While it may not qualify as traditional film noir, the British thriller On the Night of the Fire seethes with elements of the genre. The 1939 picture was directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and stands as an example of pre-war cinema, complete with a (really) downbeat ending, melancholy mood and plenty of forbidding criminal shenanigans.
On the Night of the Fire, also known as The Fugitive, is based on the novel of the same name by F. L. Green and features a screenplay by Hurst and Terence Young. Cinematographer Günther Krampf slips through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne and condenses the working-class struggle with a collection of teeming shots.
Ralph Richardson is Will Kobling, a barber working to make ends meet. His wife Kit (Diana Wynyard) is in deep with the aptly-named Pilleger (Henry Oscar), who sells fabric and buttons. One day, Ralph pinches a wad of cash from the open window of a business. Kit puts the pieces together and discovers her husband’s transgression.
She settles her obligations, but the cops track the bills and put the squeeze on the draper. Pilleger puts the screws on Will and threatens to tell the cops where the cash came from if he doesn’t pay up. Kobling agrees for a time, but times are tough. He confronts Pilleger to renegotiate the arrangement, but it all goes wrong.
On the Night of the Fire crafts a fascinating and human portrait of everything that can go wrong when desperate men do desperate things. Will’s initial act seems innocuous enough. He just stretched through the window and took what was sitting there. Sure, it was wrong.
But things coil into the darkness in a hurry and Will Kobling becomes the ultimate tragic figure. He starts as an admired barber, with a lively shop and plenty of paying customers. After the crime, rumours swirl through the streets and his customer base diminishes.
Kobling can’t even walk down the street without being greeted by a chorus of silence, with only the cops looking his way. Men in tan coats stand on every street corner, waiting and watching. It gets so bad that Kobling’s wife leaves to stay with her sister, but that doesn’t go well either – to say the least.
Richardson handles the dim business of transformation with refinement. His incursion to the shadows is persuasive and highlighted by many austere moments, like the wrenching final scene or the moment when Jimsey Jones (Romney Brent) comes in for a late-night haircut.
There’s also the matter of Lizzy Crane (Mary Clare). She’s labouring under a mental illness, but she’s also a drunk. And she screams. God, does she scream. Clare’s blistering tones hammer eardrums as she tries to make sense of what she’s seen. And she’s seen an awful lot, which makes her dangerous and useful.
On the Night of the Fire paints a gripping picture of community and working class life, but it also spins that traditional noir yarn of how one mistake can lead to calamity. That’s not to say that anyone’s innocent in this disreputable business, of course.
But Hurst’s grasp of On the Night of the Fire is so scrupulous that one can’t help but empathize with Kobling. His predicament is underscored by Krampf’s expressionistic lensing and the transitory shades of night’s interminable despair, which turns an eye toward to a broader, more humanistic truth.