Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Night Must Fall


CONTAINS SPOILERS Danny (Robert Montgomery) is a handyman—I thought he was Irish, but it seems he was supposed to be Welsh—who comes to work for nasty old Mrs. Bramson (Dame May Whitty) and soon charms his way into her heart with his gift of gab and willingness to lie. Olivia (Rosalind Russell) is the niece who is constantly belittled and abused—it’s a relationship much like Lady Tremaine and Cinderella. A woman’s body is discovered, missing her head. Danny has a stout, locked hatbox in his room that is too heavy to have just hats in it, the perfect size for a bowling ball or a human head. Olivia is wise to him from the first, though she doesn’t know if he is the murderer or not. There is a strong sexual tension between them. Roz Russell dressed down severely for this part, in dowdy dresses, glasses, and hair, sensible shoes. If her name hadn’t been in the credits I’m not sure I would have recognized her. She was not quite a major star yet; that was just around the corner.

The relationship between repressed Olivia and outgoing Danny is pretty creepy from the start, and gets creepier. Olivia seems to relish the idea of a woman buried somewhere in the English countryside, and she doesn’t expose his lies. They never kiss, they never touch, but the tension is there. Since I didn’t know the story, I wasn’t sure if he was actually going to turn out to be the crazed killer or not, and we don’t find out for sure until the very end. We are so used to twist endings these days. Maybe she’s the killer. Maybe she will ask him to kill her aunt. But he is the killer. He smothers Mrs. Bramson with a pillow. Olivia has left, but now she returns, and he discusses with her why he must kill her. Then the police arrive suddenly—conveniently—and he is arrested.

It seemed sort of abrupt and unfinished to me, so I looked up the original play. Quite different. Olivia goes so far as to try to convince the cops that she killed her aunt. But Danny is a stand-up homicidal maniac; he won’t let her do it. I suppose the play’s original ending was a little too tough for Hollywood at the time, what with all the censorship boards looking over their shoulders. Frankly, I don’t like either ending. The attraction here is the acting, which is very good by all three. I particularly like May Whitty, who I first encountered as the crotchety old grandmother in Mrs. Miniver. She had a pretty good career late in life in Hollywood, playing crotchety old ladies of one sort or another. She was also the title character in The Lady Vanishes, and appeared in Suspicion.