Karel Reisz, 1964
Starring: Albert Finney, Mona Washbourne, Susan Hampshire, Sheila Hancock
When a hotel waiter-cum-serial killer, Danny (Albert Finney), impregnates a local maid (Sheila Hancock), he soon ingratiates himself in the household of her employer, one Mrs. Bramford (a perfect Mona Washbourne). He soon wins the old lady over with his brash charm and work; he is hired to spruce up her country home and moves in shortly after, coinciding with nearby police investigations of a missing woman whose body is believed to have been dumped in the river. Though Mrs. Bramford’s adult daughter (Susan Hampshire) takes an instant dislike to Danny, it doesn’t take much time before he has the attentions of all three women, which propels the household towards a violent conclusion.
Night Must Fall is a remake of the 1937 film starring Robert Montgomery, though both are actually adaptations of a 1935 play from Welsh writer Emlyn Williams, who also starred in the lead role during the original stage production (!). While I can’t help but see Reisz’s film as an offshoot of Psycho — whose 1960 release was followed by a swathe of imitators — it’s fascinating to think that the story’s real origins were in the ‘30s, coinciding with a more public understanding of the serial killer phenomenon; primarily in the United States, with such figures as the Cleveland Torso Murderer, Louisiana’s Robert Nixon, and Harry Powers (known as the West Virginia Bluebeard), while Germany’s infamous Peter Kurten had only been executed a few years prior. Night Must Fall actually has curious similarities to Psycho — the origins of both Norman Bates’ psychosis and Danny’s lies in childhood and complicated maternal relationships — but is, at least in some ways, a more fascinating tale as it refuses to explain away Danny’s madness in the final frames of the film. Even Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (also 1960) did not even risk this kind of ambiguity.
And unlike the male protagonists of Psycho, Peeping Tom, or William Wyler’s The Collector (1964), Albert Finney’s Danny is a sexually charismatic figure, one who is able to successfully manipulate and seduce the film’s female characters, who are powerless to stop him even when they know he is up to no good. In this sense, he is far more like the unhinged, violent protagonists of film noir — such as Bogart in films like Dark Passage and The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Michael Redgrave in Secret Beyond the Door, Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill, and Robert Ryan in basically everything — than he is like the cinematic killers of the ‘60s. Finney’s performance in this film is absolutely mind-blowing and it’s baffling to think why critics hated the film so much upon its release. In my mind, he’s always been more of a theater actor, which he certainly was during roughly the first two decades of his career, but if Night Must Fall isn’t proof of his talent, I don’t know what is.
Genuinely creepy in parts — thanks in part to some beautiful cinematography from Freddie Francis, who I’ve already written about extensively throughout my British horror series — this goes much further than a lot of the other psycho killer films of the period without showing any actual blood or violence. There is the suggestion of a headless body fished from the river, a head in a hatbox that Danny keeps as a trophy and occasionally gloats over, and the offscreen murder of old Mrs. Bramson, but the film’s most disturbing scene occurs when the stuffy old matron finally fulfills his wish and plays a game of “stern mother and naughty little boy” with him — a game of hide and seek with the kind of latent sadism and erotic undercurrent that would appear in Robert Altman’s slightly later The Cold Day in the Park (1969). Her refusal to continue the game is what finally breaks his hold on reality.
Part of what makes Night Must Fall such a masterful thriller, in my opinion, is that even though Reisz is upfront about the fact that Danny is a murderer from the opening frames (which the original film is not), it keeps you guessing about where things will end up and, also thanks to Finney’s performance, it’s not really clear just how unhinged Danny is until the film’s final moments. And, refreshingly, he is far from the only character with psychological issues, though many of these are only hinted at or not fully explored. The sense of class-based, economic antagonism — which appears throughout many British horror films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s — adds a palpable sense of tension; in an interesting twist, it’s reported that Mrs. Bramson herself was a servant as a girl and married well above her station. Curiously (SPOILER), she spends the majority of the film in a wheelchair, but jumps out of it moments before her death, adding to the sense that all is not quite right in the Bramford home.
Though it’s received a lot of criticism for being overwrought or even campy, I think Night Must Fall is perfect if you accept it for what it is: a domestic melodrama about a psychopath, rather than an outright horror film or serial killer thriller (and I admittedly don’t ascribe ascendency to any one of the three). Certainly, it should appeal to fans of any of the above, and anyone who enjoys Albert Finney owes it to him to see this at least once. Embarrassingly, it doesn’t have a proper DVD or Blu-ray release, and is only available as part of the Warner Archive collection, though, as always, I’m hoping a special edition Blu-ray release is on the way with a commentary track from Finney himself.