19 February 2014 | Bunuel1976
THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT (Robert Siodmak, 1957) ***
Following an 11-year Hollywood stint, during which he mainly excelled in film noirs, German director Siodmak returned to his native country – where his promising initial career had previously been cut short by the rise of Nazism. Arguably the best-known of his latter-day efforts, the film under review deals in part with this particular 20th Century scourge and was distinguished by its receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film; prior to this, Siodmak had only been personally short-listed in a Best Direction nod for the seminal noir THE KILLERS (1946).
Anyway, while this revolved around a definitely intriguing premise – in the midst of WWII, a chase is on by the Police and Secret Service for a serial killer of women – I could not help feel somewhat let down by the end result. Siodmak's apprenticeship at the tail-end of the German Expressionist movement serves him in good stead with respect to the film's shadowy visuals; that said, a social commentary was clearly intended a' la Fritz Lang's M (1931; this greatest of all serial killer films, also emanating from Germany, is the obvious model here) – but, apart from its occasional jabs at the Third Reich, the impact is curiously muted. As with Lang's masterpiece, the murderer's identity is immediately revealed to us (he is well played by future "Euro-Cult" regular Mario Adorf) – his activities being also similarly counterpointed by the authorities' attempts to capture him.
The film, in fact, falters where Lang's found its greatest inspiration: there is no diatribe here by the culprit as to his helplessness in committing these heinous acts against others who did wrong out of choice. Rather, Adorf plays up his character's mental deficiency in his defense, and – disappointingly – no relation is really made between an individual (i.e. minor) crime spree and the genocide being perpetrated in the name of racial superiority by the German people! Indeed, the Nazis initially take this opportunity to target even imperfect Aryan specimen – but after the crippled policeman on the case 'raises a stink' (his thoroughness is demonstrated by the tearing up of newly-installed wallpaper at an apartment in order to verify an old journal's reportage of the murders) when a philandering German official accused of slaying one of Adorf's victims is sentenced to death, the Third Reich retracts the whole incident (though the killer is still executed) and the cop transferred to the war front!
While THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT is relentlessly grim and talky, it has its fair share of interesting sequences and performances: the early (and bafflingly) solitary murder sequence during an air raid; Adorf offering an incriminating handbag to his current crush and being reluctantly convinced to hand it over to the local authorities; the defiant Adorf proudly and bemusedly leading a posse of investigators to the spot in the country where he buried one of the 55 (or 80, depending on which source to believe) bodies he disposed of; the crippled investigator calling on the SS officer (Hannes Messemer) who commissioned him during a debauched party at his mansion and the confrontation which ensues; the train station finale in which the now-enlisted investigator denies the very existence of the Mario Adorf character to the above-mentioned girl the latter fancied, etc. Ultimately, the film would make a fine companion piece to Anatole Litvak's star-studded, big-budget Hollywood epic THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS (1967) which equally deals with an outbreak of serial killings during WWII.