US / 79 minutes / color / Afilmco, Zodiac Dir & Pr: Marc Lawrence Scr: Ted Thomas, Fanya Lawrence Story: Marc Lawrence, George Fass Cine: Stanley Cortez Cast: John Derek, Aldo Ray, Arthur O’Connell, Ursula Andress, Sammy Davis Jr., Allyn Joslyn, Keenan Wynn, George Tobias, John Marley, Lurene Tuttle, Robert Duvall, Richard Jaeckel, Chick Chandler, Bill Challee (i.e., William Challee), Michael Petit (i.e., Michel Petit), James Waters, John Sebastian.
An oddball but interesting piece of rural noir that has languished in obscurity for a long while. There was a VHS release a couple of decades ago, but it seems to have had a very restricted distribution. Even so, it seems to be the only extant source for the movie.
It’d be nice to describe the obscurity as undeserved, but I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. If you go into the movie expecting it to obey the normal rules of narrative then you’re likely to be disappointed: judged in that context it’s fairly mediocre. If you’re happy simply to let Nightmare in the Sun take you wherever it chooses, then you may find it a more enjoyable viewing experience—if such a minor movie deserves such a pompous term. And it does, of course, have a pretty noteworthy cast.
Thanks to a lift given him by a deaf trucker (Davis, in what must surely be the smallest role of his career), a hitchhiker called Steve (Derek) arrives in the small town of Calab, otherwise known as the butt end of nowhere. The friendly gas station proprietor, Hogan (Marley), informs him that the local sheriff don’t like him no hoboes, and advises him to get out of town while the going’s good.
Steve is soon picked up by Marsha Wilson (Andress, whose marriage to Derek was by this time effectively over), ostentatiously unfaithful much younger wife of local bigshot and boozer Sam Wilson (O’Connell). She takes Steve back to the ranch and, enlisting the help of a swimming pool, seduces him with startling ease, bearing in mind how much he says he adores the wife to whom he’s now returning after spending a year on the road straightening himself out.
(Despite being a year on the road, Steve is the world’s smartest hobo. The suitcase he carries, not much larger than a briefcase, contains changes of clothing, including what seems to be a freshly pressed suit.)
Sam comes home in time to overhear Marsha begging Steve not to leave her in this dump of a town with her ghastly husband, etc., and Steve telling her he’s going to leave her anyway, recent swimming-pool frolics notwithstanding. So Sam gets out his gun and murders Marsha. Also one of her stuffed toys, for some reason. In fact, he expends more bullets on her bizarre orange-haired doll than he does on Marsha.
Enter Sheriff Max (Ray), who earlier today was himself partaking of Marsha’s widely distributed favors. Max sees a chance to fleece Sam:
Max: “I’m saving your neck—and mine too. If the true story ever leaked out you’d end up in a death cell and my future would be flushed down the drain. . . . You saw a punk running away from here. He killed her!”
You could read Max as something like a crooked version of Rod Steiger’s Sheriff Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night (1967), but without any promise that he might find redemption, might learn the better of his ways: corrupt to the core, sociopathic, venal, a knot of bigotry . . . Max is a figure straight out of Jim Thompson, in short.
Max tries to arrest Steve, but the hitchhiker makes a break for it.
Still handcuffed, Steve stumbles around in circles in the desert being pursued by balls of tumbleweed, by Sheriff Max and his hastily assembled posse, and by two gay bikers—Rod (Duvall) and Jimmy (Jaeckel)—who were passing through town when they heard about the chase and the possibility of a reward and decided to join in. Sheriff Max hates them because they’re bikers, gay and from out of town and tells them to clear out. Nonetheless, they spend some time riding noisily around the desert before failing to find Steve. They then ride out of the movie, making us scratch our heads as to why they were there in the first place.
Steve’s still on the lam. He now has a couple of picaresque encounters with eccentrics: if you were puzzled by the role of the bikers in the grander scheme, prepare to be even more puzzled now.
Recluses Gideon Conrad (Tobias) and his wife (Tuttle) are animal lovers. Mrs. Conrad offers Steve a nice cup of tea while Gideon explains to him how the local wildlife are so remarkable that they’re actually able to read the Wildlife Refuge signs he’s posted around the property. The couple shelter all kinds of injured creatures but, when they see his handcuffs, draw the line at sheltering Steve.
Fleeing, he comes to a vast junkyard in the desert, because where else would you site a junkyard if you wanted to do a rattling good business. The proprietor (Wynn) spends a while trying to smooth-talk him into buying a wind-up gramophone before at last letting him use an ancient phone to call home. But then the junk dealer spots the handcuffs . . .
Watching Keenan Wynn’s performance here I wondered if it might have served as at least partial inspiration for Bruce Spence’s character, the Gyro Captain, in Mad Max 2 (1981; vt The Road Warrior). It’s not just that they’re both loopy but that they seem to have a lot in common in the manifestation of their loopiness.
Whatever, Steve carries on stumbling aimlessly. A windstorm whips up out of nowhere; he nobly saves the life of a lost boy, Philip (Petit), and takes him to the care of Mr. Dawson (Joslyn), leader of the “rock club” of which Philip is a part. Dawson thanks him profusely but then notices the handcuffs . . .
There’s so much in the movie that seems to encroach on the surreal that I was more than half expecting the title would in the finale be revealed as to be taken literally: that there’d be a scene of Steve sitting suddenly bolt upright in bed, cold sweat pouring down his face, and a disclosure that This Was All A Dream. Well, at least I was spared that. But the movie does seem to be patterned after an anxiety dream, with the fairly standard movie premise of a man on the run for a crime he didn’t commit slowly deteriorating into something no longer really credible.
Borderline surrealism is just one characteristic of Nightmare in the Sun. Another is that there’s a whole lotta drinkin’ goin’ on—so much so that I began to feel a bit woozy just watching.
As I implied earlier, you could dismiss Nightmare in the Sun as just another bad movie, and that would be a perfectly reasonable argument to make. That said, you could argue with equal validity that this is a sufficiently odd piece of rural film noir as to be worth watching for that reason alone. I agree with both views, but would add that the movie’s really quite a lot of fun to watch.