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Night Unto Night (1947/1949) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

galen ann film reagan

Principal social themes: end-of-life issues, suicide/depression

Warner Brothers. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Ronald Reagan, Viveca Lindfors, Broderick Crawford, Rosemary DeCamp, Osa Massen, Art Baker, Craig Stevens, Erskine Sanford, Ross Ford, Lillian Yarbo, and Joe Devlin. Written by Kathryn Scola based on the novel Night Unto Night by Philip Wylie. Cinematography by Peverell Marley. Edited by Thomas Riley. Music by Franz Waxman. Produced by Owen Crump. Directed by Don Siegel. B&W. 85 minutes.


This legendary Ronald Reagan portrayal of a dying scientist was the most unusual role of his career. When the offbeat film was considered too depressing in its original 1947 version, it was shelved for two years while the editors recut the picture with some of the details about the terminal condition of Reagan’s character deleted. The film lost money when it was released in 1949, yet Night Unto Night has a haunting and somber quality that makes it unique among the mainstream films of the 1940s, an unsentimental meditation on loss, suicide, and the end of life.


Research scientist John Galen (Ronald Reagan) inquires about renting a mansion along an isolated stretch of the Florida coast. Ann Gracey (Viveca Lindfors), the widow who owns the house, is obsessed about her late husband and believes her husband’s spirit haunts the place. While giving Galen a tour, she suddenly bolts and leaves the building. Galen drops her off at a home of a friend, the artist C. L. Shawn (Broderick Crawford) and his family. Later, Ann telephones Galen at his hotel room and tells him that she has decided to let him rent the mansion. Galen is seriously ill and while writing a letter to his friend in Chicago, Dr. Poole, who had first diagnosed his condition, he falls into a trance-like state. He takes some medicine and then collapses. He consults Dr. Altheim, the nation’s top specialist in epilepsy. In fact, one of the reasons Galen moved to Florida was to be treated by him. Altheim informs his patient that he is allergic to the only medicine that could be used to treat his condition, and there is nothing that can be done for him medically. Either his disease will go into remission or his symptoms will continue to worsen, eventually leading to death. Resigned to his fate, Galen decides to move into the mansion and to continue his biochemical research studying the properties of mold spores.

He soon discovers that many visitors drop by the mansion besides the maid he hired to do his cooking and cleaning, including Lisa, Ann’s impudent sister and the Shawn family. When Ann visits the house again, she hears the voice of her husband’s ghost, asking that she accept life and saying that he will not visit her again. She tells Galen, who does not believe in the afterlife. Ann and Galen develop a closer relationship, and she falls in love with him after they kiss. Soon afterward, John has a serious seizure and passes out on the beach in front of the mansion. When he recovers the next day, he skips his meeting with Ann, brushing her off when she calls. He is surprised when Dr. Poole arrives on his doorstep. His friend explains that Galen called and asked him to come. The ill man realizes that he made the call during his blackout spell. They discuss his relationship with Ann and the fact that she knows nothing about his condition. They plan to tell her the next evening, when Galen plans to host a dinner for his friends. A tropical storm strikes during the meal. Dr. Poole takes Ann aside and tells her about Galen. Lisa, slightly drunk, overhears their conversation and then makes fun of Galen and her sister to the other guests. Galen retreats to an upstairs room, planning to shoot himself. Ann interrupts his attempt, saying she is in love with him and does not care if they may have only a year or two together. Galen embraces her, deciding to make the most of the short time he has left.


Night Unto Night is perhaps the most death-obsessed film made by a major studio during the 1940s. The topic seems to consume each character, even the artist Shawn, a happy family man, but one who paints oversized canvases with allegories of death. They all try to come to terms with their own mortality, and John Galen’s attempted suicide is not to relieve his own suffering but as a form of self-sacrifice to save Ann from the trauma of losing another loved one. But whereas Ann and Shawn romanticize death, Galen regards it in cool scientific terms, the mere finish of a biochemical process. He accepts it with dispassionate resignation. The script perhaps makes a mistake by portraying Ann’s supernatural episodes. At first, Ann’s experiences come across as figments of her troubled mind. However, during the second visitation, the audience also hears the voice of the ghost as it speaks to her. This alters the dynamics, since that makes it seem that the ghost is real instead of in her imagination. When the ghost bids her farewell, this element of the story disappears completely and is not even referenced during the second half of the film. Another problem with Night Unto Night is the casting. Broderick Crawford is simply not convincing as the intellectual artist. Viveca Lindfors is also not right for her part, but only when one understands that she was having an affair with the director Don Siegel, whom she married in 1949, does her presence in the film make any sense. Ronald Reagan, despite being panned by some critics, delivers an exceptional reading in a quiet, understated manner far unlike his usual screen persona. For the only time in his career, Reagan rewrote some of the screenplay, correcting, for example, an unlikely riding accident that was written into the original script. Reagan’s performance in the film can only be appreciated after several viewings, demonstrating a dignified and realistic consideration of his approaching death after reviewing his options. It is a most unusual screen representation, a man without any religious convictions who comes to terms with his shortened lifespan without fanfare or agitation, choosing instead to go “gently” into that good night.

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