Four years prior to his groundbreaking film No Way Out (1950), Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed Somewhere In The Night, a mid-budget Film Noir starring John Hodiak, Nancy Guild and Richard Conte.
Based on a short story by Marvin Borwowsky, Mankiewicz co-wrote the screenplay with Howard Dimsdale and legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg. The film was produced by 20th Century Fox and released on June 12th, 1946.
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Somewhere In The Night (1946): Spoiler-Free Synopsis
The film opens in a military field hospital toward the end of World War Two. Our narrator (Hodiak) is a severely wounded soldier, bandaged head to toe, incapable of speech. Through the voice-over and some muted interactions, we learn his name: George Taylor.
But Taylor’s not just wounded. He’s also suffering from total amnesia.
Physically rehabilitated, Taylor follows a series of clues, hoping to spark a memory or gain some knowledge of his past. He finds a letter in his personal effects that indicates an unusually large sum of money has been deposited in his personal bank account. The letter is authored by someone named “Larry Cravat.”
MacGuffin established, the search for Larry Cravat drives the plot forward.
As the plot unfolds, the name “Larry Cravat” takes on a mythical quality, like John Galt in Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) (1957) or Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects (1995).
Hodiak’s George Taylor is the motivated fool, smart enough to discover the conspiracy yet dumb enough to keep on digging. The fact that he’s essentially investigating himself turns the private detective trope inside out, an inward-looking, psychological component that would later become standard in the genre.
Somewhere In The Night (1946): Full Plot Summary
Veteran George Taylor (John Hodiak) arrives back in the United States after sustaining life-altering injuries fighting in WW2. In fact, he is so severely injured, his first on-camera appearance shows him bandaged from head to toe.
Although physically recovered, he is suffering from total amnesia and has no idea who he is. He finds a letter in his personal belongings which accuses him of committing a crime, a fact that he keeps hidden during his discharge from the military.
Despite major gaps in his memory, Taylor’s skills for deductive reasoning remain intact. He returns to Los Angeles, intent on discovering who he was, and righting any wrongs he committed in the past.
Taylor retrieves a briefcase from a long-term storage locker at the train station. Inside the briefcase is a loaded pistol, along with yet another letter. The letter states that five-thousand dollar deposit has been made in Taylor’s name at Second National Bank. The note is signed by someone named “Larry Cravat.”
At the bank, Taylor explains the account was opened by a friend and then asks the teller for Larry Cravat’s mailing address. The teller has a peculiar reaction and asks him to wait a minute, adding that the manager has some questions. Taylor panics and exits the bank without withdrawing any money.
Next, Taylor visits a Turkish bath house, as Cravat’s note was written on the bath house stationary. The attendant claims he doesn’t know anyone named Larry Cravat, but suggests a cafe around the corner called “The Cellar.” After Taylor leaves, the attendant makes a telephone call. As audience members, we aren’t privy to who he calls, or why.
The cafe is really more like a night club, with a full bar, waitresses, seating, a dance floor and live entertainment. Taylor asks around for Larry Cravat, eventually arousing the suspicions of the bartender and two large men seated at the bar.
The thugs chase Taylor to a backstage dressing room occupied by Christy Smith (Nancy Guild), a hard-boiled lounge singer.
They flirt a for a few moments, but Taylor fails to extract any information. When Christy leaves to fetch a bouncer, Taylor locks the door and searches her room. He finds a postcard from one of Christy’s friends: the fiancee of Larry Cravat.
Taylor climbs out the window and returns to his hotel room. He’s greeted at the door by smart-mouthed prostitute named Phyllis (Margo Woode) who says she’s looking for someone named “Larry.”
Intrigued, Taylor lets her inside. Phillis does her best to seduce him, but Taylor doesn’t take the bait. The telephone rings and it’s the bartender at The Cellar night club. He tells says he’s got information on Larry Cravat, but only if Taylor returns to The Cellar to get it.
Taylor arrives at the darkened club. The same two thugs from earlier pull up in a big sedan. There’s an older man with a foreign accent in the back seat named Anzelmo (Fritz Kortner) who insists that Taylor join him in the car. When Taylor refuses, they knock him out and stuff him inside.
Taylor regains consciousness in some kind of hide-out, where he’s beaten with a rubber hose in an attempt to extract information. When the torture tactics fails, Anselmo decides to get rid of him. They search his pockets and find Christy’s address. An injured Taylor rings the bell and passes out as she answers the door.
Christy performs first-aid on George and lets him rest. When he wakes up, they have a conversation about Larry Cravat. Christy says her best friend had been engaged to Cravat, but that weeks before the wedding, she died in a mysterious accident.
