The low-budget film is remembered today for camera work by cinematographer Burnett Guffey. It uses flashbacks as a device to tell the story, which was based on a 1947 novel by David Goodis.
Commercial artist James Vanning (Aldo Ray) and his friend, Dr. Edward Gurston (Frank Albertson), are on a hunting and fishing trip in Wyoming. They stop to help two men whose car has crashed. John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond) are bank robbers, fleeing with $350,000 in loot, who don't plan on leaving any witnesses.
They murder Gurston using Vanning's hunting rifle, but through luck Vanning survives. He's knocked out cold but is still alive. He awakens to discover the stolen money, left behind by mistake, and runs with it from the returning hoods. He gets away but loses the bag in the blizzard.
Much later, at a café in Los Angeles, Vanning makes the acquaintance of Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft), a model. He is ambushed by John and Red, but once again gets away. Marie falls for Vanning and travels by bus with him to Wyoming, tailed by an insurance investigator named Fraser (James Gregory) who has been following the case all along.
John and Red have found the money and get the drop on the other three. The crooks double-cross one another, however, and Red shoots John dead. Vanning fights with Red, who is killed by a snow plow. The insurance man will clear Vanning, who is now free to marry Marie.Aldo Ray as James Vanning
Brian Keith as John
Anne Bancroft as Marie Gardner
Jocelyn Brando as Laura Fraser
James Gregory as Ben Fraser
Frank Albertson as Dr. Edward Gurston
Rudy Bond as Red
Critic Dennis Schwartz liked the film and wrote, "Splendid adaptation by Stirling Silliphant of David Goodis's 1947 novel. Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past and I Walked with a Zombie) gets the most out of this minor film noir about a paranoid man haunted by his past, who can't fully comprehend how he got into such a tight predicament where he's being pursued by both the law and two dangerous criminals. Burnett Guffey's brilliant composite photography adds chills to the already tense narrative. His exterior daytime shots of a wintry Wyoming landscape signify danger contrasted with the neon-lit dark city night streets that signify safety."
Critic Jay Seaver gave the film a mixed review, writing, "Nightfall isn't worried about purity of genre; it occasionally threatens to become an almost light-hearted caper movie...The storytelling is more than a bit cumbersome. Stirling Silliphant's script starts shaky, with Vanning making annoyingly vague comments about not being able to remember the source of his woes, and Marie's appearance in the somewhat low-class bar where she meets him almost seems out of character by the end. The direction is similarly uneven; Jacques Tourneur has some impressive items on his résumé but also a fair amount of mediocrity, and this one's somewhere in between. He gets us into and out of flashbacks smoothly, and knows when to sit back and let the actors do their thing. If the end fizzles, it might be less Tourneur's fault and more the environment he was working in - the finale really calls for a bit of blood spatter, but you just didn't get that in 1957, so the tension that has been built nicely doesn't quite have the release one might like."
Film critic Alain Silver makes the case that even though the film's locations include bright snow cover landscapes the protagonist in the film is "typically noir." He writes, "Despite being made near the end of the cycle, the dilemma of Nightfall's protagonist is typically noir. Although he is a victim of several mischances, Vanning's paranoia compounds these problems significantly. Tourneur relegates those causal incidents to a flashback halfway through the film; but he does not allow them to be distorted by Vanning's point-of view. Rather, they reflect Vanning's struggle to comprehend how such violent but basically simple past occurrences have put him in such dangerous and complicated present predicament."
Writer Spencer Selby called the film a "paranoid thriller which seems to be Tourneur's return to some of the territory he explored in Out of the Past."
Song "Nightfall"; lyrics Sam M. Lewis; music Peter DeRose and Charles Harold; sung by Al Hibbler
Turner Classic Movies presented Nightfall on September 17, 2015 in commemoration of Anne Bancroft's 84th birthday. Shown before Nightfall was 1957's The Girl in Black Stockings and, following Nightfall, viewers saw 1964's The Pumpkin Eater, 1966's 7 Women, 1975's The Prisoner of Second Avenue and 1984's Garbo Talks.