Night Editor, a tightly-wound little crime chiller released in 1946, was one of Levin’s earliest assignments and it clearly demonstrates the brisk yet personable directorial style that would mark his work until the end. Though the low-budget Columbia programmer was never intended by the studio to have a lengthy working life, Night Editor has stubbornly refused to turn in its gun and badge.
Night Editor was based upon a weekly radio series in which a newspaper editor gave the listening audience the 'real inside' on some tawdry crime story. The movie's framing tale is cautionary, this time as recounted to a young reporter who’s been boozing it up, dogging it at work, and neglecting his family. The story unwinds in flashback and focuses on Tony Cochrane (William Gargan), a dour, charmless cop and faithless husband who’s got it bad for a high-class society babe, Jill Merrill (Janice Carter), who also happens to be hitched.
While working themselves into a sweat in a lovers’ lane one night, the two watch in shock as a woman is beaten to death with a tire iron. Cochrane instinctively moves to nail the culprit but Merrill holds him back and as a result, the detective fails to pursue the killer or report the murder. It’s not a good situation which only gets worse after the body is found and Cochrane finds himself assigned to the case. Cochrane has to work hard to cover his tracks, including those of his car found at the crime scene and now part of the evidence.
Little by little, the cover-up starts to fall apart, that is until a man whom the detective knows for certain not to be the killer is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. Cochrane feels remorse but it's clear that all that still takes a back seat to his raw lust for Jill Merrill.
What's not so clear is why the likes of Merrill would bother with a lumpen character like Cochrane, unless he’s got a python in his pants. The glamorpuss seems to have a thing for sex - though of what kind we’re not sure. In Night Editor's most notorious scene, she begins to lift off like a rocket, shouting, "I want to see the body’!" Unhinged by the voyeuristic frenzy, Cochrane gets out of there as fast as he can. Though Cochrane is obsessed with Merrill, he knows what she’s really about and and at one point tries to get rid himself of her in an exchange that’s as insanely ripe as pulp noir gets:
Him: ‘You’re no good for me. We both add up to zero. I’m sick of the whole crazy mess. I’m sick of playing games. You’re worse than blood poisoning. You’re a rotten-rick through and through. Like something that’s served at the Ritz that’s been laying out in the sun too long’
Her: ‘To hear you talk you’d think I was crawling after you. I don’t need you and I can buy and sell you. That’s right, Tony, you’re not my kind. But your little tootsie-wootsie loves her great big stupid peasant’.
Actually it’s also not clear – at least to modern audiences - why Janis Carter, a strikingly beautiful, vivacious and multi-talented actress, never had a bigger movie career. Carter featured in thirty-odd films but never came close to achieving lasting stardom. If it were not for her turns in a number of minor crime dramas like Framed (1947), I Love Trouble (1948), The Missing Juror (1944), The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) as well as in several titles of The Whistler series, Carter would be all but forgotten.
Arguably, Carter’s recognition problem is the result of her bifurcated screen persona. On one hand, she was the personification of the 1940’s calendar pin-up à la Edward Runci or T.N. Thompson – an alluring mix of both movie star beauty and sophistication and girl-next-door exuberance and playfulness. By rights, Carter might have been expected to have found sure footing in comedies and musicals (her background had been in opera and theater). But the actress also could play it aloof, willful, and calculating - perhaps too easily and too well. Carter's career path took her down some of B-noir’s seediest side streets to places where she could joyously act out her inner bad-girl. If conventional stardom eluded her, lasting status as one of film noir's deadliest femme fatales did not.
Night Editor was intended as a pilot for a series of like films with stories to be told by veteran police beat reporters. The series never happened but at least Night Editor did and thank heaven for that. Without it and other B-titles with similarly deranged impulses, classic film noir would hardly be as compelling and, yes, as much fun to watch.