A Forgotten Film to Remember: Night Must Fall

nighopeningIt is easy to assume that serial killers as a subject for crime movies is a relatively recent phenomenon, particularly those that delve into the unique psychology of the killer. After all, the term serial killer does not pop up in common usage until after Ted Bundy was incarcerated in prison, though it was coined earlier. Credit for the term is often given to FBI Agent Robert Ressler, who adopted “serial killer” and “serial homicide” in the 1970s. However, the phrase “serial murderer” goes as far back as the 1930s when director of police Ernst Gennat used it to describe Peter Kurten. I once read a passage by author James Ellroy in which he lauded Thomas Harris and his 1981 novel The Red Dragon as a watershed moment in crime fiction because of Harris’s detailed understanding of the psychology of the serial killer.

So, I am always surprised when I come across early pop culture depictions of serial killers that seem to accurately capture the demons that drive them. This Friday, February 7, at 6:30am, TCM will air Night Must Fall, a 1937 drama starring Robert Montgomery as a likable killer named Danny. The film is based on the 1935 play penned by Emlyn Williams, who originally starred as Danny on stage.  A working class Irish lad, Danny charms his way into the good graces of wealthy, cantankerous Mrs. Bramson, who exploits her age and presumed ill health to dominate the people in her household. The conniving killer discovers Mrs. Bramsom’s weakness for attention and quickly becomes the old lady’s primary caretaker. Mrs. Bramson’s niece, Olivia, is immediately suspicious of Danny. However, Olivia and her aunt are on such poor terms that Mrs. Bramson refuses to listen to her about anything. The killer’s identity is obvious from the beginning, which might frustrate those viewers who prefer a plot-twisting whodunit. Night Must Fall is not that kind of crime story. The tension derives from the interplay of the characters. It is disturbing to watch Danny worm his way into Mrs. Bramson’s heart, while the cat-and-mouse game between Danny and Olivia hints at her dark thoughts and desires.  I chose Night Must Fall as a forgotten film to be remembered for two reasons—the performance by Robert Montgomery as Danny and the insight into the sociopathic character by writer Emlyn Williams.

MONTGOMERY AND DAME MAY WHITTY WERE BOTH NOMINATED FOR OSCARS.

MONTGOMERY AND DAME MAY WHITTY WERE BOTH NOMINATED FOR OSCARS FOR THEIR PERFORMANCES.

In the late 1930s, Montgomery grew weary of the light-hearted romantic comedies that MGM continually assigned to him. He feared that his breezy star image as the amusing, urbane playboy would trap him if he did attempt other roles. After he caught Williams’s play in New York, he wanted to star in the film adaptation. Louis B. Mayer eventually granted Montgomery’s request, though it was against his better judgment. To convince Mayer of his eagerness for the role, the actor agreed to subsidize part of the cost of the film. Mayer and his producers must have been nervous about the material, because they made sure that viewers knew it was a prominent play. In the opening credits, above the title, it reads, “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in the Astonishing London and New York Stage Success Night Must Fall.”

In the original play, Danny spoke with a Welsh accent, but Montgomery found the inflection too difficult to master, so he opted for a slight Irish lilt. The sing-song accent made the character even more amiable, especially when he pours it on for Mrs. Bramson, played by Dame May Whitty in her first role in a talking film.  I was impressed with Montgomery’s ability to project menace while appearing to be sweet, charming, and even a little wistful, such as when he remarks about his tough, working-class life. At one point, Danny catches Olivia and two maids going through his possessions. With a soft smile on his face, he calmly strolls into the room, noting, “If there is anything I hate it’s a spy.” The comment is threatening, yet he remains polite, civil, even gracious.

ROSALIND RUSSELL WAS AN INTERESTING CHOICE FOR AN UNUSUAL ROLE.

ROSALIND RUSSELL WAS AN INTERESTING CHOICE FOR AN UNUSUAL ROLE.

A young Rosalind Russell costars as Olivia, a strange character who borders on spinsterhood yet longs for romantic adventure. She not only believes that Danny is the killer that the police are searching for, but she also catches him lying to her aunt. Despite her hostility toward him, she keeps quiet about the lie, perhaps believing that she has the upper hand. When an inspector asks to search the mysterious hat box that Danny keeps in his room, she lies for him, claiming that the hat box is her own. Reviewers have explained away Olivia’s actions as evidence of her romantic attraction to Danny, but that isn’t quite right. She is more attracted to the excitement and danger that Danny represents than to the young man himself. Under her aunt’s thumb for most of her life, and angry at her powerlessness in the old woman’s home, Olivia is so eager to defy her repressed existence that she lies to the police to keep Danny close by. Later, alone in the kitchen with Olivia, Danny recognizes her dark desires and reveals them to her: She seeks excitement, he croons to her in his lilting Irish brogue, and it is right here in the room with him. Now, Danny has the upper hand.

OLIVIA TO DANNY: "WHAT ARE YOU LIKE WHEN YOU ARE NOT ACTING?"

OLIVIA TO DANNY: “WHAT ARE YOU LIKE WHEN YOU ARE NOT ACTING?”

