I registered as a participant in the Joe Pasternak Blogathon, brought to you by Tiffany Brannan and the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. The blogathon pays tribute to the notable producer of many memorable pictures. Mr. Pasternak oversaw the production of This Could Be the Night, a 1957 film directed by Robert Wise (1914-2005). My recently published book, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition), features a chapter exclusively dedicated to This Could Be the Night, and within this post, the chapter is presented in its entirety. I am grateful to Tiffany and the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society for allowing me to participate in such a special blogathon.
Harper’s Magazine, in publication since the mid-nineteenth century, was especially popular during the 1950s, a time when the American economy and culture were booming. Featured on a monthly basis in the magazine were fact, fiction, and opinion, all presented by writers of varying backgrounds. Cordelia Baird Gross, a relatively unknown author, penned a short story for Harper’s entitled Protection for a Tough Racket. It was featured in the December, 1954 issue and attracted the attention of more than one studio. MGM ultimately proved to be the most interested, acquiring the motion picture rights within a year of the issue’s publication.
Isobel Lennart, a one-time mail room employee of MGM, wrote a script based on Protection for a Tough Racket. She also adapted ideas from It’s Hard to Find Mecca in Flushing, another of Gross’s short stories. Lennart’s finished script was entitled This Could Be the Night. Robert Wise, on the heels of Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), accepted MGM’s offer to direct the picture. The studio sought an ensemble cast. In addition, Ray Anthony, the well-liked bandleader and songwriter, agreed to appear in the film with his orchestra and also recorded the picture’s soundtrack. Prior to its theatrical release, the music of This Could Be the Night was promoted as “THE KIND YOU HEAR THROUGH YOUR FEET.”
Anne Leeds ( Jean Simmons), a New York school teacher, desires supplemental income and is hired as a part-time secretary for The Tonic, a popular, yet infamous, night club. The establishment is rumored to have earlier harbored bootleggers during the Prohibition era. It is not long before Anne is fired by co-owner Tony Armotti (Anthony Franciosa) over what she considers to be a trivial matter, but Rocco (Paul Douglas), the other owner, takes exception to the decision and demands she be rehired. Armotti therefore goes to Anne’s classroom to make amends. She agrees to return but continues to believe he is an unfair judge of her character. Rocco blames himself. Years earlier, he took Armotti under his wing. In the aftermath of a failed marriage, Rocco became a cynic and firmly believes Armotti followed suit.
Anne learns that the staff and clientele of The Tonic have classified her as a greenhorn, one who lacks experience and sophistication. She believes Armotti to be responsible and confronts him at his place of residence, a private apartment above the club. Anne explains that her reason for moving to New York from Massachusetts was to meet new people and make new friends. Armotti, however, will not allow it to happen at his club. Anne chides his narrow-mindedness, and in the heat of their argument, they kiss. Anne confesses her love for Armotti, who insists the feeling is not mutual. Rocco later becomes privy to the incident and strikes his fellow business partner in anger. He simply does not wish for Anne to be hurt in any way. She eventually quits, and several of the club’s employees become downhearted upon hearing the news. Anne finds employment with a competing night club but is unaware that the establishment serves as a front for bookmakers. Armotti pays her a visit just as police raid the premises. He helps Anne to escape and thus avoid incrimination. Much to the delight of those at The Tonic, Armotti rehires her for the second time. He and Rocco therefore anticipate better days on the horizon.
As This Could Be the Night begins, Wise presents viewers with a nighttime image of the New York City skyline. The opening credits conclude shortly thereafter, and courtesy of a cinematic time-lapse technique, night becomes day. Such a presentation is indicative of The Tonic’s hustle and bustle, as much transpires within the club’s confines from sunset to sunrise, and upon Anne’s introduction to the establishment, she becomes acquainted with many. One such individual is Stowe Devlin (Tom Helmore), an attorney who, much to the chagrin of Leon ( J. Carrol Naish), The Tonic’s head chef, prefers to cook his own meals. Devlin frequently finds solace dining in the club’s office. Upon meeting him for the first time, Anne discovers they are both from Massachusetts. She takes comfort in knowing he “speaks [her] language.” Devlin’s timely appearances in The Tonic’s office not only correlate with Anne’s acclimation to the establishment, but also with that to Armotti. In addition, such episodes foreshadow her ill-fated employment with the competing night club.
