Night Must Fall (Richard Thorpe, 1937) 🇺🇸
In the beginning was a man, turning the earth in the dim light of a starless night. He whistles as he leans over the foot of a tree, innocent as can be. He freezes as a voice calls out: “Who goes there?”
And then there was light! The English countryside is bathed in radiant sunlight and Danny enters the home of Mrs. Bramson, his hands still covered in soil from his nocturnal activities. A cigarette dangling from his lips and a cap firmly clamped above his boyish face, the man nicknamed Babyface will soon supplant the niece of this infirm and irascible elderly woman as he becomes her zealous servant.
Robert Montgomery, usually starring in comedies, offers us a show-stopping turn of real darkness. In his company, dreary outings with the old lady, who pretends to need a wheelchair, become light-hearted jaunts and the house fills with the unfamiliar sounds of sardonic laughter as he cajoles, flatters and teases her, plying her with chocolates. He even appears to have won the favour of the black cat, a premonitory presence in the household, who doesn’t seem to recall its previous rough treatment at Danny’s hand, in an unsettling scene where we see him grab the animal and send it flying. “All cats are grey at night”, something Mrs. Bramson seems to have forgotten. No matter, for Danny cares for her like a son, even gifting her a shawl he claims belonged to his late mother. But Olivia, who behind her glasses is nobody’s fool, remarks to him that he’s forgotten to remove the price tag. And while she’s at it, asks him if he feels guilty about the murder he’s committed.
She could have denounced the murderer to the police, but instead does nothing. On the poster, she has just taken off her glasses, because he prefers her that way. Removing her glasses is also a way to connect with the invisible, impenetrable world of the subconscious, so much more alluring than her hidebound world as her aunt’s companion. Death stalks these shadowlands and inexorably arrives at nightfall, as evoked by the title Night Must Fall in white letters standing out against the dark shadows. (Literally) wearing both his servant and criminal hats, Danny switches seamlessly from sanity to madness, symbolically ascending the ladder we see him leaning against.
Fear creeps up on us, just like the black that spreads across the poster. The twilight of the title sequence gives us an interplay of light and shade. Olivia’s aghast and brilliantly lit face looms out of the shadows like a ghost. She has just discovered a sinister round box, too heavy to contain a hat, beneath Danny’s bed. He taunts her by nonchalantly whittling sticks with his knife. There is nothing amusing about him any more as, with his mind focused on lavishing care on the wheelchair, he starts whistling a tune we’ve heard before. Who will be his next victim? The countdown has begun, symbolised by the nerve-wracking ticking of a clock. A piercing scream is heard from the woods: the decapitated body of a woman has just been unearthed at the foot of a tree.
Rosalind Russell gives a luminous performance as the niece in thrall to the “dark power” of a man whose superficial servility gives way to macabre impulses. Instead of fleeing to the safety of her boyfriend’s arms, she gives in to the folly of protecting Danny by taking away the hat box – someone else who’s lost her head!
The day is waning and the baleful dark of night is invading the house. It’s the moment of truth – curtains! – no more time for clowning around. Danny makes sure he pulls out the telephone wires before making his way to Mrs. Bramson’s bedroom. The shadow of a hand grabbing a cushion darkens her hysterical face. Then all Danny has to do is get rid of any witnesses (don’t worry, he spares the cat!).
I can’t wait for morning to come, and now finally the shadowy night swallows up the criminal as he is led away handcuffed into the depths of the forest. As for what happens to Olivia, I’ll let you guess – with or without glasses, whichever you prefer!
Check out the French version of this article.