Monday, October 25, 2010

Night Must Fall - 1937

“Night Must Fall” (1937), a psychological thriller, tingles with unexpected humor and steely glints of horror that unbalance seemingly normal lives. A literate script brought vividly to life by acting intelligent, bold, and skillful, and it seems somehow a shame to merely lump this one into the “creepy old house in a storm” movies, but it has this, too, and more.

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.

Rosalind Russell is the dogsbody niece to Dame May Whitty, an irascible old lady in a wheelchair. Roz is financially dependent on her, which makes her the constant victim of the Dame May’s foul moods.

Robert Montgomery is a lower class stumblebum, a hail-fellow-well-met, who takes on the job of Dame May’s new manservant. He uses a surprisingly credible Welsh accent for this film. One of the joys of this movie is just listening to him speak.

The story has its pedigree in a successful Broadway run, and before that in London, with Dame May reprising her role for this film. (In Roz’s role as the niece, a young English actress named Angela Baddeley appeared with Dame May in the London and Broadway productions. Decades later, we came to know and love her as Mrs. Bridges on “Upstairs/Downstairs.”)

We have all the other elements of English country life so beloved by Hollywood: the roses growing by the cottage, the comical servants, the winding country lane. Mrs. Miniver probably lives down the road.

Merle Tottenham is the not-too-bright scullery maid, and Kathleen Harrison is the no-nonsense cook, both are hysterical and break up the gloom of the movie by their exaggerated “type” characterizations.

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.

This attitude of ignoring the alarm bells going on in her sensible mind puts her in very great danger. It also makes her overlook the handsome, quiet young solicitor who patiently waits for her to love him in return. He is played by Alan Marshal. He looks extremely virile in cricket whites. Roz not seeming to notice this is our first clue that she’s losing her good judgment.

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.

But she is fascinated by him. Perhaps it is the aura of danger about him, or perhaps it is just his way of living the fullness of life with a zest and carelessness that she envies that makes her attracted to him, even while she is repulsed.

He notices things. He is so very clever, and so manipulative. He makes a remark about her glasses, and she sneaks a look at herself in the mirror without them. He comments on her appearance, makes bold guesses as to what she is thinking, and we sense she feels undressed. As unaccustomed as she is to being made to feel this way, she is not completely sure she dislikes it. In her way, Roz’s performance is just as many layered as Mr. Montgomery’s, only her character calls for restraint. Her conflict is internal.

Robert Montgomery fusses over Dame May like a playmate, a nanny, and a son. He puts her to bed for her nap. He tickles her and makes jokes. He buys her a shawl and gives it to her, telling her it once belonged to his own deceased mother. Roz sees the store tag on it. Interestingly, rather than rat on him, she seethes in disgust, but snips the tag off for him before the old lady can see it. Slowly, Roz becomes his accomplice, despite her good sense.

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?

She has nothing he wants, except perhaps the pleasure of penetrating her reserve.  So to speak.  We do not know how far he will go.

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.

We have another funny scene, where publicity about the body being found in the garden brings a horde of shameless rubberneckers. Dame May is rolled about in her wheelchair by Mr. Montgomery rather like the Queen to guided tours of her garden. She is interviewed, and she likes the attention. I especially like the bored little boy in the sailor suit preoccupied with his cake.

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.

The comic interlude sets us off balance, but we focus in once more to the underlying tension at hand, when Roz and Montgomery have what begins as showdown and ends as confession. Montgomery, in a moment of panic now that the cops are closing in with their clues, admits his fear and torment. She displays sudden tenderness and sympathy for him.

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.


Caftan Woman said...

It is a real pleasure to watch Montgomery, Russell and Dame May Whitty in these roles. They reach the high notes.

What's fascinating to me is that I have read (Roz's book?) that director Richard Thorpe felt out of his depth with the picture, and by mutual consent Robert Montgomery took over most of the directing chores, along with giving one of the greatest performances of a psychopath ever put on screen. Talk about multi-tasking!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

How interesting! I didn't know Montgomery took a hand in the directing. He did a great job.

ClassicBecky said...

Great article about one of my favorite movies! Robert Montgomery showed real acting depth in this one. I always liked him, but he specialized in lighter roles, and this was not light! I could understand his appeal to Roz's character -- he's charming, handsome, mysterious -- pretty good stuff if you don't know he is a sociopathic killer. I thought his way of acting this part was marvelous, most of it done with body language. He never just turns his head to look at someone. He throws his whole upper body around, and it is creepy. And his moments of psychopathic slip-ups are chilling. What a performance. Dame May Whitty was perfection. Now I have to pull this one out and watch it!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, ClassicBecky, thanks for adding to the conversation. I think you hit the nail on the head in evaluating Montgomery's performance. I especially like: "He never just turns his head to look at someone. He throws his whole upper body around, and it is creepy." That's a great observation.

Karen said...

Back when I wasn't busy, I would watch classic movies, especially horror movies. They seem to be really relaxing and when you're bored watching movies starting from the 90's and onwards.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Boredom is a good description for how a lot of classic film fans feel about modern movies. Thanks for stopping by, Karen.

HKatz said...

I'm happy I found your blog via Robert Frost's Banjo. Great reviews, and I like your sense of humor too. My favorite part was this:

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.

I've seen only one movie with Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday, and loved her in it. Thanks to your review I'll be checking this one out too.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, HKatz. Any friend of John Hayes and Robert Frost's Banjo is a friend of mine. Thanks for your kind comments. I hope you get to see this one soon. A couple of weeks ago TCM ran a day of Roz movies, some of which I'd never seen. Fortunately, the recorder was rolling.

Judy said...

I haven't seen this film as yet, but, as a big James Cagney fan, have heard an old time radio version (I believe this was from the Suspense series) with Cagney in the Montgomery role - though, not surprisingly, he does an Irish accent instead of a Welsh one. I would like to see how the film differs, and your description makes it sound well worth seeing.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Judy, thanks for stopping by. That "Suspense" version with Cagney sounds interesting. Cagney was great. I'll have to track that down. I hope you can see this film sometime soon.

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