With each trip that Devlin makes to the office, Anne is revealed to have become more accustomed to The Tonic. A difference in her confidence level is evident when comparing his first visit with that of the second, and upon his third appearance, it is clear she has completely emerged from her shell. Shortly after Anne and Devlin become acquainted, she attempts to ask him some questions about The Tonic, but he refuses to address any inquiries, declaring, “If you’re in a foreign country, you ought to learn the language from the natives…not another tourist.” During their second meeting, she appears upset, admitting he was “unpleasant but right” to avoid giving her “the lowdown on everyone.” The phone then rings. Anne answers it and places the call on hold. Devlin attempts to offer some guidance, but with an air of confidence, she essentially makes it clear to him that his help is unnecessary. Anne proceeds into the lounge. Through trial and error, she comes to understand the club’s preferred method of delivering phone messages. An impressed Armotti eventually remarks, “You learn fast!”
At the time of Devlin’s third visit to the office, Anne has become fully acclimated to The Tonic. He is impressed with how far she has come and thus expresses an interest in taking her to “a movie and an early supper.” Yet, before she can commit to a decision, Hussein Mohammed (Rafael Campos), a bus boy, enters with news of his upcoming algebra exam. Because Anne is a teacher, he seeks her help. Devlin eventually departs the office. His actions, however, are not attributed to Hussein’s arrival, but instead, to the strange behavior of another.
Armotti’s demeanor towards Anne fluctuates primarily due to Devlin’s appearances in the office. Armotti is not only jealous of the rapport she develops with others, but he also becomes perturbed with the so-called intrusiveness of Devlin, who, in actuality, is his close friend. Early in the film, Armotti takes pride in a recent liaison with an unnamed female. He appears to spite Anne while whispering the tryst’s details to Devlin. Armotti’s respect and admiration for Devlin at such a point of the narrative is obvious. In time, Anne establishes a strong rapport with the club’s employees and patrons. As Armotti becomes aware of such rapport, his relationship with Devlin undergoes a noticeable change. Armotti later speaks his mind and chooses to be blunt while expressing his dissatisfaction:
ARMOTTI: There’s a big room outside with lots of tables.
DEVLIN: And lots of smoke.
ARMOTTI: If you’re so delicate, go find yourself another hash house! Or, do you have to be thrown out of here?
DEVLIN: I don’t know what’s come into your life lately, but what it’s doing to your disposition is a crime.
ARMOTTI: Well, it’s my life, my club, and my disposition!
As Devlin prepares to leave the office, he pauses to address Anne.
DEVLIN: How about tomorrow?
ANNE: Ah, I’ll let you know.
Devlin departs. Shortly thereafter, Armotti presses the issue.
ARMOTTI: I don’t want him eating in here.
ANNE: Well, I can’t very well tell him not to. He’s one of our best customers.
ARMOTTI: And I’d like to point out that there’s a house rule: the help don’t date the customers.
ANNE: The employers don’t date the help. That’s the rule.
ARMOTTI: Do you know anything about the guy?
ANNE: I know he’s one of your best friends.
ARMOTTI: Well, if you had any sense that should be enough!
In what is undoubtedly a pivotal moment of the film, Armotti ceases to be the insensitive man Wise has portrayed him to be. Instead, a sense of empathy is apparent. Armotti leaves the office, and an intrigued Anne chooses to follow him to his apartment. Her actions are an indirect result of the recent exchange. Had Devlin not been present in the office, Anne’s pursuit of Armotti would not have transpired. Under the circumstances, the latter gradually becomes protective of her, especially at a time of great need.
Coincidentally, the subject of Waxie London (Murvyn Vye), Rocco’s troublesome associate, is often raised in Devlin’s presence, thus foreshadowing Anne’s ill-fated employment with London’s night club. Untimely telephone calls serve as omens of troubling times, thus leading to a period of unrest only Armotti can resolve. Seconds after Anne and Devlin begin their first encounter, the phone rings. She scrambles to answer it:
ANNE: Hello? Um. . . .
It quickly becomes clear that she has picked up the wrong receiver. Upon locating the correct phone, she attempts to compose herself prior to speaking.
ANNE: Mr. Rocco’s office. Uh, no he isn’t. May I take a message? Who did you say? Yes. Waxie’s ten is up tomorrow.
As Devlin hears London’s name, it piques his interest. Anne continues her telephone conversation.
ANNE: And what does Mr. Rocco want to do about it? I-i-is that what you said?
DEVLIN: Waxie London . . . been in Sing Sing ten years . . . gets out tomorrow. Does Rocco want to throw him a party for Auld Lang Syne? Got it?
Anne is satisfied with Devlin’s explanation and hangs up the phone. Later, as Devlin appears in the office for the fourth and final time of the film, he prepares to dine. Anne, however, is nowhere in sight. At such a point of the narrative, she has recently resigned her position as secretary of The Tonic. Devlin’s appearance remains significant, because Rocco, present in the office, then receives a call from London. Anne is the topic of their telephone conversation. London wishes to hire her as a secretary for his newly-established night club. Rocco sees no harm in providing Anne with a glowing reference. Armotti, also present, overhears the exchange. He senses trouble and immediately departs for London’s club. A crisis is ultimately averted. Without Armotti, Anne’s future would have been one of uncertainty. Instead, she returns to The Tonic, and once again, all is right with the world.
