‘Night Must Fall’ (1964): Vastly underrated British shocker

Night Must Fall is an alarming, misunderstood shocker, sadly neglected now and when first released, featuring a tour-de-force Albert Finney performance.

By Paul Mavis

Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Night Must Fall, the 1964 British psychological horror remake from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, based on the celebrated Emlyn Williams play, scripted by Clive Exton, directed by Karel Reisz, lensed by Freddie Francis, and starring Albert Finney, Mona Washbourne, Susan Hampshire, Sheila Hancock, Michael Medwin, Joe Gladwin, and Martin Wyldeck. Night Must Fall, released on the heels of Finney’s international triumph in the hilariously bawdy Tom Jones, drew mostly withering reviews from critics who unfavorably compared it to Metro’s earlier Robert Montgomery version, as audiences stayed away in droves (the latter certainly exacerbated by Metro’s cheap, tawdry, ill-advised William Castle-like promotion).

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Taking Emlyn Williams’s old chestnut and transforming it into a startlingly off-putting psychological shocker, director Karl Reisz’s and Albert Finney’s “Angry Young Psychopath” Night Must Fall has more on its mind than the non-existent gore that some critics insisted was there, making the charmingly jumped-up killer terrifyingly opaque…while dissecting the all-too-readable victims. It’s an intense, sustained vision of inexplicable, murderous frustration.

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At the discreetly shabby, middle-class “country” house of wheelchair-ridden widow Mrs. Bramson (Mona Washbourne, devious and weak, and perfectly cast), Welsh hotel waiter Danny (Albert Finney) has been called onto the carpet, having had the lower-class bad taste to impregnate Mrs. Bramson’s cook, Dora (Sheila Hancock). Upon meeting her, the outwardly earnest, sensitive Danny almost instantly wins over the demanding, simpering matron, gaining her confidence to the level that by the end of the day, Mrs. Bramson is insisting he stay for the summer to fix up the place.

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Dora is ecstatic, seeing soon-to-be husband (he says) Danny act all domestic, while Mrs. Bramson’s surly, posh daughter, former actress Olivia (Susan Hampshire, excellent in a tough role), is distinctly unimpressed…to Danny’s face. What none of them know, though, is that just the other day, Danny—in reality not an energetic, wise-ass young “Mod” but rather a blank, violent sociopath—was in the woods, viciously hacking away at the neck of a local woman, sinking her body in a pond adjacent to Mrs. Bramson’s property…before keeping her head as a souvenir in an old hat box. Very soon, the manipulative, unpredictable Danny manages to gain the trust of all three women, before events turn horrific in the old house.

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Accounts vary as to how, exactly, Night Must Fall came together as a project for co-producers Karel Reisz and Albert Finney. The general consensus seems to be, though, that the directing/performing team that won international acclaim in 1960 for British “New Wave” hit Saturday Night and Sunday Morning were all ready by 1963 to film a Western on location in Australia, based on the exploits of Ned Kelly, before their releasing studio, Columbia, balked at the script (or the budget, depending on accounts) and pulled vital U.S. funds. Scrambling for something else, Reisz and Finney either offered M-G-M the idea of remaking their 1937 classic, Night Must Fall, with Finney in the Robert Montgomery role as the psychotic ax murderer, or they accepted Metro’s offer to helm the project, after industry word-of-mouth on Finney’s still-unreleased Tom Jones was getting major buzz around Hollywood.

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Either way, Night Must Fall‘s storyline was altered in several significant ways by scripter Clive Exton, and filming, on the cheap, was done at Metro’s Borehamwood studios in Hertfordshire, England. Released here in the States in the spring of 1964, right after Tom Jones had become a worldwide phenomenon (including winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, 1963), Night Must Fall opened to empty houses, largely failing to impress critics who cited it as woefully inferior to director Richard Thorpe’s 1937 version. The movie itself garnered few positive notices, while Finney’s turn was met with mixed reactions, with the overall general feeling conveyed that Finney and Reisz were wasting their time making a cheap, tawdry horror flick.

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Finney, never one to actively chase movie stardom, anyway (he famously turned down David Lean’s guaranteed star-making blockbuster offer of Lawrence of Arabia, a career move that allowed relative unknown Peter O’Toole to become an international box office star), took a three year break from moviemaking after Night Must Fall’s complete artistic and commerical failure to concentrate on his stage work, appearing in only three more movies in the 1960s—all to less-than-stellar b.o. numbers (the sublime Two for the Road, from 1967, sold a few tickets; the fascinating, self-directed Charlie Bubbles, from 1968, disappeared quickly, and flat-out awful The Picasso Summer, from 1969, didn’t even get a U.S. release until it showed up later on television). There’s no question that Night Must Fall’s failure negatively impacted Finney’s big-screen commercial career, right at its height.

