Since its 1940 release, everything about the forgotten Remember the Night has seemed to conspire against it–including, rather ironically, its banal title, too easily confused with dozens of more mediocre films. Director Mitchell Leisen lies in the shadows of his more celebrated contemporaries, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. And while it was Sturges himself who scripted this picture, it was one of the last screenplays he would write for someone else before moving on to greater fame. Remember the Night also had the misfortune of being the first of four movies that Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray made together, with the second, Double Indemnity (1944), becoming far and away the most iconic. So all hail the programmers at Film Forum, where Remember the Night will screen today and tomorrow, as part of its “Essential Sturges” series, on a double bill with Christmas in July (1940).
During a deft, fast-paced opening scene–the equal of any set piece in Hitchcock–Stanwyck’s petty thief and grifter, Lee Leander, steals a bracelet from a Fifth Avenue jewelry store, only to get caught trying to pawn it minutes later, on Third Avenue. Assistant D.A. John Sargent (MacMurray) is assigned to prosecute her, because convincing juries to convict sympathetic women is his specialty. But when his courtroom strategy delays the trial until the new year, John bails Lee out, so she won’t have to spend Christmas in jail. Then, discovering that she’s a fellow Hoosier, he offers her a lift to Indiana for the holidays.
Part road movie, part screwball comedy, part Yuletide morality tale, Remember the Night is a Golden Age potluck of a movie, held together by the natural chemistry between its two beautiful stars. “I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara,” MacMurray once said. “In the first I turned her in, in the second I killed her, in the third I left her for another woman, and in the fourth I pushed her over a waterfall. The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck–and I did, too.”
While Remember the Night is a comedy, it is one that, as former Voice critic Michael Atkinson observed, “slowly, organically seeps into melancholy.” There is quite simply no other Christmas movie as moving as this one–none so grown-up, and yet so compassionate and uncynical. When darkness falls over the prosecutor and the criminal, it doesn’t feel at all like a plot contrivance. Instead, it feels like a familiar component of this real–and yes, wonderful–life.–Benjamin Strong