Saturday, February 21, 1970: Nightmare (1942)


Synopsis: An American named Daniel Shane is tramping it in wartime Britain. He breaks into a darkened house and helps himself to the contents of the pantry. He is startled by Leslie, the lady of the house, who doesn’t seem alarmed by his presence — in fact, she seems surprisingly eager for him to stay. She says she wants to hire him for a job. It turns out there’s a murder victim in the study upstairs, a man with a knife in his back, and she wants Shane to dispose of it for her.

Needing the money — as well as taking a shine to her –he gamely agrees, and makes the body disappear. But when he comes back to the house the next day he finds the murder victim is back where it was before.

Before he can get an explanation from Leslie, the police are at the door and the two decide to flee. Stealing a car at the back of the house, Leslie says that she has a cousin in Scotland named Abbington, who will help them.


Checking into an inn that night, the woman reveals that the murdered man was her ex-husband, who was involved in some sort of espionage work. He had shown up at her house drunk and in an agitated state of mind. But, she says, she had nothing to do with his murder.

The next day Shane drops her off at the Abbington manor, deciding to jettison the stolen car in Liverpool come nightfall. But he quickly discovers that the car has a shortwave transceiver on board, tuned to a German frequency. Realizing that there is a connection between the dead man and the car, he returns to the house, only to discover that Abbington is a German agent, who runs a Nazi spy ring with plans to bomb British supply convoys. But Abbington is also a highly-respected member of the local gentry, and the local authorities refuse to believe that he is working for the enemy.

Comments: Apart from the rather generic title, there really isn’t any reason why this wartime espionage thriller got tossed into the Shock! package of horror films. But as it turns out, Nightmare is a pretty good little movie, with a story reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, albeit with a somewhat more hard-bitten world view.

Shane isn’t the typical Hitchcockian innocent who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is perfectly willing to engage in a bit of illicit activity to keep body and soul together (although, somewhat improbably, he tells Leslie that he’s on his way back to the States to join the American war effort — a bit of dialogue presumably tacked on to satisfy wartime censors).

The scheme hatched by the Nazi spies is pretty silly stuff (they’re manufacturing exploding bottles of scotch, or something) but it hangs together just well enough to get us through the end of the movie. It doesn’t hurt that Nightmare features snappy dialogue and engaging performances by Brian Donlevy (who later starred in the Hammer Studios’ versions of The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II) and Diana Barrymore. Barrymore is particularly striking here, carrying herself with a confident, almost aristocratic bearing that is undercut at crucial points by Leslie’s uncertainty about whom to trust.

This is one of the few films that Barrymore made. Universal had hoped to cash in on her famous name (she was the estranged daughter of John Barrymore). When she didn’t pan out as a box-office draw they offered her a role in an Abbott and Costello film. She turned it down, and they cancelled her contract.

Nightmare is pretty much forgotten today, but I will now wave my magic wand once, twice, thrice — and confer upon it the status of Minor Classic. It doesn’t appear to be available on DVD, but if you get a chance to see it, it’s worth a look.

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One comment

  1. It should come as no surprise that the non horror titles in the SHOCK! television package probably bypassed younger viewers when they first aired in the late 50's, and today would be the last ones buffs get around to seeing. I myself first screened NIGHTMARE just today, and found it most engaging. Brian Donlevy was an able leading man, as I found in HALF ANGEL (John Carradine) and MIDNIGHT TAXI (Lon Chaney), but it's a real thrill to see Diana Barrymore in a starring role, having only caught her in the Western FRONTIER BADMEN (with Chaney). She appeared to have genuine talent, and acquits herself well as a femme fatale. The real crime is the appalling waste of third billed Henry Daniell, who spends more time on screen as a corpse than he does as a living character (wish I had his agent!) This espionage mystery never showed up on CHILLER THEATER, so it's a genuine surprise that Minnesotans were exposed to it, but for this aging adult, there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half.

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