Cinema: Cute Dracula

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The Night Visitor is as incontinent as a colander, as unstable as a drunk trying to stand on one foot. Its central flaw is so common that Raymond Chandler complained about it 26 years ago in his great critique "The Simple Art of Murder": "The boys [cops] with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one some body tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody thought of only two minutes before he pulled it off."

No cuter killer exists than Salem (Max von Sydow), doomed to spend his life in a lunatic asylum. Framed for a homicide he did not commit, Salem becomes as vengeful as Dracula. Alone, he contrives to exit his maximum-security cell clothed only in socks, shoes, T shirt and briefs—in the dead of winter. With unrefined malice, he dispatches the framers, among them his sister (Liv Ullman), his mistress and a lawyer. Some are garroted, others drugged or axed to death. Then Salem undoes his escape, hustles back through the snow, ascends a stone wall just slightly less perilous than Everest, clambers back into his cell, locks himself in and stretches out on his pallet for some well deserved shuteye.

The local inspector (Trevor Howard) is, of course, baffled. Circumstantial evidence convicts Salem's villainous brother-in-law Dr. Anton Jenks (Per Oscarsson). In suspecting Jenks, the inspector may be the most inept member of his profession since Peter Sellers' celebrated Inspector Clouseau, whose left hand never knew what his left hand was doing. For Salem leaves behind acres of fingerprints and miles of footprints in the brittle snow. He is undone at last by a device whose trade name is An Ironic Twist of Fate—but which is, in fact, an arbitrary solution imposed by a fatigued imagination.

Laslo Benedek's methodical direction and Henning Kristiansen's astonishing photography—a gothic mix of melancholy blue landscapes and pale, crumbling interiors—only serve to underline the film's deficiency, the utter lack of logic. Random composition is all very well in contemporary art; in the traditional thriller, it is an unwanted and fatal guest.