Monday, October 25, 2010
Night Must Fall - 1937
Certainly by the opening credits we are already convinced this movie may be something of a standard fright flick: a score that sounds like shrill monster movie music, spidery credits with the suggestion of looming twilight in the background. Surely doom awaits us if we stay to watch.
In one scene, Kathleen Harrison, who has a way with sarcasm, replies to a police inspector when he is informed that the only visitors were the doctor and the district nurse, follows with a flat, “It’s been ever so gay.” She also describes a local woman as a “regular red hot mama.” When asked what that is, she replies, “Don’t you ever go the pictures?”
Roz is the repressed spinster. We know this because she wears glasses. Also, because Robert Montgomery makes a cutting remark that she is obviously repressed, in case we missed that.
Her soft, upper middle class English accent is also credible, but I read somewhere once that some movie mogul decided that New Englanders automatically were given English parts in Hollywood films because moviegoers in the Midwest thought they sounded British anyway and would not know the difference. If that’s true, it’s possible that Roz, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn were taken as authentic automatically when they were placed into these roles. Not much of a challenge. Sometimes the moguls treated them less as skilled actors and more like chess pieces. Nevertheless, Miss Russell appears to have made a genuine effort.
Roz is not completely colorless, as her role might suggest. She has intelligence, an independent spirit that allows her to see through people, including her bullying aunt and the charming new manservant. Her main problem in life as she sees it, apart from her economic dependence on her aunt, is that she secretly yearns for more excitement, for a more passionate experience, and is so desperate for change she may even welcome danger.
But, it’s hard to blame her when Robert Montgomery enters the room. It’s really his movie. He saunters in every scene, a cigarette dangling from his lips, like he owns the place, sometimes bouncy as a schoolboy, other times sullen, threatening. He commands our attention by the full force of his overwhelming and complex personality.
The mystery of the story centers around a missing woman from the village. We soon begin to realize that she is probably murdered, and we are given broad hints that perhaps Robert Montgomery murdered her. What makes us come to this conclusion, beyond certain coincidental facts, is that we are allowed to see right from the start that he is two-faced.
He is enthusiastically charming with Dame May, and she begins to love him like a son. He is less charming with Roz, because he senses right off that she does not like him. Even more, she sees through him. She does not know he is a murderer, not yet, but she knows he is a phony and for her that is enough of a crime.
Her transformation is delicate. Montgomery never completely forms a bond with her, even to acknowledge she is his accomplice. He usurps her position in the household and lords it over her. Roz hasn’t his charm, his social grace that allows him to leave his station in life so easily. Though we sense he is possibly a murderer, and see that he makes attempts to steal from the old lady, that he lies, we may wonder what is the particular crime he may commit against Roz?
Then, the pace of the action increases when the body of the missing woman is found nearby.
Roz begins to suspect him, spurred mainly by her dislike of his vanity and arrogance, and her own jealousy, and searches his room. She discovers a locked hatbox.
Later, when it is revealed the body of the murdered woman was found without a head, Roz thinks she knows what is in the hatbox.
Here the cook, Kathleen Harrison, has another standout spot telling her side of the story to the locals merely by repeating the word “grisly” several times in this scene, getting funnier and funnier. I think it’s my favorite part of the movie.
When the inspector returns to examine his room, finds the hatbox, and asks Montgomery for the key, Roz comes to his rescue. She tells the inspector the hatbox is hers.
Perhaps even she does not know why she does it, but she sticks to the story, and Montgomery is free for a little while more. Keeping the scene off balance, he makes no overtures of friendship or gratitude toward her. He does not want to depend on her. He cannot make himself feel anything but contempt for others.
Dame May has a terrific scene where she goes into hysterics, and we may wonder where she gets the energy at her age. Perhaps it is from the chocolates she’s been eating throughout the movie. But, here is a real stage trooper at work and she grabs the spotlight the way a real trooper can.
That night, the storm. A gloomy old house. Another murder. All face their own mistakes, or are doomed by them.