These days, it appears that Russia seemingly has become America’s best buddy. Upon meeting publicly with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump shook his hand and declared: “It’s an honor to be with you.”
Now of course, once upon a time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were immersed in a deadly conflict, a high-stakes back-and-forth known as the Cold War. But we live at a time in which history has become irrelevant. Too many college-age young people cannot explain the difference between World War I and World War II-- and so the Cold War easily might be the name of a fictional battle pitting some special effects-created villains against Captain America and Wonder Woman.
This precisely is what makes NIGHT PEOPLE, which dates from 1954, well-worth seeing as both an entertaining suspense thriller and a revealing mirror of its time. NIGHT PEOPLE, which Kino Lorber recently released to home entertainment, is set in post-World War II Berlin: a city that is shown to be separated into American and Russian sectors. Before its opening credits, we see a young American G.I. on a date with a pretty young German. After kissing her goodnight, he saunters down a dark street as he makes his way to his base. He is approached by a stranger and, in a flash, he is attacked, beaten, and kidnapped.
Gregory Peck plays the tough-as-nails U.S. colonel who is charged with determined what has happened. He is a no-nonsense type, and he serves to reflect on how Americans in power should act if they ever are tangling with the Russians. Broderick Crawford’s role is that of a blustery, impatient American tycoon who happens to be the kidnapped man’s father, and who treks from Toledo, Ohio, to Berlin to throw around his weight. For after all, he is a wealthy, powerful American, and he believes that he only will earn respect if he acts the part of the tough hombre. In this regard, there are some profound lessons that he must learn.
Now in relation to U.S.-Soviet relations, NIGHT PEOPLE serves as a powerful history lesson. Plus, it is a sobering reminder that, back in the day, American and Russian leaders would not be so honored to share a meeting and a handshake. With this in mind, some of the dialogue is positively chilling. The Russians are described as: “...cannibals...head-hunting, bloodthirsty cannibals who are out to eat us up.” Upon hearing this line, I only could wonder: Does this still hold true today? (By the way, the title of the film when it was in development was indeed THE CANNIBALS.)
Here is another line which surely resonates in 2017. It is: “Don’t you know I could have you thrown in the jug (if you try to) make a personal deal with a foreign government!” And here is one more: “It won’t matter...how many peace treaties we sign, not as long as there’s a Russian or a Nazi left.” (By the way, NIGHT PEOPLE was shot on location and, as noted on Wikipedia: “Filming was sometimes made difficult by the tensions existing in Berlin between the United States and the Soviet Union. In one scene filmed near the Brandenburg Gate with realistic props, the film crew came under close scrutiny by numerous armed Russians suspicious of the activity.”)
NIGHT PEOPLE is not a James Bond-style thriller which pits a good guy against a maniacal villain. Throughout the film, there are no in-your-face Russian heavies to be seen. They primarily are referenced, and they are depicted as evil, shadowy figures. And yet again, one only can ask: Is the world as depicted in NIGHT PEOPLE any different from the reality of our world in 2017?
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.