Night People (film)

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Night People
1954 British movie poster
Directed by Nunnally Johnson
Produced by Nunnally Johnson
Written by Nunnally Johnson
Jed Harris (story)
Tom Reed
W.R. Burnett (uncredited)
Starring Gregory Peck
Broderick Crawford
Anita Björk
Rita Gam
Walter Abel
Buddy Ebsen
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
  • March 12, 1954 (1954-03-12)
Running time
93 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,250,000[1]
Box office $2,150,000 (US rentals)[2]

Night People is a 1954 motion picture drama starring Gregory Peck, Broderick Crawford, Anita Bjork, and Buddy Ebsen, directed by Nunnally Johnson. It was co-written by Jed Harris, a noted theatrical producer.

The story is set in Berlin during the years following World War II. Peck plays a Military Police colonel of the United States Army.


Allied enemies kidnap Corporal John "Johnny" Leatherby, a young American soldier in West Berlin. Lt. Col. Steve Van Dyke, the American provost marshal assigned to investigate, learns through his East German contact Frau "Hoffy" Hoffmeir that the soldier has been kidnapped by East German agents who want to trade him for a pair of elderly Germans. At the same time, the Soviet Union has closed border posts into Berlin, suggesting an impending international crisis. Johnny's father, Charles Leatherby, is a wealthy and politically influential industrialist from Toledo, Ohio, and flies to Berlin to bully the military bureaucracy into finding his son. Accustomed to being in charge and never refused, he issues a demand that the military attempt to bribe the East German government using Leatherby's money. Van Dyke is offended by Leatherby's arrogance and ignorance. ("You're a big wheel in the axle grease business. You're a personal friend of Senator...McDinglehoffer," he scoffs.)

They go to dinner at the Katacombe restaurant, ostensibly to discuss the proposed swap, accompanied by Van Dyke's assistant, M/Sgt. Eddie McCulloch. In actuality, Van Dyke wants Leatherby to see the cost of the trade: the elderly female piano player and her blind husband (his eyes gouged out by the Nazis during the war) demanded for Johnny's return. When the Americans move to detain them for forged identity papers, the couple attempts suicide by using strychnine. Van Dyke has them taken to a U.S. military hospital under the care of Major Foster, the cigarette-mooching doctor in charge. The husband is near death. The wife is in better shape and conscious, and Eddie discovers in interrogating her that she is actually English and demanding to talk to someone in British Intelligence. Van Dyke recognizes that he could be in legal jeopardy if the British determine he is using one of their citizens as a player in a "swap shop." The woman identifies herself as Rachel Cameron, wife of Gen. Gerd von Kratzenow, an anti-Nazi conspirator, and reveals that the people wanting them are not Russians but former Nazis working now with the communists.

Leatherby begins to understand the complications involved. (Van Dyke tells Eddie at one point, "You're right, this deal is getting trickier than a basket full of eels.") Friends are often really enemies, and adversaries sometimes secret allies. Van Dyke learns that his friend and Soviet counterpart, Col. Lodejinski, has been betrayed attempting to escape to the West and has committed suicide with his whole family. He also is told that Rachel Cameron acted as a spy for the Allies during the war. Van Dyke considers submitting to the demands and trading the elderly couple for the soldier. He provides Leatherby with this stark choice. While using Hoffy, with whom Van Dyke had once engaged in an ill-advised love affair, as an intermediary, he causes jealousy on the part of his secretary, Ricky Cates. Hoffy's loyalty comes under question; she is the common thread in so many twists. Van Dyke arranges for Johnny to be delivered by Russian ambulance to the American hospital to complete the trade, but concocts a dangerous double-cross in which he has to intentionally poison himself to succeed.



1954 CinemaScope Film title card
Gregory Peck, Buddy Ebsen, Broderick Crawford, and Peter van Eyck in a Hospital scene (R2 DVD CinemaScope version)
Peck, Ted Avery, Crawford, Marianne Koch shown in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the American Sector of Occupied Berlin (R2 DVD CinemaScope version)
  • The screenplay was developed under the title The Cannibals, a phrase used in the dialogue to describe the kidnappers of Corporal Leatherby. In July 1953 the New York Times reported that the title was changed to Night People to avoid audiences anticipating "an African adventure." The title was taken from a property already owned by Fox, a science fiction vehicle that was to star Richard Widmark but which was never produced.
  • Nunnally Johnson had been seeking a project to break into directing, and approached Darryl F. Zanuck to direct Night People. Zanuck was amenable, but informed him that Peck had contractual rights to veto the studio's choice of director and might not want someone without experience. However, Peck and Nunnally Johnson were friends and had worked together on The Gunfighter in 1950, which Johnson had produced and re-scripted. Peck's confidence in him was so high that he readily approved him for his directorial debut.[3]
  • Despite this, rumors were published in The Hollywood Reporter in September 1953 that the two had seriously feuded. A possible source was Peck's initial doubts about Johnson's overall abilities, but these were soon dissipated and the pair worked amicably.[3] Together they had also had to overcome several squabbles on the set with Fox staffers over costuming and other intrusions. One biographer reported that Peck became so angry over one dispute that he channeled his anger into a scene in which his character rebukes Broderick Crawford's, and filmed ten pages of script in two hours. Johnson and Peck teamed together again in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.[4]
  • The movie's exteriors were filmed on location in Berlin, while interiors were filmed at the Geiselgasteig Studios in Munich over a five-week period in the summer of 1953, at a cost of $800,000, shot in the new wide-screen format of Cinemascope.[5] Filming was sometimes made difficult by the tensions existing in Berlin between the United States and the Soviet Union. In one scene filmed near the Brandenburg Gate with realistic props, the film crew came under close scrutiny by numerous armed Russians suspicious of the activity.[3]
  • Peck stated that the role of Steve Van Dyke had been one of his favorites, because his lines were "tough and crisp and full of wisecracks, and more aggressive than other roles" he'd portrayed.[5]
  • At the time this movie was made, Berlin was a divided city but not yet isolated by the Berlin Wall of 1961.

Home video[edit]

  • The film was originally filmed in the 2.55:1 CinemaScope widescreen aspect ratio. It was unavailable on home video for years. In October 2012, it was released on Region 1 DVD as part of the Twentieth Century Fox Cinema Archives collection, however it is cropped at 1.33:1, which means the viewer sees half the picture, and the quality of the screen image is very grainy due to the magnification of the film in order to get the "fullscreen" effect. There are no extras on the DVD and is manufactured on demand using DVD-R recordable media and may not play in all DVD devices, including recorders and PC drives.
  • Fox also released the film on Region 2 DVD in Spain. That version is in the original CinemaScope aspect ratio with extras. The DVD is in English with Spanish sub-titles. It WILL NOT play on standard US DVD players. You need a multi-region PAL/NTSC DVD player to view it in the United States or Canada.
  • It is not available on VHS or Blu-ray

Awards and reception[edit]

Jed Harris and Tom Reed were nominated for an Academy Award for best writing, motion picture story.

The film opened in New York on March 12, 1954, to favorable reviews, but was not well received by the public. It placed fifty-second in gross box office receipts for 1954.[5]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p249
  2. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
  3. ^ a b c Haney, Lynn (2005). Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life. Da Capo Press. pp. 238–240. ISBN 978-0-7867-1656-2. 
  4. ^ Molyneaux, Gerard (1995). Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press. p. 121. ISBN 0-313-28668-X. 
  5. ^ a b c Fishgall, Gary (2002). Gregory Peck: A Biography. Scribner. p. 178. ISBN 0-684-85290-X. 

External links[edit]