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As when reviewing remakes in general, I’m not too interested in making apples and oranges judgment calls for Finney’s Night Must Fall, ones that start off like, “the first one’s more talky,” or “Montgomery was better than Finney,” (two brilliant actors who couldn’t be more different in approach). However…some comparisons inevitably creep in, particularly when the resulting remake is so markedly different in conception and execution from the original, as is Reisz’ update. Looking at reviewers’ notices from ’64, as well as pieces written since then about Reisz’s and Finney’s Night Must Fall, the main carps with the remake seem to be: lack of suspense, since Finney is shown in the opening sequence hacking away at his first victim (the first sour note emphasizing gore, many also write, when the original had no need of such crudities, they claim); no exploration of Finney’s reasons for being a serial murderer; vaguely-motivated supporting characters; choppy editing at the expense of narrative clarity; and for many, Finney’s “hammy,” off-the-hook performance. Not much wiggle room to wrest a positive review out of all that general consensus negativity, is there?

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Wrong. First, the easy stuff. The notion that this version of Night Must Fall blows its suspense by showing Finney chopping off someone’s head in the first few minutes, is downright silly. Even though the original movie made it a guessing game as to whether or not Robert Montgomery was the killer…only a child couldn’t have solved that right off the bat in ’37. Furthermore, by 1964, Williams’ play had been performed countless times, and was a popular stock offering for community playhouses (particularly in the States), while the original movie was a staple on syndicated television. Its plot was thoroughly known by 1937 and 1964 (…as it is now, so be forewarned: there are spoilers ahead).

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Forget all that, though. Laughably, all one had to do back in ’64 was to look at the Metro one-sheet posters and ads that screamed to patrons in theater lobbies and to newspaper readers, “the lusty, brawling star of Tom Jones goes psycho in Night Must Fall!” while showing Finney insanely wielding a hatchet…and you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anyone going into that theater not knowing Finney was an axe murderer. As for the so-called “gore” element being a distasteful modernization to a story that didn’t need it—critic Hal Erickson labeled it, amusingly, “a gore-encrusted opus,”—one must ask…what gore? There isn’t a drop of on-screen blood shown in this Night Must Fall. How many Hammer offerings released at the same time were drenched in Technicolor swaths of crimson blood? And the use of the word “psycho” in Night Must Fall‘s ad copy was no accident—Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece had a bathtub full of blood, accompanied by shock images of a knife seemingly penetrating a woman’s stomach. But here in Night Must Fall—nothing. Finney’s two on-screen murders are either artfully obscured or happen below-frame, and through it all, he and his surroundings emerge whistle-clean. Finney’s unsettling reactions and the viewer’s imagination do all the dirty work.

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A more central criticism from those critics was that we supposedly never truly fathom why Finney kills (Bosley Crowther snippily thought this a “rather interesting” detail left unexplored). I agree with that assessment…but that obfuscation goes to Night Must Fall‘s strengths; it’s far from a fatal weakness. True to Raisez’s “New Wave” approach, the “poetry” of Finney’s psychosis is what the director and Finney are interested in presenting, not linear, easily-labeled (and thus easily-dismissed), concrete explanations for why Danny is sick (they also eliminate the original’s plot device of Danny’s thievery–another prosaic crutch from author Williams that props up Danny’s murderous impulses).

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In the play and the original movie, Danny and Olivia are eventually upfront in their bantering acknowledgement of Danny’s lies and machinations, but here, Danny never admits to his subterfuges. The women surrounding him are attracted to his unpredictable energy, his underlying sexuality, and (at least for Olivia), his potential for violence. If these impulses were spelled out by Danny, their pull would evaporate (and indeed, when Mrs. Bramson and Olivia finally see through their own fantasies about Danny…that’s when they’re truly terrified to see they’ve been courting a sociopathic murderer). We can guess if Danny’s telling the truth about the deaths of his parents, and his time in an orphanage (where he had lurid, disturbing images of the fat women that surrounded him in church, popping like chestnuts when they roasted in Hell), but we’re never given confirmation of what his real story is—and that’s where the unsettling power of Finney’s creation lies.

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We can surmise that Danny’s abandonment by his mother has perhaps created a strong psycho-sexual break from normal behavior…but it would still be a guess. He could also just be a willful, murderous child in a man’s body who can’t stand to have his games called on account of reality (when Mrs. Bramson finally calls it quits on their increasingly disturbing game of hide-and-seek, Danny whines and begs for her to continue, until she makes it clear she won’t…and that’s when things get ugly). We can’t really fathom why Danny is evil—who can ever explain true evil?—so we can’t reassure ourselves that we could successfully deal with someone like him in our own lives.

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Finney utilizes a macabre “white death mask” make-up design that, combined with his white shirt and black bow tie, often makes him look like a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s a perfect visual analogy for a sociopath: an existentially inanimate object that merely mimics human emotions. Danny kills for no reason we can truly put our finger on, and that’s what upsets our desire to see our fears put neatly away at the end of any suspense or horror picture (even Hitchcock gave his audience a breather by spending five minutes at the end of Psycho, explaining away Norman Bates’ perverted homicides).