Taylor tells Christy his story, admitting he has amnesia, and also his fear of discovering what kind of person he was in the past. Christy takes pity on him and offers to help. She also calls a friend for help: Mel Phillips, her employer at the night club.
Phillips (Richard Conte) arrives at Christy’s flat. After some banter, he offers to speak to his friend Kendall, a police lieutenant, on George Taylor’s behalf.
Mel, George and Christy meet Kendall (Lloyd Nolan), the police lieutenant, for lunch the next day. The officer explains that Larry Cravat is actually a notorious criminal, a former private detective suspected of stealing 2 million dollars in stolen nazi loot from a group of crooked US soldiers. Cravat later vanished. So did the 2 million dollars.
Outside the restaurant, Taylor finds a note on Christy’s car. The note contains an address, along with the initials “L.C.”
Taylor borrows Christy’s car and travels to the address on the note. An aggressive man answers the bell. He accuses Taylor of chasing after his girlfriend. The argument continues until Phillis comes to the door: the address on the note turns out to be hers. The argument continues, but Phillis manages to direct George to a dockside fortune telling business called Dr. Oracle’s Crystal Ball.
As he enters the fortune teller’s office, he unexpectedly bumps into Anselmo, who turns out to be the operator of the fortune telling business. After diffusing the tension with small talk, Anzelmo invites George to sit down. Anzelmo tells us his story, revealing that he was once a thief, and the former partner of Larry Cravat.
Phyllis arrives a few minutes later. The trio continue their conversation, during which Anzelmo reveals that in addition to stealing the two million dollars, Cravat is also wanted for murder.
The police suspect Cravat and an accomplice murdered a man called Steele three years prior. No one knows the identity of the second man, except for Anzelmo, who claims the second man is none other than George Taylor.
Back at the night club, Mel and Christy have a chat in which she expresses her affection for George Taylor. The exposition also reveals that George has gone to visit a man named Conroy, a former dock worker and the only witness to the murder three years prior.
At Conroy’s house, a young woman answers the door: Conroy’s daughter (Josephine Hutchison). Their conversation takes on a strange tone, as if the two of them somehow know each other, or perhaps were once in love. She explains that Conroy had an accident three years ago in which he was hit by an automobile and committed to a sanatorium. As Taylor exits the house, he is narrowly missed by a speeding truck.
The sanatorium is closed to visitors and Taylor is escorted out. He eventually sneaks back onto hospital grounds, where he witnesses a man emerging from a window. Taylor enters through the same window and creeps into Conroy’s room.
Conroy has been stabbed. In a deathbed conversation, he reveals the missing money is hidden underneath the dock where Steele’s murder took place. Moments later, Conroy dies.
Taylor returns to Christy’s apartment. The doorbell interrupts their conversation and Taylor hides in an adjacent room. It’s Kendall, the police officer, and he’s looking for George Taylor. The bartender at The Cellar has been murdered and Taylor is the prime suspect.
After sharing a kiss, George and Christy drive out to the dockyards. They climb down underneath the pier and eventually find the case in the spot where Conroy suggested it was hidden.
Inside the case is two million dollars, denoted in crisp one-thousand dollar notes. But there’s something else inside the case: a monogrammed jacket bearing the name “Larry Cravat.”
Taylor turns the jacket over and reads the label on the collar. The label reads, “Tailored by George.”
There is no George Taylor.
George Taylor is an identity he invented so that he could disappear.
Taylor and Christy flee to a nearby mission. Inside, Taylor has a brief emotional breakdown. Christy comforts him and they share a tender moment. They talk a little more about the situation and deduce that the whole affair isn’t really about the money: it’s about covering up the murder.
As they exit the mission, George asks the pastor to courier the money to police headquarters, addressed to Officer Kendall. Back on the street, they’re approached by one of Anselmo’s thugs and escorted to his fortune teller’s office.
Taylor, Christy, Anselmo and Phillips have a brief debate about Larry Cravat—until Mel Phillips arrives. Phillips says he wants his share of the cut. Taylor says he wants the situation resolved, which requires that someone confessing to Steele’s murder.
Anselmo claims that Phillips is the real murderer. Phillis pulls a gun, waving it around and saying she’s being framed. Phillips takes the gun away and flees along with Taylor and Christy.
They drive to The Cellar to hunker down and have a drink, but Phillips surprises them by pulling out a pistol. As he moves toward them with the gun, he explains what really happened.
Three years prior, Steele come to town with the two million dollars. Phillips was supposed to launder the money using his businesses. The two men didn’t know each other, so they agreed to meet up at the dockyards. Cravat found out about the meeting and showed up early. He impersonated Phillips and took the money. Phillips arrived moments later. Thinking Steele had double-crossed him, he shot him dead. Conroy, the dock worker, witnessed the whole thing. Phillips tried to have Conroy killed to keep him quiet, the same traffic “accident” that resulted in Conroy’s insanity.
