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Friday’s with Kevin McCarthy: Nightmare (1956)

It’s always interesting to tackle the subject of remakes from a Classic Hollywood perspective. Film fans the world over criticize Hollywood for a lack of originality in the twenty-first century; however, it’s really easy to forget remakes aren’t a new phenomenon. Even in its ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood produced plenty of sequels, remakes and franchises. In fact, yours truly accidentally stumbled onto one this week. Boy was I surprised! Well, here’s everything you need to know about Nightmare.

Nightmare follows Stan, a young man (Kevin McCarthy) who wakes up after a curious and surprisingly vivid nightmare. He dreams he killed someone. However, as the haze of sleep fades away, he begins to wonder, is it possible it wasn’t all in his head? Edward G. Robinson co-stars in the film (despite getting top billing) opposite Connie Russell, Virginia Christine and Gage Clark. Maxwell Shane directs the movie from his own script. This plot might sound familiar to faithful readers, we discussed it way back in Noirvember. Just that time it was made in 1947 and called Fear in the Night.

Watching it through, Nightmare is in truth a very faithful take on the original. It’s not quite shot for shot, but it is very close. As mentioned, I went into the movie not knowing it was a remake, but quickly figured it out after the opening sequence. The similarities were that recognizable.

Coming nine years after Fear in the Night, Nightmare does feel like a bit of a trade-up. The movie comes complete with a higher budget and looks a bit less like a poverty row film. Though, the feature hasn’t been helped by less than stellar preservation efforts. Nightmare even brings a bit more character development, particularly for Stan (McCarthy). He’s a little less lost this time around. Stan has a career while Vince (DeForest Kelley) had a job. The character has taken a giant step away from the lone wolf figure of World War II in the direction of the archetypal ‘Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ of the 1950s.

The change of time period does feel very apparent in Nightmare versus Fear in the Night, which his theaters in 1947. In the earlier film, the lead character Vince feels more at home in the late 1940s. There’s a feeling that this young man can’t get his life together and it’s an easy leap to make that this is likely due to his military service. There are also over-arching questions of post traumatic stress disorder (or shell shock) which could easily lead to his worries about his own sanity.

However, in jumping forward almost ten years, Nightmare hits the big screen in a different period. The economy has shifted. Societal focuses are different. By this point, the plight of servicemen evolved into the pursuit of American consumerism and a shift to “normalcy” (a house in suburbia with a white picket fence). We clearly see this in Stan’s character development. He isn’t a quite a full-blown “Man in a Gray Flannel Suit”, but he does have a steady job as a composer in New Orleans. He’s not the listless man we see in Kelley’s performance. This time out, his struggles are interpreted as just “working too hard”. There’s also a greater emphasis on the romantic storyline with Gina (Connie Russell), pushing them towards an eventual happy ending.

Interestingly, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think Nightmare works quite as well in what it’s trying to accomplish. A big chunk of this falls on McCarthy as Stan — as painful as that is to say. In the 1947 version, DeForest Kelley brought a vulnerable, fragile portrayal, very much personifying a man who couldn’t trust his own mind. He’s on edge, emotional and terrified. It works completely and it’s easy to not only sympathize, but also identify with him.

This time around, McCarthy plays the part with more polish. He’s more grounded than his predecessor, playing Stan with less fear in the face of the uncertainty swirling around him. For much of the movie, McCarthy feels to be approaching it from an investigative perspective. So, while this is good work on its own, when viewed alongside the 1947 version, it looses the gut punch in its handling of the truly terrifying questions facing the lead character. 

It’s surprising to see Nightmare actually take shape as most sources (including the movie’s own credits) bill the movie as an Edward G. Robinson vehicle. This was also true in 1947. Paul Kelly received billing over DeForest Kelley. Long story short, this is Stan’s movie. However, Fear in the Night works because Kelley’s billed as “Introducing DeForest Kelley”. He stands apart in the narrative as a new, fascinating, interesting character. The young actor’s performance is a high point in the gritty, low-budget noir.

Overall, McCarthy doesn’t receive the same opportunity to shine which Kelley does in the first film. It isn’t a point of contention the Edward G. Robinson was a bigger star, which explains his receiving first billing. However, as mentioned, this is Stan’s movie. We walk in his shoes from start to finish and it is he with whom we need to sympathize. As such, Nightmare‘s desire to build Robinson as the lead works as a distraction. While Robinson is just fine in the role, his larger than life persona pulls focus, taking emphasis off this powerful story and Stan as the character we should be invested in.

Maxwell Shane returned to direct Nightmare, having also helmed Fear in the Night. This creates an interesting feeling, in that Nightmare is merely a “take 2” on the story. Shane’s direction is more sophisticated this time around, and it’s easy to see where he tweaked the script. That being said, it is rare to see a director come back to the same work twice, making this an interesting study in questions of director as “auteur”. That is a different piece, though.

When all is said and done, though, Nightmare is too close to Fear in the Night to really stand apart. Had a new writer or new director tackled the story, there would be more room for growth. However, in the simplistic changes that are made, Nightmare looses the raw gut punch which made Fear in the Night so special less than a decade earlier.

Currently, Nightmare is available to stream on YouTube.


1950s, Thriller



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