They Came by Night (1940)

UK / 73 minutes / bw / TCF Dir: Harry Lachman Pr: Edward Black, Maurice Ostrer Scr: Sidney Gilliat, Michael Pertwee Story: stage play by Barré Lyndon Cine: Jack Cox Cast: Will Fyffe, Phyllis Calvert, Anthony Hulme, George Merritt, Kathleen Harrison, John Glyn Jones, Athole Stewart, Cees Laseur, Wally Patch, Hal Walters, Kuda Bux, Leo Britt, Sylvia St. Claire, Grant Tyler.

A nice noirish title but . . .

Pawky Scottish comedian Fyffe, although largely forgotten now, was very popular in his day. Obviously the makers of this movie wanted to capitalize on his reputation as a comic; at the same time, they had a thrillerish tale to tell. The result is an oddity: not a comedy thriller but a narrative that lurches between dramatic scenes and comedic ones. (I’ve been unable to track down Lyndon’s play, so I’m not sure if this jarring dichotomy was part of the original.)

Only once does one of the comic scenes significantly affect the main plot. In order to discover the secrets of the Turner security system (“Turner’s do not employ anyone who has not signed the Pledge”), Fyffe’s character calculatedly introduces his friend, Bible-thumping Temperance safebuilder Llewellyn Evans (Jones), to the demon alcohol; later, when it matters, the sobered-up Fyffe rather tiresomely can’t remember the details he learned. Another lengthy comic interlude involves the testimony of gossipy witness Mrs. Lightbody (Harrison); the height of its wit is when she asks to be shown where she can “wash her hands”.

As to the plot:

The latest exploit of the gang of jewel thieves led by Carl Vollaire (Laseur) is to have one of their number, skilled conjurer Ali (Bux), spirit away the Taj Ruby from the auction house where Vollaire has just paid for it with a dud check, leaving a replica in its place. When the substitution’s discovered, the cops—in the shape of Insp. Metcalfe (Merritt) and the young Det.-Sgt. Frank Tolly (Hulme)—consult London jeweler James Fothergill (Fyffe) for expert advice. While they’re visiting him, his younger brother Stephen (uncredited), commits suicide, for no immediately apparent reason. It soon emerges that Stephen was in cahoots with the gang, as James discovers when he opens a package that arrives through the mail for his dead brother and discovers within, nestling in a bed of pipe tobacco, the Taj Ruby. James concocts a clever plan to ensnare the robbers while at the same time keeping the perfidy of Stephen from the cops and, more importantly, from Stephen’s young son Davy (Tyler) and older daughter Sally (Calvert) . . . who just happens to be stepping out with young Sgt. Tolly. After the expectable complications, the climax of the movie occurs during a bullion robbery that James manages to thwart.

Calvert was to have her big break the following year in Kipps (1941), where she played Kipps’s true love, Ann Pornick; in They Come by Night, as romantic lead, she exudes appropriate virginity while portraying quite well the girl torn between her cop boyfriend and the adored uncle whom circumstances conspire to persuade her is a criminal. Lyndon would of course go on to become one of Hollywood’s legendary scripters in his own right; his most famous screenplay was undoubtedly The War of the Worlds (1953), but he assembled quite a track record in noir: The LODGER (1944), HANGOVER SQUARE (1945), The HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945) and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948). There’s some casual racism of the kind that must have seemed goodhearted at the time but grates today.

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