's confident that no one will believe he's escaped, since he plans to return to prison in time to be questioned by the local policeman (Howard). The story isn't a whodunit but a howdedoit, and the middle section of the film reveals Salem's elaborate arrangements, which range from manipulating a dotty chess-enthusiast guard to performing Fairbanksian or at least Lancastrian acrobatics making his way down from his high cell in the hilltop asylum. I never knew Max von Sydow to be a do-his-own-stunts type guy, but he's quite impressive here, especially when you take the in-his-underwear-in-the-cold factor into consideration. The scene loses some of its inherent suspense once you remind yourself that Salem's supposed to have done this before. It might be more interesting in a Count of Monte Cristo way to see him planning and experimenting his way out the first time, or if we didn't see him killing the first time and had to take Jencks's word that he saw him. The way the film actually goes about it only emphasizes how implausibly elaborate Salem's scheme is. Anyway, it now develops that Salem, who strangely feels the cold more the second time out, wants to frame Jencks for the axe-murder of Mrs. Jencks, Salem's own sister (Ullmann) and/or drive him insane with his impossible appearances. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if not for that meddling parrot! If you want that one explained, you have to watch the picture -- or, if you're lucky, you can look it up online.