remember the night (1940)
In a script by Preston Sturges, Remember the Night is acutely aware of societal lampooning over its story of sentimentality and romance. Stanwyck is the standout as her presence and performance provide everything the picture needs to connect and keep its audience, her genuine looks of wanting and gratification, her childlike hurt that carries through the entire film. The Macmurray/Stanwyck dynamic, the first of their many pairings, provides the heart and soul of the film, while Sturges tries to bring to light many of the issues around the American justice system that trouble him. As always for Sturges, the issues he sees are far-reaching and timeless, showing the sadness of a little girl unloved and unwanted growing into a thief, and the man who plays the justice system like a game, seeing state lines and law books over morality. What Remember the Night really stirs up is Sturges belief that the system of justice is merely a system, with the truly moral people most likely sitting on the jury. Morality plays little in the actions of those within the court system nor those sitting on trial, Macmurray is just as willing to be on the run from the law as anyone and Sturges wisely brings them to equals early in their road trip to equate our two lovers. Also, what of Macmurray's treatment of his live-in servant? Sturges does his best to highlight that this man of the law never pays mind to the common decency of people in his adult life, instead choosing to become cut off from his emotions and playing business like a game. It is only when he returns to the home and surroundings of his childhood that he becomes human again. Overall Remember the Night's best qualities stem from Sturges' examinations of criminal and prosecutor, it's an extra boon to the picture that the roles are filled out by such humanist writing and two endearing performers as well.
The picture captures many of the usual Sturges stereotype roles that play into later films; the white trigger-happy country hick, the black fumbling servant, the stuffy elder judge. In many ways Sturges seeks to lambaste popular assumption while playing into them at every turn, a smuggler of ideas that couldn't be readily identified in their age, yet the picture strives to show the truth beneath the convention in many ways that are subtle, yet not abundantly clear. Macmurray's servant is shown to be of good character, sound reasoning and kind, exhibiting no signs of lesser intelligence, yet treated as stupid by Macmurray senselessly to boost Macmurray's ego. The same goes for the white servant on the farm where Macmurray grows up, our childhood carrying over into our adulthood, just as Stanwyck is unable to relate normally to life as she has had the image of herself as a thief imprinted from a young age. Sturges refusal to force a hackneyed reconciliation into their relationship is one of the picture's strengths, instead resolving that in life we will sometimes have to move on, even from bonds that formed us, if we're to see the light in our own life. That the picture sets up Macmurray's character as flawed as well as Stanwyck's allows them both to grow toward one another and find a place between their two selves that accomplishes a mutual improvement. The film's finest distinction is between the elements of our society that separate us and the elements of ourselves. Within the context one New York, there isn't a chance that Macmurray and Stanwyck could have ever come together, they are as separate as individuals could be, just as Macmurray is with Toones' character, but as they exit New York and enter the countryside away from the rule of the big city and society they come to see a more humanist side of one another. Their journey is completed only be exiting the United States entirely and heading to Niagara Falls. Here, by becoming entirely removed from the arbitrary rules of engagement of their society is where they finally fall into each other's arms. In Remember the Night, it is the learned behaviors of society that keep us apart, that promote "no trespassing". If we were to remove ourselves as natural human beings, we would likely find that love would take over and we would come closer together with our fellow person.
The picture's only weaknesses stem from a drag in the second act and a lack of anywhere to really go near the end. Sturges tries to pull a surprise finish by having Stanwyck nobly refuse to have Macmurray help her with the law and take matters into her own hands. All in all, the picture's point has been made and the latter half simply follows through with none of the discovery of the first half. Still, the chemistry between our two leads keeps us steady through and through and some of the gorgeous silhouetted imagery during the Niagara Falls segments provide the film's most memorable visuals outside of the country road segments. Remember the Night is effortless storytelling and a fun picture bringing together some notable talent of the time in a Christmas film. All in all, it does not add up to a knockout, yet remains enjoyable throughout. It plants the seeds of where Sturges would later go in pursuit of social justice of his own kind, on the side of the everyman in his string of wonderful films of the 1940's.