Such insight into the psychology of complex human characters is one of the strengths of the film—and the original play. In addition to painting Olivia in many shades of gray, Emlyn Williams’s depiction of the inner psyche of a serial killer seemed ahead of its time. Some serial killers were abused as children, and they learn how to create a new reality to which they can escape abuse or other uncomfortable feelings. Williams offers a similar idea about Danny through the character of Olivia, when she accuses him of having no feelings and of living in a world of his imagination as the only way to bear the awful things he does.  It is said that serial killers who are sociopaths learn to act like ordinary people, though they themselves do not have the capacity to experience feelings in the same way. In one scene, Danny stands at the fireplace whittling as Olivia accuses him, “You are acting all the time, aren’t you. What are you like when you don’t act?” During this scene, the news that the body of a missing woman has been found without her head is revealed—as Danny fiddles with his sharp knife while whittling away.

A PAN TO  HIS WINDOW REVEALS THE REAL DANNY BEHIND THE FACADE.

THE DIRECTOR PANS TO THIS WINDOW TO REVEAL THE REAL DANNY BEHIND THE FACADE.

I had not heard of Emlyn Williams prior to watching this film. Apparently, the play Night Must Fall gave Williams his first great success and made him a well-known figure on the London stage. After Night Must Fall, his next greatest success was The Corn Is Green, a play completely different in topic and mood.  In addition to writing plays, he also penned screenplays, including Jamaica Inn and The Man Who Knew Too Much for Hitchcock, who was adept at suspenseful, double-edged dialogue and also knew his way around the mind of a serial killer. I can’t help but wonder if the Master of Suspense was influenced by Emlyn Williams.

22 Responses A Forgotten Film to Remember: Night Must Fall
Posted By Pamela : February 3, 2014 4:39 pm

I like this film very much. The 1964 remake with Albert Finney has its merits (mainly Albert Finney), but I prefer the less “in your face” finesse of Montgomery’s performance.

As a side note, I watched “The Night Digger” (aka “The Road Builder”) with Patricia Neal, Pamela Brown and Nicholas Clay. It’s based on “Nest in a Fallen Tree” by Joy Cowley, but the plot line is very similar to NMF.

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2014 5:20 pm

I have never heard of this movie. Thanks for highlighting this very interesting Robert Montgomery role.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 3, 2014 5:21 pm

Pamela: I have not seen the remake with Finney, but from all accounts, it seemed more explicit in its violence, which is not really what the narrative is about.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 3, 2014 5:28 pm

Rob: The movie is kind of talky in that stage-adaptation way, but I didn’t mind it in this movie. The dialogue is almost poetic–even when Montgomery offers commentary on what it is like to be him. And, he is so unlike his other roles that I got caught up in his performance.

Posted By Cynthia Smith : February 3, 2014 5:42 pm

Awesome as always…makes me want to watch the movie now.

Posted By LD : February 3, 2014 6:24 pm

Having seen NIGHT MUST FALL a few times, I find it fascinating in the depiction of the sociopath Danny, as portrayed by Robert Montgomery. His charm, ability to mimic acceptable social behavior and lack of conscience still defines the sociopath today. I have always been confused by the motives of Russell’s character. Thank you for helping to bring Olivia more into focus.

The Albert Finny remake I saw when it was first released. As a teenager I was expecting TOM JONES. Imagine my disappointment. As much as I enjoy the 1937 film I would like to revisit the 1964 version and view it from an adult perspective.

Posted By kingrat : February 3, 2014 6:58 pm

If you’d like to see Emlyn Williams as an actor, and he was very successful on stage, he’s wonderfully creepy in THE WALKING STICK, which TCM has shown. He’s also one of the lawyers in THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE.

Posted By Doug : February 3, 2014 7:03 pm

Susan, you tempt me. I had heard the name of this film, but I knew nothing of it, and now I’d like to see it. I’ve gotten a few of Rosalind Russell’s works lately, and she impresses. Robert Montgomery I keep mixing up with Robert Taylor; I do have “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” sitting on the shelf that I haven’t seen yet.
sigh-back to Amazon.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 3, 2014 7:18 pm

Kingrat: I may have seen Emlyn Williams and not realized who it was at the time. I have seen parts of MARY DEARE.

Doug: I just recently watched MR & MRS SMITH. I don’t want to dissuade you, but I did not care for it. I did not like what the couple put each other through in their marriage. There was something ugly about it though it is a comedy.

Posted By swac44 : February 3, 2014 8:40 pm

Funny, I used to get Montgomery and Taylor mixed up too, primarily because for the longest time I’d never seen any Taylor movies, but thought that I had (I think it was Party Girl that finally put me wise).

I have a lot of affection for Night Must Fall, having appeared in a high school drama production of it (I got to play the detective, Inspector Belsize, the whole affair was a tremendous amount of fun), and I enjoy both film versions. I agree Montgomery’s is the better of the two, but the update works well enough, as someone else mentioned, largely because of a young and energetic Albert Finney. But I also enjoyed some of the updated aspects of it, including a scene where he teaches the female lead how to drive an Italian scooter (can’t remember if it’s a Vespa or a Lambretta), which caters to one of my own personal obsessions.