Taylor offers Phillips the two million dollars in exchange for Christy’s safety, but he lies and says the case is still at the docks.
The trio return by car to the dockyard mission.
Instead of going inside, Phillips pulls out his gun and aims it at Taylor.
Before he can pull the trigger, Officer Kendall emerges from the mission doorway and shoots Phillips in the chest.
Analysis: My Review of Somewhere In The Night
Despite its status as a genre movie, Somewhere In The Night is one of the many films in the classic era to incorporate psychoanalytic theory into its character profiles. On the surface, George Taylor’s story is about amnesia.
But Taylor’s Larry Cravat persona also represents his shadow self, the part of our subconscious mind that represses our deepest darkest thoughts and desires.
This complexity deepens when we consider what the film is saying about the nation’s efforts to move on from World War Two.
In choosing to incorporate psychoanalytic theory in this manner, the film also suggests that America has created its own “national shadow self” in its failure to fully process the lingering horrors of the war.
Like its blueprint predecessor, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), Somewhere in the Night relies on missing loot to drive the plot.
But as the film unfolds, we find ourselves far more concerned about discovering George Taylor’s true identity than we are about the missing money. In this respect, Somewhere in the Night subverts the Noir genre while simultaneously adhering to established tropes, representing perhaps the first use of the “psychological MacGuffin.”
The film’s plot is reminiscent of novels like The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler) (1939), exhibiting a lack of cohesion that is ultimately left unresolved.
We never really find out why Larry/George became a thief in the first place, how he knew to steal the Nazi loot or what he planned on doing with the money, if he had a past connection with Conroy’s daughter or not, how he went about changing his identity, and why Mel Phillips is friends with Officer Kendall if Phillips is really a gangster.
However, like The Big Sleep, the film’s atmosphere and texture more than compensates for these shortcomings.
Most importantly, when we debate Somewhere In The Night’s position in the Film Noir canon, we must consider its cast of characters.
Hookers, thieves, mobsters, foreigners, lounge singers, an amateur detective—this is the stuff that makes Noir what it is.
None of these characters are “good guys”, and yet, despite their flaws, we identify with their predicaments. We care about what happens to them. We even root for their success.
One of my favourite things about the film are the masks on the wall of Anselmo’s fortune telling business.
This trio of blank white masks are symbols of Taylor’s character arc: the old him (Larry Cravat), the present him (George Taylor) and the person that he’s striving to become.
The number three also foreshadows the resolution of the plot: three men were involved, not just the notorious Cravat.
I also think that some of Mankiewicz’s editorial decisions are strange and somewhat fascinating: despite adhering to a generic formula, his film lacks a decisive femme fatale.
Although briefly a candidate, Phyllis is a red herring. She makes a single, halfhearted attempt at seduction and then recedes into the background, content to chase the money like everyone else.
Christy functions more like a companion. Any feelings that exist between her and George are latent, secondary to the search for Larry Cravat. Their romance is implied but never consummated within the confines of the film.
Make no mistake, Larry Cravat IS the femme fatale.
Luring George to San Fransisco, pulling strings behind the scenes. Seducing him with intrigue, cash and secrets. Using him to carry out a higher goal.
Perhaps this is Mankiewicz entertaining himself, cleverly subverting a genre he was growing bored of, without sacrificing popular appeal.
Should You Watch Somewhere In The Night?
Somewhere In The Night is a metaphor for a shell-shocked nation’s efforts to move on from WWII.
But the film also questions the relationship between memory and identity. Do people ever really change? Are we merely the sum of our past? If the memory gets erased, is the “self” erased with it?
Given the year of its release, Somewhere In The Night also speaks to what lies ahead in the broader post-war period. This reading frames the film as a meditation on the limits of cultural memory, and the dangers of forgetting a war in which millions of innocent Jews were systematically exterminated. Through Taylor’s story, the film seems to say: “Forget the truth at your own peril.”
Despite its predictable ending, Somewhere In The Night is a forerunner to amnesia stories like Total Recall (1990), Memento (2000), The Machinist (2004) and Mad Men (2007-2015).
Joseph L. Mankiewicz is now considered one of the best screenwriters of his era. His filmography is “must-watch” viewing for true fans of the genre.
You can watch Somewhere In The Night for free on YouTube and The Internet Archive’s Film Noir Collection.
For more about writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, check out David Fincher’s Mank (2020)(Netflix).
If you enjoyed this article, check out our post on Jules Dassin’s Night and The City (1950).