In my family Now Voyager has long been the movie that we could sit and watch for 24 hours a day; we all know the dialogue and we compete to see who does the best Bette Davis impression. However, another film is poised to take the place of the iconic Warner Bros. romance. Remember the Night stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, the future murderous lovers of Double Indemnity, in very different roles as improbable soul mates who find the gift of love at Christmas. Although written by Preston Sturges, this is not one of his screwball comedies, but rather a comedy drama laced with darker moments; the bittersweet ending is a still a subject of debate to this day. It is well documented that director Mitchell Leisen ( Midnight, Frenchman's Creek, Hold Back the Dawn, To Each His Own ) made many changes to Sturges' screenplay. He cut scenes out completely, pared down others, and switched the emphasis from Fred MacMurray to Barbara Stanwyck. Although understandably unhappy with Leisen's script tampering, Sturges showed up every day on the set during shooting. He spent a lot of time with Barbara Stanwyck and promised to write a screwball comedy for her, which he did one year later with The Lady Eve. But his negative experience on this film led him to finally fulfill his dream of directing his own scripts; his first film as writer-director was The Great McGinty. Even though Remember the Night opened to favorable reviews, Sturges dismissed it summarily as unadulterated schmaltz
You were wrong Mr. Sturges! The greatness of this film lies in the fact that every moment that could have turned into a melodramatic cliché was transformed into a quietly believable interaction between characters. The growing love between Stanwyck and MacMurray is presented as a series of revelatory exchanges and actions which surprise both of them by creating feelings of affection and attraction which neither had expected. Barbara Stanwyck is magnificent in her portrayal of a petty criminal, cynical and initially unsympathetic, whose view of the world is softened by a holiday visit with MacMurray's family.
The basic story of Remember the Night involves a shoplifter, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) arrested on Christmas Eve trying to steal a diamond bracelet, facing prosecution by an assistant district attorney, John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) who knows he won't get a conviction from a jury on Christmas Eve and motions to postpone the trial until after the holiday. He feels bad about Lee's spending Christmas in jail and bails her out. She is brought to his apartment believing that he wants her to spend the night as repayment for posting bail. But that is not the case, and John tells her to go home but not before he takes her out to dinner. They are seen together at the restaurant by the judge in the case and leave quickly. Sargent is on his way home to Indiana to spend the holidays with his family and finds out that Lee also is a Hoosier, and offers to drop her off on the way home and pick her up on the return trip. Lee's attempt to reconcile with her estranged mother proves disastrous when the callous and unforgiving woman turns her own daughter out of her childhood home. John takes pity on her, inviting her to spend the holidays with his family. It is during this time that Lee's proximity to a loving family and the joy they share with each other breaks down the barriers she has set up for protection against the harsh world she inhabits. The affection that develops between her and John is depicted in small increments with unexpected outcomes. It is in this nurturing setting that Stanwyck begins to glow, exuding a brilliance, almost an inner light, perhaps reflecting a new found hope for the future. There are scenes in which Lee Leander is no longer a character played by Barbara Stanwyck, but a young woman with a troubled past accepting the kindness she is offered, and taking a new interest in changing the direction of her life. In one scene, while vigorously brushing her hair, Stanwyck seems to acknowledge the possibility that she could establish a better life for herself; with every stroke one more strand of her past falls away. She continues to engage in family-oriented activities; playing the piano and singing on Christmas Eve; and going to the annual barn dance, dressed in an old-fashioned party gown, with corset and layers of undergarments. With a bow in her hair and looking as lovely as a photograph from another era, she weakens John's resistance to his growing affection for her and he professes his love. They embrace and share their first meaningful kiss and John seems to be willing to forsake his burgeoning career in order to be with Lee. This change is not lost on John's mother; she approaches Lee and wistfully explains the hardships that her son endured in order to become a lawyer, intimating that a relationship with her would be detrimental to his future. John however is aware of his mother's objections and will not end his relationship with Lee. On the return trip for the court date John offers Lee a chance for freedom in Canada; with Niagara Falls as the backdrop Lee chooses to continue on to her trial.
Still determined to prevent Lee from going to prison, John badgers and bullies Lee on the witness stand, until Lee realizes he is trying to throw the case. She interrupts his questioning and declares to the judge that she wants to plead guilty much to John's dismay. He follows her as she is led out of the courtroom and agonizingly questions her decision. For Lee the only way to redeem herself and make herself worthy of John's love is to pay for the crime that she committed. She refuses John's proposal of marriage but tells him that if he feels the same way when she's released she will marry him.
The most poignant moment in this scene however occurs when Lee asks John to hold her hand during her sentencing, indicating that she is frightened by the prospect of prison, but still determined to do the right thing. The ending of this film is written and performed in a way that leaves the audience without a definite idea of what will happen in the future. There is no guarantee that John's love will survive introspection or that Lee's rehabilitation will be successful. The darkness attributed to this ending is another way of saying that the outcome is uncertain as it is in real life.
Remember the Night is essentially a movie for all seasons. It doesn't hammer you over the head with lessons in morality, but rather gently and effectively depicts how love can heal a wounded spirit and change the course of one's life.