Fear in the Night (1947)

January 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

A man wakes up from a nightmare that he murdered someone, only to discover blood on his hand, and a key in his pocket that wasn’t there before. Nearly twenty years before he played Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the original Star Trek, DeForest Kelley was in this low-budget, smash hit crime film I’m tempted to call film noir, except it probably isn’t quite dark enough. While I love older films, something in this style has become a cultural curiosity — men wear hats, they smoke, they slap each other around, and women basically just sigh passively at everything.

Playing Bones McCoy didn’t just define the rest of his career, it became the rest of his career, through no fault of his own.  Before that, Kelley was in an impressive range of films and TV pilots (some that never became a series), though the only things I’ve ever been able to actually see on DVD are this film, and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) where he plays alongside Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

By all accounts a quiet and pleasant man, Kelley happens to be the only Star Trek cast member who never wrote a memoir of any kind, though it’s probably the one I’d most want to read. As an actor, he has a fascinating face, though his range is  either limited or a bit saddled by awkwardness, depending on how you look at it. He isn’t a terrible actor, but he’s one of those actors that seems to only sometimes snap into the role and become completely natural.

Still, he’s the best actor in Fear in the Night, which is full of dialogue that was probably meant to sound original but instead sounds awkward. An old man says “Oh, that clock is a little slow, just like the horse I had yesterday,” and the future Bones McCoy (it’s so hard to disassociate him from that role) simply puts on his hat and walks away. The narration by Kelley says once or twice that it felt like his “brain was handcuffed,” which must be one of the most awkward images I’ve heard in a while, considering handcuffing a brain would actually be a bit of a challenge. Kelley is playing a twenty-four year old here, but is one of those actors that appears to have been born looking forty.

Regardless, it’s a tidy little film that wraps up after about 71 minutes, and a fascinating glimpse into the early career of an actor that would become a cultural icon.  I recall reading an interview with Kelley where he said after Star Trek he turned down various doctor roles to try and avoid typecasting, and then when nothing else was offered he took stuff that was worse than the roles he’d turned down, until finally the Star Trek films came along.  But if Trek was a blessing and a curse, Kelley dealt with it with his trademark gentlemanly behaviour, married to his wife Carolyn until his death in 1999.  It happened to be the month I turned thirty, and I recall drunkenly toasting him over and over at my celebration, on a patio with a bunch of friends. I’m sorry, DeForest. I meant to be classier about it, I really did.  But I was sincere in saying you’ll be missed, and the world needs more people like you, the less egocentric kind that know they’re just playing a part.

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