Ronald Reagan was not a brooding man. Whatever existential unease he may have had, he didn’t show it, especially in public. As an actor in Hollywood, he most enjoyed roles that were humorous or filled with individual valor. His sense of humor and ease of being is almost always on display in his acting, so he wasn’t especially keen to take on most dramatic roles. Yet many of the dramas in which Reagan did appear show a different and intriguing side of the man.
Don Siegel’s “Night Unto Night” (1949) was one of Reagan’s post-war films. The film was produced in 1947, but it wasn’t released until two years later. Reagan’s experience in making the film was mostly positive, although it did not do well at the box office. The audience prefers happier movies, and despite the fact that “Night Unto Night” ends on a positive note, the reaction was less than ideal.
Based on Philip Wylie’s eponymous book, the film tells the story of John Galen (Ronald Reagan), a scientist who is suffering from epilepsy, who decides to rent a house in Florida so he can live far away from others. He wants to find some peace outside of the city and his work in order to manage his epilepsy.
Ann (Viveca Lindfors) rents John a house that seems to be haunted by the ghost of her dead husband. She is absent-minded, like a character out of an Emily Brontë novel or Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. In fact, Siegel’s cinematography is moody and brooding in a similar way, signifying an undercurrent of some dark past.
No matter how hard they try, John and Ann cannot avoid encountering each other. As they fall in love, they are forced to encounter their very selves. For John, that means coming to grips with his epilepsy and his fear of revealing this fact to Ann. But he is convinced she will reject him and, besides, he doesn’t want to burden her. He has convinced himself that the only correct thing to do is to suffer alone.
Ann may not have a chronic disease, but she is attached to her past, and in a similar way to John’s obsession with his problem, it is preventing her from living in the present. She’s not only haunted by the voice of her dead husband, but by the possibility of a new life, which she wholly rejects.
As time passes, John’s condition worsens. His absence seizures quickly turn into grand mal seizures. Siegel captures this condition extremely well, and Reagan takes the task of accurately portraying this malady very seriously. His portrayal of John Gale following the grand mal seizure is authentic: his disorientation and the ensuing fatigue is intense in its delivery.
Reagan accomplished something similar in 1952 with “The Winning Team,” where he plays a baseball player suffering from epilepsy. As president, Reagan welcomed as guests to the White House, representatives of the National Epilepsy Foundation, as well as children dealing with epilepsy.
In a diary entry dated October 9, 1981, Reagan reflects on meeting a young girl with epilepsy: “Thank heavens her seizures can now be controlled and she can live a normal life.” In another diary entry dated September 22, 1983, Reagan writes about a boy who “diagnosed his own illness after hearing a lecture on Epilepsy.” The video of this encounter, as well as the encounter with the little girl, show Reagan’s concern for as well as his ability to be lighthearted with children. Because of his experience in playing these roles, Reagan was deeply involved in efforts to de-stigmatize epilepsy and make living with it much more bearable for those diagnosed with it.
The film noir quality is just one of the aspects making “Night Unto Night” a worthy film. Reagan’s performance as an afflicted man on the verge of committing suicide deserves recognition. He is fully present and takes the endeavor seriously. In this way it could be said that the film actually ended up being a success, despite the box office disappointment. Given the nature of Wylie’s strange novel, this is a real accomplishment.
By Wylie’s own admission, the novel is more of a diatribe on why organized religion is bad, and why man needs to rely on science and psychology in order to discover the meaning of life. In his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, Reagan writes, “It [Wylie’s novel] was an unusual story, as most of his are, and I’m not sure we got the most out of his book.” Well, they didn’t, and thank God for that!
Disregarding the ideology behind the book as well as insisting on a different ending (in the novel, John unceremoniously commits suicide, whereas in the film, Ann saves him from taking his own life) was the best thing that could have happened to Siegel’s “Night Unto Night.” Even in the preface of the novel, Wylie is revealed as an acerbic and cynical man. After he spent several pages “educating” the reader about how science and reason are superior to religion, and why the novel is primarily a “philosophy” and commentary on modern life, he writes, “. . . I shall let the book speak and the reader think, if he cares to.” I don’t think any self-respecting reader would care to read Wylie’s book after that statement.
It is good that Siegel and screenwriter Kathryn Scola rejected Wylie’s approach to storytelling. Instead, we are offered a dark, moody and unsettling film, wondering if love will truly arrive for John and Ann, or whether they will be haunted by spirits of the past and struggles of disease. There is some relief at the end, but as in most post-war American movies, an uneasiness about what the future may bring remains the only thing that’s certain.