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Why the three women in Danny’s life are at first attracted to such a dangerous cipher becomes clear when we see how vulnerable are his victims. Like the Three Blind Mice nursery rhyme often referenced here in composer Ron Grainer’s scary score, Dora, Mrs. Bramson, and Olivia are emotionally arrested adults who can’t see Danny for what he is; they’re blinded by their own troubles and frustrated desires. Mrs. Bramson, a former servant who married “up” and who now wants to live the facade of a domineering, upper-class matron, enjoys the attention she gets playing at being an invalid (we find out at the end her wheelchair is a ruse). And with her money, she can buy the surrogate son/lover affections of Danny, as she loudly reminds her willful daughter Olivia, when she discovers Olivia has had sex with Danny (“Danny doesn’t belong to you, you know! Who do you think pays his wages every week?” she snaps). She clearly gets a sexual thrill from Danny’s attentions (watch Washbourne’s ecstasy as Finney tucks her into bed, or when he frightens her at hide-and-seek). However, she doesn’t let Danny forget his place, either—when she calls Danny back to her room, he’s happy “Mother” is calling him…but she’s just reminding Danny to clean up the kitchen (I’m surprised other reviewers haven’t picked up on the subtle-but-clear economic/class conflict subtext that runs through Danny’s relationships here in Night Must Fall).

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Dora, socially “common” like Danny, is also the quickest to drop pretenses and see Danny for what he really is: a bastard who got her up the duff (she also sees Olivia correctly as a posh wannabe who has to greedily take everything—including her man—for herself). And yet, Dora continually goes back to him…because what other option does she have (our last image of a jealous, angry Dora is her roughing up Olivia in town). As for Olivia, she’s a failed actress (a perfectly illustrative career for her), living at home with her mother, bored out of her mind (why do all the reviewers see her living an idyllic life? Nothing in her performance suggests that at all), with a drip for a boyfriend (Michael Medwin is perfectly cast as Derrick, the upper-class twit who’s rich but so dull that Olivia can’t pull the trigger in marrying him). No wonder the self-hating Olivia latches onto the exciting, dangerous Danny.

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And as we watch these “three blind mice” in their naive assumptions that they are the ones playing with Danny, the suspense builds as we wait for the impulsive, untethered Danny to finally get frustrated or bored with his games…and to start killing them (the final game of hide-and-seek is brilliantly realized by director Reisz and cinematographer Freddie Francis, who straps a camera onto Washbourne’s wheelchair and lets it roll as she descends into complete terror).

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Night Must Fall isn’t perfect. It’s nitpicky and flip…but wouldn’t that severed head start to stink after so many days? Wouldn’t the inspector, when he came to question Danny, have taken one whiff of Danny’s room and headed right for that hat box? More critically, Reisz’s editing scheme—or was it M-G-M’s?—may be deliberately vague in its jump and shock cuts, but there are times when important information feels chopped out, such as when Danny violently forces a snooping Olivia to look at something she “really wants to see,”…but we cut away before we know what that something is. It’s a big switch for Olivia’s character; the next shot she’s meekly submitting to Danny’s instructions on how to ride his scooter. She’s obviously responded sexually to his violent manhandling, and something she saw in his room changed her…but what was it he made her look at? The mirror in his suitcase? A body part? A chamber pot? We have to guess. The editing also seems to have excluded the Dora character from any kind of meaningful conclusion. Shouldn’t she be somehow involved in the violent finale, instead of left in town, without her relationship with Danny resolved?

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What does work perfectly throughout Night Must Fall, though, is Albert Finney’s grotesque limning of psychotic Danny. A lot of viewers and critics see his turn as over-the-top, but I find it no different in timbre than his energetic, sexualized romp in Tom Jones. It’s Danny’s outsized energy and “suited-to-your-own-personal-needs” charm that attracts the three women in the first place to him, so playing Danny laid-back or quiet or gently nervous like Norman Bates wouldn’t have worked.

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In fact, in rebellious tone and mocking, nasty attitude, Danny is little different from “Angry Young Man” Arthur Seaton in Finney’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. That’s what makes Danny’s fade-out here all the more striking. Deliberately avoiding Williams’ too-neat wrap-up in the original play (where a suddenly noble Danny sacrifices himself to the cops to clear an innocent Olivia), scripter Exton and director Reisz go out of their way to end on a non-sensationalistic note. There’s no final vengeance from the survivors; indeed, Danny’s intended victim, Olivia, has found new strength in standing up to seemingly powerful Danny. There’s no tidy putting away of “the evil” by the coppers. Instead, we’re left with the jarringly hyper Danny now showing his true face: a pathetic, disgusting creature, impotently striking out at perceived demons, while cowering, cornered, in a toilet. It’s a remarkable, harrowingly wretched, feeble final image, from a vastly underrated shocker.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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