“They Met in the Dark” (1943)
by A.J. Hakari
(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)
A vessel in Her Majesty’s navy. A German U-boat. A fateful encounter that the Allied Forces barely escaped with their lives. Commander Richard Heritage (James Mason) swears that he didn’t have orders to serve as the downed ship’s escort, but he’s nevertheless assigned blame for the incident and swiftly dismissed from his post. His reputation in peril, Heritage decides to retrace his steps and track down the mystery girl who might have the answers for how this tragedy came to be. Unfortunately, our man’s investigation lands him in further hot water, as being caught in close proximity to a fresh corpse by Canadian visitor Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) brands him a killer. Now armed with even more motivation to prove his innocence, Heritage continues digging deeper and deeper for the truth, only to uncover a sinister conspiracy that not only wants to see him dead but millions of innocents, too.
They Met in the Dark bears a closer resemblance to a breezy espionage caper (a la The 39 Steps) than to a dyed-in-the-wool film noir. The set-up is certainly there (what with focusing on a man accused of awful crimes he didn’t commit), but save for a few instances of moody photography, there isn’t anything terribly spooky or mysterious about this flick. However, while exhibiting a frothier tone is just fine, They Met in the Dark is almost aloof to a fault, playing itself so cool that the stakes lose nearly all their urgency. Despite being charged with treason and sabotage during wartime, Heritage never appears that worried; it’s a move meant to give the character a witty and unflappable edge, but when he looks like he couldn’t be less concerned with saving his own skin, how can we accept him wanting to save the world from those pesky Nazis? The audience rarely feels the weight of a global threat pressing on the characters, and Verity’s string of comedic misunderstandings come off as forced and only serve to make her seem like an unnecessary ditz. That said, the actors do share a playful rapport (with Mason proving particularly suave), the story’s many turns become more intriguing as things progress, and at least a couple scenes embrace the noirish qualities the film would have been better off emphasizing as a whole, rather than unintentionally undermining its own heavy themes.
You could say that They Met in the Dark is The Tourist of its time, ninety minutes of attractive people getting involved with spies, secrets, and all that jazz that are promptly forgotten about moments after everything wraps up. That’s not to say this isn’t a dapper production with a handsome cast and a few good times to be enjoyed, but it isn’t impressionable in the slightest, with its inconsistent comedy and thrills barely enough to get you through an inaugural viewing, let alone compel you to make a return visit years down the road. Although it looks and sounds just fine, They Met in the Dark isn’t likely to inspire any strong feelings within the hearts of noir fans, be they of joy or dread.