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Night Must Fall (DVD Review)

31 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell, Dame May Whitty.

Next to Cary Grant, the greatest light comedian from Golden Age Hollywood was Robert Montgomery. But compounding an irony to go along with the fact that Grant’s only two best actor Oscar nominations came for dramas (Penny Serenade, None But the Lonely Heart), Montgomery’s standout career performances were as the solemn Navy lieutenant in John Ford’s melancholy World War II masterpiece They Were Expendable and as the charming and almost twinkle-eyed murderer in this first screen version of Emlyn Williams’ 1935 play.

It’s almost tempting to say that Night Must Fall is the least MGM-like movie that MGM released at least until the late 1950s, but, of course, Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks will always carry that title in a landslide (“Gabba Gabba Hey!”). Fall comes reasonably close, though, to making its case. The female murder victim has been buried in not particularly secluded woods, and when the police find the body, it is missing its head. This leads to all kinds of audience speculation throughout as to what precisely is in a weighty hatbox that figures in the story. In other words, this is not the kind of case that Lewis Stone’s Judge Hardy found on his docket in the Andy Hardy movies — the ones that MGM chief Louis B. Mayer so loved and regarded as the ethos of the studio.

There are only three major characters in the story and not that many minor ones. Montgomery is Danny, whose smile and Irish blarney camouflage his contempt for a world he thinks has done him wrong. He and his calculated charm wangle their way into the household of an cranky old hypochondriac who doesn’t really need the wheelchair that transports her from living room to bed; she’s played by Dame May Whitty, the year before she was also cast memorably as the lady who vanishes in Alfred Hitchcock’s all-timer The Lady Vanishes. The other key role was significant in the career of Rosalind Russell, who had just broken out a year earlier as the spouse-from-Hell in Craig’s Wife, adapted from George Kelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Again, for a performer so identified with comedy, Russell impresses here in a twisted role as Olivia, the niece of Whitty’s Mrs. Bramson. Olivia is on to Danny almost as soon as the audience is, but her own severe hang-ups (starting with the understandable fact that she’s not that crazy about her aunt) draw her to him — the next thing to a complicit ally. Williams’ original play apparently spells this out a little more in ways that would benefit this movie, but Olivia’s sexual frustration is clarified about as much as the industry Production Code would allow in 1937.

Of all the impersonal directors anti-auteur MGM had in its stable, Richard Thorpe was probably the least inspired (how did his 1952 Ivanhoe ever get an Oscar nomination for best picture?). But even though this movie is basically a photographed stage play with a lot of entrances and exits, I like Thorpe’s (or his editor’s) choice of shots here, the actors’ body language and the pace at which an often single-setting story manages to move over a 117-minute running time. I also like the way Montgomery’s Danny begins to dress a little better the more he insinuates himself with the Mrs. Bramson and perhaps gains more confidence with his standing. Of course, why he sticks around in the first place when he has to be one of the village’s prime suspects is a question the movie never answers.

Commercially speaking, it’s hard to believe that Night Must Fall did much more than open and close, but it made enough impression on academy voters for Whitty and Montgomery (one of the Hollywood screen’s great performances) to earn Oscar nominations. MGM even remade it in 1964 with Albert Finney — a movie that got some of its year’s worst reviews and one I remember a lot less from my only viewing (about 20 years ago) than my first viewing of this original in 1959 when I was 11 or 12. Thorpe never did anything to match it in a 44-year directorial career with the gonzo exception of Elvis’s quintessential Jailhouse Rock, which remains unintentionally brilliant in spite of itself. The only possible way you can link the two movies is through that prison musical’s status as anti-MGM release as well, even though it opens with the same Leo the Lion roar (only this time in CinemaScope).

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