Posted By Michaela : February 3, 2014 9:40 pm

I’m so glad someone’s talking about this film. I almost didn’t watch it when it was on TCM two or three years ago, but my mom said it sounded interesting and I should see it–she was right! I loved Robert Montgomery. He did such a good job, and the ending seriously surprised me. I won’t spoil it for anyone else, but I wasn’t expecting “that” to actually happen.

On the whole Montgomery/Taylor thread–I always confused Montgomery and Robert Young. I still do sometimes.

Posted By Doug : February 4, 2014 3:55 am

Susan, I just finished “Mr & Mrs Smith” and I understand just what you meant. But if they had simply fallen into each others arms, there wouldn’t be a movie.
Gene Raymond’s motivation seemed unclear-I couldn’t tell if he was being a good friend trying to get them to admit that they were crazy (and perfect) for each other, or if he was indeed forwarding his own agenda. Possibly he should have conferred with Ralph Bellamy and Melvyn Douglas.
Carole Lombard was gloriously filmed-was she the first true “Hitchcock Blonde”?
Just this film and then “To Be Or Not to Be”. wow.
I’m going to watch “The Awful Truth” next.

Posted By Richard Brandt : February 4, 2014 7:50 am

The first true Hitchcock Blonde is Madeleine Carroll, I hereby assert.

Posted By Gayle : February 4, 2014 6:13 pm

Good review! This is not a forgotten film for me; I first saw it in college in the 1970s and have seen it only a few times over the years but I always like seeing it. There is something refreshing about knowing what Danny is from the start but then watching Rosalind Russell trying to deal with him. The character development from their acting doesn’t get better than this. Now I enjoyed ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and the Hannibal story but I appreciate a story about a serial killer that doesn’t have to rely on gore.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 4, 2014 6:43 pm

Richard and Doug: Was Anny Ondra blonde in BLACKMAIL? Like a dark blonde?

Posted By swac44 : February 4, 2014 7:14 pm

Looking at Anny Ondra photos on Google images, there are hand-coloured photos from the time that have her as a blonde, so I’d say she definitely qualifies.

On a side note, it’s funny that for years I had no idea Myrna Loy was a redhead, until I saw a coloured cigarette card of her.

Posted By Doug : February 4, 2014 7:19 pm

I didn’t know the actress or the film, but according to google she was indeed blonde. There we go.
I know that there were differing opinions about the film “Hitchcock” with Anthony Hopkins, but I liked it, and how they handled his alleged infatuation with beautiful blonde women.
I have no infatuation, but a healthy respect for Rosalind Russell; “Night Must Fall” is on it’s way here. I might watch it in a double feature with “Shadow Of a Doubt”.

Posted By Doug : February 4, 2014 7:32 pm

Sorry to double intrude, but I just found a nice video bit between Hitchcock and Anny Ondra here:
http://feminema.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/hitchcocks-earliest-blonde-anny-ondra/
And it turns out that I have both of her films in a Hitchcock collection, “A Legacy Of Suspense”. More to watch.

Posted By Debbie : February 4, 2014 11:53 pm

Night Must Fall should be an “Essential”! I love this movie! The characters are fascinating and Robert Montgomery’s Danny proves what a gifted actor he was. Danny’s soft spoken charade and little boy smile take the viewer in. This movie is a definite must see for anyone who hasn’t.

Posted By GuyD : February 5, 2014 2:43 pm

I am a huge fan of Emlyn Williams’ “Night Must Fall” and had the pleasure of directing a staged production of it. While I don’t entirely share your enthusiasm for the filmed version, I agree that it is a movie that shouldn’t be forgotten. It may be true that Williams wrote some dialogue for the Hitchcock films you mentioned, but he is not the credited screenplay writer. As an actor, he has a featured role in ‘Jamaica Inn”. He also is the writer of a fantastic true crime book – “Beyond Belief – A Chronicle of Murder and Its Detection”, from the early ’60s, about the infamous child murders known as The Moors Murders. Thank you for the article. I’ve always enjoyed your writing.

Posted By swac44 : February 5, 2014 4:05 pm

Also worth tracking down is another Emlyn Williams film, They Drive By Night (1938) (no relation to the Humphrey Bogart film of the same title), where he’s fresh out of prison and wrongly accused of his ex-wife’s murder (talk about Hitchcockian), and winds up tangling with a very strange expert on serial murders played by the great Ernest Thesiger. I got to see this in a 16mm print 20 years ago, but the film has stayed with me ever since. I believe it’s hosted on the archive.org site if you want to download it and watch it, I’m sure it must be on YouTube as well.

Oops, looks like it’s been taken off Archive.org, although they have another Williams title there, Three Husbands. Here’s the YouTube link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-KpJzFl8BM

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2014 10:50 pm

This is such a great (and creepy) film! I prefer the 1964 version (is anyone really surprised?) mainly because of Freddie Francis’ cinematography & Albert Finney happens to be one of my favorite actors but this production is really good too thanks to the terrific cast.

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