It’s been said by at least one film historian that by the end of the Thirties the technique of making talking motion pictures had been mastered and made into a new art form, with virtually all of its salient aspects having been explored and employed to utmost effect within that short period. The achievement encompassed in those first ten years after the demise of Silents absolutely dwarfs the so-called ‘progress’ in film in the further twenty years up to the collapse of the Studio Era, and throws into abject shame the backwards direction taken by the industry in the half-century since then — ever accelerating since George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and their many mini-clones in James Cameron, Peter Jackson and so on.
With special effects alone becoming ever more ‘sophisticated’ but looking all the more unrealistic on screen, we must be just a few short steps from Alfred Hitchcock’s prediction: We enter a private chamber, the logical conclusion moving on from largely deserted, sterile multiplexes. We get wired up, and feel whatever shocks we prefer for the moment to whatever centers of the brain that turn us on, in vain attempts to get what passes for a satisfying entertainment experience today. The bar has risen so high technically, and dropped so low emotionally and artistically — so far below everyday human relations — that staying home for a good wank must surely be the higher human aspiration. All the better if you can get another to participate, never mind a lot cheaper.
Every now and again a true lover of human drama gets to revive his spirit through seeing a film made with some thought and imagination. It’s usually several generations old, and shown on pay television in the dead of night when few are watching. As far as I’m concerned, all the better for this exclusive experience — let the sheep go where they may, with the flow.
Originally a hit London and Broadway play written by and starring Welsh actor Emlyn Williams, this screenplay was adapted by London-born John Van Druten; a year after it was released on screen he was drafted in by David Selznick to improve the script of Gone With the Wind. A movie set and filmed in England under the UK branch of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Night Must Fall was produced by Hollywood staffer Hunt Stromberg and directed by Richard Thorpe. By all accounts Thorpe was no more than an efficient workman, so credit for the fine ‘look’ of this picture must go to veteran cinematographer Ray June and its sound to prolific MGM composer Edward Ward.
Also from the studio’s Hollywood staff came stars Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. Homegrown stars remaining in Britain provided only a weak draw at the box-office, even at home theaters. It was believed that all the screen talent Britain had to offer was already in Hollywood: the likes of matinee idol Ronald Colman (emulated by Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn, David Niven and US Anglophile Douglas Fairbanks Jr), admired thespian Charles Laughton, elder statesman George Arliss, child star Freddie Bartholomew (Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor to follow in the early Forties), highest-paid Brit femme Madeleine Carroll (and Merle Oberon and Ida Lupino, soon Vivien Leigh), and comic supreme Charlie Chaplin persevering with new silents at the rate of one every five years.
Yet in America, Robert Montgomery was no longer at the peak of popularity as he had been as a youth in 1929-30, and Rosalind Russell was still on the way up. So, with an English setting and including a sterling but very English cast in Dame May Whitty, Kathleen Harrison, Merle Tottenham, Alan Marshal, E. E. Clive and Beryl Mercer, the film was panned by your typical know-nothing film critic of the time (and they still rule the media). Variety had it that the movie was slow and dull. Studio head Louis B. Mayer disowned it. What better compliments can a film hope for? Naturally, over the decades since it has been greatly appreciated as a ‘sleeper’ — a film with a relatively small budget, that was never supposed to be a hit, was largely condemned at release, and has proven all the better quality for that.
The striking aspect of the movie for me, which makes it so much worthier than virtually any modern film in general release, is its basis in ‘pure film’. Techniques in film language commonly used then are used with flair: sustained close-ups, long-distance panning shots, deep-focus group shots to contrast motives. The constant play of light and shadow over all indicates mood, heightens suspense and literally illuminates good and evil subconsciously to the audience. Nowhere is the gratuitous crushed skulls with flying gore and blood-spattering so necessary to get the message across to today’s clueless audiences. And gone, over generations, is the magic of film.
The action opens with a man walking his dog at night on the edge of a forest, and almost stumbling on to another man who whistles a merry tune but seems to be on the ground rustling in the fallen leaves — It later turns out he is covering up a body. In the next scene, morning, all is drenched in sunshine (a motif repeated throughout), suggesting that everyday life goes on regardless of dark undertones in this sleepy village — its inhabitants blissfully unaware, maybe not wanting to know.
A woman is missing in the village, and first to show real insight into her likely fate is the lowly paid, spinster companion (bachelorette is hardly appropriate — she wears hornrim glasses, a dead giveaway in film shorthand) of domineering dowager May Whitty, played by Ros Russell. She is incidentally the old lady’s niece and we learn how resentful she is of her aunt’s manipulative hypochondria, as she pretends wheelchair-bound helplessness. But Ros is seriously emotionally repressed, repeatedly rebuffing the affectionate advances of supportive solicitor (lawyer) Alan Marshal.
He is far too polite, nice to the core. Ros yearns for excitement and danger in her life. This must be why, though she very early suspects a new employee on the scene (Robert Montgomery), an obvious go-getting self-advancer, of being homicidal, that she colludes with him to win the old lady’s favor. She is strongly attracted to him. The mood gradually becomes more sombre as Ros neglects her self-indulgent, spoilt aunt, inviting danger into the home in the person of the suspicious stranger who ingratiates his way to be the lady’s trusted ‘support’.
Ros sums up ‘Danny’: “You have no feelings. You live in a world of your own — of your own imagination.” Thus defining a sociopath, no matter to her. She collaborates with him in winning over her aunt: He spend’s a week’s wages on a shawl and presents it to the old lady as his dear departed mother’s. Just in time, Ros removes the price tag and Danny knows he has her in the palm of his hand too.
Curiosity about her loved one getting the better of her, Ros, the cook (Kathleen Harrison, playing wryly humorous in the kind of role that Thelma Ritter later made her own in Hollywood), and maid, Merle Tottenham, playing dithering and emptyheaded, supposed to be Danny’s intended, search his room thoroughly. They find evidence of a double life but he walks in on them before they can open his suspicious hatbox — just big enough for a severed head, they think.
Despite this, when the police detective calls round and is about to call Danny on the hatbox, Ros claims it as hers — thereby providing his escape route to continue murdering. He has already spied the old lady putting money in her secret hideaway. For the second time Ros goes to seek reassurance from her frustrated suitor and turns back — conveniently away long enough for Danny to strangle Mrs Bransom. She returns, she tells him, to find him out — but has no regrets that her aunt is dead. Suitor and police walk in in time to save the ever-ambivalent Ros.
While this film treatment could be called Hitchcockian in its view of the charming but murderous sociopath and annoying old ladies, it departs from the pattern of blameless beautiful woman as intended victim. Rosalind Russell plays here a woman who cooperates fully in the danger she is enmeshed in, and herself is seemingly oblivious or careless of others’ feelings as she focuses wholly on fulfilling her own fantasies.