The Night Visitor

The opening scene of this lesser-known film is striking. We see the fortress-like walls of an institution in the middle of a desolate farming country. It is an overcast evening with the ice-colored clouds barely allowing the midnight sun to appear. The ground is covered with snow and the wind is whistling through the mostly bare trees. Then Salem appears in his underwear, drab-colored like the scene around him, with his skin reddened by the cold. He is clamoring through the brush on a mission, apparently to escape the asylum. This scene drew me into the film.

In short order, Salem (played by Max von Sydow) creeps into a house and kills a man. Mission accomplished, he escapes back into the cold. But the surviving inhabitants of the house know and recognize him, and he is reported to the police. When the police Inspector is called in to investigate, he visits the asylum to tell them Salem has escaped, and to get their help in apprehending him again. The Director of the facility informs the Inspector that it is impossible to escape from the asylum’s locked cells and high walls. To prove it, he takes the Inspector to the craft room and shows him: there is Salem, sitting at his regular place where he has been all morning, working on a project. Fully clothed.

Why would a man work to escape a dreary asylum and then steal his way back in? And how did he get through the walls and security? Twice? And what’s with the underwear in the snow?

Ok. Now I’m hooked.

As the film continues, Salem needs to repeat his disappearing act one more time. His targets are the people who framed him into the asylum incarceration, and he’s not finished yet. This time, I get to see how he pulls off his escape, and it is an intriguing series of steps that have to be precisely executed. The escape is a physically draining effort, yet there is no hint that von Sydow used a double for the sequence. Impressive. Much of the suspense of the film is in whether he can pull it off, and what will he do when he gets out. I learn about the crime for which Salem is framed (a murder), and importantly for me, why he is in his underwear as he is running through the freezing underbrush, which is a critical part of his escape and return sequencing.

Originally titled Salem Came to Upper, the film also stars Liv Ullman and Trevor Howard, and is directed by Swedish Director Laslo Benedek. Von Sydow is Salem, committed to an insane asylum for a vicious murder for which he was framed. This is an excellent piece for von Sydow, and one of the few of his movies that I have seen. His performance is especially effective at depicting the intense cold that Salem has to endure in carrying out his mission. Trevor Howard plays the Inspector. His portrayal reminds me of when he played Detective Calloway in The Third Man: steady, persistent, unflappable, and an almost collegial approach to his suspects. This is particularly on display in the confrontation between the Inspector and Salem in the latter’s asylum cell (above), a well-played key scene that displays the mindset of both characters and the talents of the two fine actors.

The film has an interesting history getting to market. Although released in 1971, it was not registered for copyright until 1982 (AFI Catalog). It was filmed in Scandinavia by American producer Mel Ferrer and debuted in Sweden. It drew mixed reviews and never attracted a large audience. It was included in TCM’s October horror films, but it comes across as more of a high-suspense crime film (no monsters, no supernatural stuff, and no vampires).

I viewed this film for the first time this year, and I now recommend it to anyone looking for a good thriller.
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