Interview with Neile Adams
“One thing that really surprised me was the way Bob Wise worked with his cast,” Neile Adams said in regard to her appearance as Patsy St. Clair, a performer of The Tonic. “I didn’t have a very big role in This Could Be the Night. Therefore, Bob didn’t direct me, but he did visit with his supporting cast from time to time. Jack Baker did the choreography. During the day, Bob would check in with me as many times as he could, sometimes while I was doing my dance rehearsals. Regarding his directing style, he liked his storyboards and always had them in close proximity. If Bob felt his actors were on track with their performances, he didn’t direct them or delve into the specifics of their characters. His style was similar to that of George Abbott, who directed me in the Broadway production of The Pajama Game. Mr. Abbott’s directions went something like, ‘Okay! You start walking away from Point A when you hear a specific word. Then, by the time the next line is recited, you should be stationed at Point B in order to go around the bench and so on and so forth.’ Since Bob didn’t speak with me about my character, I came up with the ideas myself. But I would imagine he had a different approach with Jean Simmons, Paul Douglas, and Tony Franciosa, who were the actual stars of the film. I played the part of a stripper who enjoyed cooking, so I suppose there wasn’t much for Bob to say to me concerning my character.
“In regard to other members of the cast, Jean Simmons was great. I didn’t have that much interaction with her primarily because we couldn’t rehearse together. A few weeks prior to the start of production, she gave birth to a baby girl. Her stand-in rehearsed with me instead. When it came time for Jean and me to do our scenes, I discovered she was very introspective and didn’t talk that much. The one who talked a lot was Joan Blondell. I loved her. It’s funny that she played my mother; she and I looked nothing alike. But Joan told me all kinds of stories about the old days. By the time I met her on Bob Wise’s set, she had been around for a long time. She appeared in many musicals with Dick Powell and the two were married for several years. I loved hearing all about that! I wasn’t crazy about Tony Franciosa, so I stayed away from him. In fact, nobody was crazy about him. I’m sure Jean got along well with him. But he was probably very careful around her since she was the star of the picture.
“Steve McQueen, my soon-to-be husband, would sometimes spend time with me on the set. He had recently worked with Paul Newman during the production of Somebody Up There Likes Me. Paul, who was getting ready to do another film for Bob Wise, used to visit during my rehearsals. Steve and I were actually married while I was working on This Could Be the Night. He called me from back east one day and said, ‘I’m coming out [to Los Angeles] to make an honest woman out of you.’ I didn’t know what he meant, so I consulted Julie Wilson, a fellow castmate. She knew Steve from a production they did together in New York. ‘When he says he’s coming to California to make an honest woman out of you,’ Julie said, ‘he means that the two of you are getting married, you idiot!’ Days later, on a Friday afternoon, Bob Wise excused me from the set, and Steve and I got married that night. The date was November 2, 1956.”
Production of This Could Be the Night wrapped in December of 1956. The film’s nationwide release became slated for May 17th of the following year, and MGM sought to market its upcoming picture with a clever advertisement. The official trailer begins with a bold declaration, stating, “THE BRIGHTEST LIGHTS ON EARTH. ONE MAN KNOWS WHAT MAKES THEM SHINE -” Earl Wilson, a Broadway gossip columnist, is then introduced and wastes little time presenting “another Wilson” to viewers, as the encouraging Julie Wilson aims to foster an interest in Wise’s film. (Earl Wilson and Julie Wilson were not related to one another.) Her performance as Ivy Corlane, a featured singer of The Tonic, is memorable. In the trailer, she enters the establishment’s kitchen and declares, “Boys, men, and chefs . . . this could be the night!” (A slight variation exists between the trailer and film regarding the recitation of Julie Wilson’s notable line. In the film itself, she states, “Friends and neighbors, the time is right! This could be the night!”)
The remainder of the cast is presented through a series of clips, and special attention is granted to Jean Simmons as she is described as “the real rave” of the film. Wise, among many, was in awe of her extraordinary aptitude for performing. Interestingly enough, as the post-production phase of This Could Be the Night transpired, he was afforded the privilege of directing Simmons in yet another picture for MGM, and it essentially became an undertaking that took them far beyond the confines of the studio.
A few months ago, I was invited to be a guest on the Forgotten Filmcast podcast. The subject of discussion was This Could Be the Night. Todd Liebenow, the host, recently watched the film for the first time and asked some great questions. To listen to the episode in its entirety, click here.