Not Rated Dir: Leo McCarey | Twilight Time | 2h 5min
Plot: What’s it about?
This is the ominous opening title card to the 1962 film Satan Never Sleeps. Based on the novel The China Story by acclaimed novelist Pearl S. Buck, the film was adapted by Leo McCarey with help from screenwriter Claude Binyon. I received a copy of the Blu-ray edition of the film from Twilight Time and I decided to check it out.
William Holden plays Father O’Bannion, a Catholic priest living in China. O’Bannion arrives a couple days late to relieve another priest at a small village in China. He arrives leading a horse and is conspicuous because he has a young woman accompanying him named Siu Lan (France Nuyen.) O’Bannion had saved her life in the spring floods and by custom was then responsible for her life. He can not shake her off no matter how hard he tries. The priest he relieves, Father Bovard (Clifton Webb,) does not even take the time to show him the mission, seizing his opportunity to leave the mission immediately. The Red Army is closing in on the mission. Father Bovard is returned to the mission by the communists that stop him outside the town. Father Bovard’s protégée Ho-San (Weaver Levy) has become a communist military leader named Colonel Osan. They force the mission to fly the communist flag. The communists at first promise freedom of religion and not to interfere with the mission. Bovard’s protégée grew up in the church and was at one point a Christian. The communists soon take over the education of the children. Siu Lan soon arrives at the mission to continue her pursuit of O’Bannion. She is hired by the mission as a cook. Ho-San tries to enlist her to spy on the priests, but instead she reports back to O’Bannion and Bovard who have formed a begrudging friendship. When Ho-San tries to forcibly put Siu Lan in a car, O’Bannion intervenes. After turning the other cheek numerous times, he strikes Ho-San. The film escalates from there.
Satan Never Sleeps was Leo McCarey’s final film. McCarey directed The Awful Truth and An Affair to Remember amongst many well-loved films in his decades long career. Satan Never Sleeps is an interesting film due to its setting and enjoyable performances from the three central lead actors. William Holden is a lot of fun to watch as a priest even though the casting is definitely against type. I am a little biased because I like William Holden in everything. Clifton Webb finished his long career with this film and is believable as Father Bovard. France Nuyen gives the best performance in the film as the lovestruck Siu Lan. She is very convincing and sweet in the film. The setting of the film during China’s Communist revolution appealed to my love of history, and as a religion minor I was drawn to the spiritual plight of the priests. All of these things work in the favor of the film. It is also a surprisingly funny film for the first half with some clever dialogue.
There are some issues with the film that hamper it from becoming an instant classic. First – the film is a little bit longer than it should be – running five minutes over two hours. Second – the first half of the film sets a fairly lighthearted tone given the circumstances. This tone does not sustain the film. The second half of the film deals with a sexual assault in a way that does not satisfy my sensibilities as I watched the film in 2019. For me, it made the film much more interesting, but almost wrecked the film for me at the same time. If you watch the film all the way through, I feel like this is probably how you will feel as well. Julie Kirgo mentioned having a similar reaction in the liner notes for the film.
That said, Satan Never Sleeps was shot in Cinemascope in wide angle lenses and the results are very pretty. Leo McCarey was solid at directing and the cinematography by the legendary Oswald Morris is worth the price of admission. The movie suffers from some truly terrible green screen effects during travel sequences, but those serve to remind the viewer that the film came from a different age and should not diminish enjoyment of the film.
At the end of the day, if you think the idea of watching William Holden play a pious priest sounds like fun, there is a lot to enjoy about Satan Never Sleeps. There is also plenty to criticize, but I enjoyed watching it. It is definitely memorable!
Video: How’s it look?
20th Century Fox provided Twilight Time with a great looking transfer of the film in 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an MPEG-4 AVC encoded image. Filmed in Cinemascope by Oswald Morris in Wales (subbing in for China,) Satan Never Sleeps is beautifully shot in wide angle lenses. The transfer shows the superb attention that Fox has paid their back catalog. It really looks beautiful. Fine detail is great. There is a very fine level of grain that helps it keep its filmic look. Fans should be over the moon.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Twilight Time have provided both a DTS-HD 2.0 and a DTS-HD Mono track. I chose to listen to the stereo recording during viewing and found the sound mix consistently leveled and well done. The movie is mainly dialogue driven but there is some action in the latter half of the film. The score for the film by Richard Rodney Bennett does justice to the film if not becoming very memorable for the audience. Overall this is another solid track from our friends at Twilight Time.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Theatrical Trailer
The Bottom Line
Satan Never Sleeps is an enjoyable film that has its fair share of foibles. The film is well-shot by the wonderful Oswald Morris, is well-directed by Leo McCarey, and features the great William Holden as a priest in Communist China. The Twilight Time disc has a spectacular transfer from 20th Century Fox that will please all fans and newcomers to the film. As I sit here writing this review, I am wishing that some of my friends had seen this film so that I could gauge their opinion of it. Trust me – when you watch this film you will have an opinion of it by the time the credits roll. Given how easily that opinion may shift, you may want to rent this one prior to a purchase.