Fear in the Night may be just another B movie designed to fill out a double bill, but it has some good things going for it. And that makes it a watchable, interesting noir.
Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelly), a pleasant, unexceptional young bank teller, wakes up one morning after a horrendous nightmare. He dreamed he was in a mirrored room, locked in a terrible fight with a strange man. He finds himself with a sharp-pointed awl in his hand and he drives it into the other man's chest. Then he drags the body into one of the small rooms behind one of the mirrored doors. When he wakes he's covered with sweat. He makes his way to the bathroom in the small hotel room he rents and finds thumbprints on his throat and blood on his hand. In his coat pocket he finds a blue button and an odd-shaped key. He makes his way to his sister's house to talk with her husband, Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly), a police detective. Herlihy just puts Cliff's story down to stress. But a couple of days later, driving out for a picnic with his girl friend, his sister and Cliff, Vince suggests they go to Salado Canyon, a place he's never been to before. In a downpour, Vince directs them to a large, dark house he's never seen. He knows where the key is under the mat. The house is empty, with the furniture and curtains covered by large, white drop cloths. He goes upstairs with Cliff and finds a small, mirrored room, and behind one of the mirrored doors, bloodstains.
Vince's nightmare is just beginning. Did he kill a man in the house? Why would he? Who were the two people killed there when Vince and Cliff talked with a local cop? Cliff Herlihy now is convinced that murders took place, that Vince wasn't responsible...and that Vince still might be a killer. Clever deductions take place, traps are set, and Vince almost pays with his life.
The movie may have been made to be the bottom half of a double bill, but is still is a lot of fun to watch. First of all, it's efficient. At just 72 minutes, the movie doesn't waste a moment. Blink your eyes and you'll lose a clue, miss a motivation or lose out on some affectionate by-play between the detective and his wife. Second, the movie has several nicely constructed moments. Vince's nightmare is well-handled. The house where the murder took place is big and a little creepy. Vince's hotel, the New Commodore, and the downtown street where it's located looks exactly like a lot of similar places in the late Forties. Vince's encounter with a man who is holding a candle is odd and unsettling. The relationship between Vince's sister, Lil Herlihy (Ann Doran) and her husband is a nice combination of affectionate bickering and genuine love. Third, while all the actors do nice jobs, Paul Kelly as Cliff Herlihy is a standout. Kelly was a fixture in B movies and he almost always was better than his material. He played bad guys and good guys, but his style was confident and tough. And he was tough. In the Twenties he spent two years in San Quentin for killing a man in a fist fight. He was a fine actor who, if given a chance, was just as good playing off-kilter or cowards. The scenes he has with Gloria Grahame in Crossfire are weird and memorable.
Most of all, the story has that terrific pulp noir feel; not great, perhaps, but satisfying. The story came from "Nightmare" by Cornell Woolrich writing as William Irish. Woolrich's pulp mysteries are still among the best, and I doubt if anyone had more noirish movies made from his books and stories. Here are some, from Wikipedia:
Original Sin (2001 film) (novel "Waltz into Darkness")
Union City (1980 film) (short story "The Corpse Next Door")
Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972 film) (novel Rendezvous in Black)
Nightmare (1956) (story)
Rear Window (1954) (story "It Had to Be Murder")
No Man of Her Own (1950) (story "I Married a Dead Man")
The Window (1949) (story "The Boy Who Cried Murder")
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) (novel)
I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948) (novel)
The Return of the Whistler (1948) (story)
Fear in the Night (1948) (story "Nightmare") (as William Irish)
The Guilty (1947) (story "He Looked Like Murder")
Fall Guy (1947) (story "Cocaine")
The Chase (1946 film) (novel The Black Path of Fear)
Black Angel (1946 film) (novel)
Deadline at Dawn (novel) (as William Irish)
The Mark of the Whistler (1944) (story)
Phantom Lady (1944) (novel) (as William Irish)
The Leopard Man (1943) (novel Black Alibi)
Read 'em and enjoy. See 'em and enjoy.
The Alpha Video DVD release of this public domain movie is no better than you'd expect. It's watchable. There are only six chapter stops and they're arbitrarily placed. The back-cover blurb on the DVD case talks about Cliff Herlihy being "stricken by horrific nightmares." It's Vince Grayson who has the nightmares; Herlihy is Grayson's brother-in-law cop. This will give you some idea of the attention being given to these old films.