Wednesday, November 16, 2011

DeForest Kelley: About last night...

In "Fear in the Night" (1947), a sexy young actor named DeForest Kelley plays a timid bank teller who dreams that he kills a man, then wakes up to find evidence that he actually committed the murder. It's a wonderfully directed little noir mystery, made all the more fascinating because, as I viewed the film, it seemed to me that it would be possible to substitute "had sex with a man in a blackout," for "murdered a man in a blackout," and still have much of the dialogue and storyline work! (Watch it for yourselves and see if I'm not onto something...)

Sexy and distraut: DeForest Kelley in "Fear in the Night" (1947)

First off, the fact that the film starts with a dream sequence really begs a Freudian interpretation. In the dream, DeForest finds himself in a mirrored room where, although he wants to run away, he feels he "had to do what I'd come to do" (although he's not sure what that is). He is compelled by drives beyond rational thinking - as sexual drives invariably are. And in the mirrors of the room, DeForest sees his own image repeated over and over, as if he is confronting repressed selves who have come alive.

In the room he finds an attractive man and woman. Suddenly, the men are tangling with each other. We see closeups of male fingers tightening on male necks as the struggle ensues (strangulation being a particularly sexual crime), until the fight climaxes with DeForest shoving a "steel bore" into the man (easily imaginable as a phallic dream symbol). The man collapses, and DeForest hides his body in a closet before fleeing.

What did I do last night?? DeForest Kelley in "Fear in the Night"

When DeForest wakes up in bed, his pajama top is almost torn off, exposing his hairy chest, and he looks just as much post-sexual as post-murderous. Bewildered, he examines himself in his bathroom mirror, once again bringing forward the idea of DeForest confronting anonther self he has kept repressed. Examining himself, he discovers thumb prints on his neck, evidence of the other man's hands on him, and later finds he is in possession of an unidentified button and a strange key. He keeps repeating that he didn't have any of these things "when he undressed;" in other words, whatever happened to him happened after he undressed.

Muscles x 2: One of the many mirror shots in "Fear in the Night"

Feeling tormented, as evidence mounts that he is not the man he thought he was, he breaks up with his sometime girlfriend, but the speech he uses would be equally appropriate if he were breaking off the relationship because of being gay. Without explaining any specific reasons for the break-up, he simply tells her: "It's not your fault. It just -- Look, we're through. There's nothing we can do about it. Don't call me up, don't pay any attention to me. Get somebody else, get anybody. It'd better for you."

Although it's typical for film heroes in trouble to rely on stalwart girlfriends, in "Fear in the Night" DeForest turns instead to his tough, rugged brother-in-law (Paul Kelly), a cop, to help him sort out the pieces of himself and that fateful night. The brother-in-law's language continues to support a double reading of the dream, as when he says that if DeForest really had been sleep walking when he attacked a man and "shoved something into him," he would have woken up.

Pajama conference: DeForest Kelley and Paul Kelly share a nighttime heart-to-heart in "Fear in the Night"

The relationship between these to men is central to the progression of the story, as DeForest tries desperately to understand the truth about himself. When DeForest reveals to his brother-in-law that he thinks he might be a murderer, his brother-in-law's response is reminiscent of the reaction one might have to a family member unexpectedly coming out: initial disbelief, then anger and revulsion, even slapping DeForest around, then finally concern, tenderness and support. There are even subtle details lending a sense of these two making a kind of "masculine"/"feminine" pair. For example, in closeup shots of their wrists, we see that the rugged brother-in-law wears a bulky watch, while on DeForest's wrist is a lose gold bracelet.

Sleeping beauty: Note the gold bracelet DeForest Kelley wears in "Fear in the Night"

The fact that DeForest and his brother-in-law have many of their scenes in bedroooms, sometimes in their night clothes, adds additional intensity to their male-male intimacy. For DeForest's part, he is not a "macho" man at all; instead he is frightened by what he suspects is the truth about himself, breaking down, crying, fainting, and at one point, at wit's end, attempting suicide, from which he is rescued by the strong arms of his ever vigilant brother-in-law.

A fascinating film that can be viewed on multiple levels, "Fear in the Night" offers a rare chance to see DeForest Kelley in his first leading role, well before he would become indelible as Dr. McCoy (aka "Bones") on the original Star Trek. Although William Shatner was always played up as the Enterprise's official pretty boy, discerning viewers will not have missed the intellectual virility of DeForest Kelley.

Two decades later: DeForest Kelley in "Star Trek"

Beach babe: A young DeForest Kelley shows his stuff