Nowadays, playing a murderer is practically a rite of passage for movie stars eager to show off their versatility.In the 1930s, Robert Montgomery had to campaign for the same privilege in Night Must Fall. As Photoplay magazine reported, “He pestered MGM officials until they gave in” and agreed to adapt Emlyn Williams’s suspenseful play for the screen. Determined to take on the lethally charming lead role, the actor even agreed to pay for a part of the production.
Montgomery (and the studio) took a big risk with his star image as a lighthearted sophisticate. To put this into perspective, only 10 years before Night Must Fall hit theaters, the ending of another famous thriller, Hitchcock’s The Lodger, had to be radically altered so that Britain’s favorite matinee idol, Ivor Novello, wouldn’t turn out to be a serial killer. A decade later, audiences were apparently desensitized enough that the gamble paid off: Montgomery even reported a net increase in fan mail after revealing his dark side.
Still, the actor certainly alienated a segment of his admirers, one of whom carped, “At a period in the world’s history when horror of one sort or another is our daily dish, it seemed unnecessary for Mr. Montgomery to inflict this spine-chilling opus upon his public.”
But Montgomery was determined to prove a villain, and we should all be grateful that he was, because he gave us one of the most frightening murderers ever to menace the silver screen—possibly the scariest before Anthony Perkins in Psycho–a devilish blend of charisma and repulsiveness.
Night Must Fall stands out as perhaps director Richard Thorpe’s finest work, a delicate exercise in encroaching dread. As the case of a missing woman disturbs the peace of a little English village, beguiling servant boy Danny ingratiates his way into the home of hypochondriac Mrs. Bramson (Dame May Whitty), well known in the area for her bad temper and her supposed cache of hidden money. Starved for excitement and adventure, Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia (Rosalind Russell), little more than a servant herself, sets out to expose Danny’s true nature at the risk of losing her heart and her life.
At almost two hours long, the film slowly builds in fear and suspense, eschewing major plot developments in favor of layered characterizations. At the end of most scenes, you’d be hard-pressed to say what’s shifted in the characters’ dynamics, but you sense a looming shock for all those touched by Danny’s deceit.
Thorpe—along with cinematographer Ray June and, most likely, directorial influence from Montgomery—paints an idyllic Hollywood version of England, albeit one perpetually teetering on the cusp of darkness. Unlike the play, which opens with a judge intoning a sentence at a trial, the film of Night Must Fall begins outside, in the shadows, as a man shown in silhouette whistles to himself while burying something at the base of a tree. The fact that he’s doing so by the light of the moon—and quickly hides when he hears human noise—tells us that he’s not planting daisies.
The audience thus enters the film’s setting of tea cozies and servants’ quarters already disillusioned, already conditioned to pierce through the veneer of comfort and civilized behavior, already aware of what’s rotting in the garden. In other words, we see the world a little more like Danny the sociopath does: stripped of warmth, compromised by secrets. The late-afternoon sunlight and quaint tweedy textures mock the viewer with their insincerity. Despite this tenebrous set-up, the movie as a whole hinges on Montgomery’s performance and he doesn’t disappoint. From the moment his Danny swaggers into Mrs. Bramson’s house—about to be called on the carpet for impregnating a maid—the audience recognizes his uncanny ease and casualness. Nobody’s ever that calm. Unless he hasn’t got a conscience.
Now, I have no intention of trying to diagnose a fictional character, but I do admire how Montgomery’s acting anticipated clinical descriptions of the psychopath: not so much a full person, but a performance constantly being staged for the benefit of others and even for himself. In 1941, Dr. Hervey Cleckley published a landmark study of psychopaths, The Mask of Sanity, explaining their fundamental emptiness: “We are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly… So perfect is this reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him can point out in scientific or objective terms why he is not real.”
Indeed, Danny does demonstrate such “machine”-like behavior, as though he’d been studying the way normal people behave, memorizing their habits rote, then playing them back. Smiles don’t crinkle his eyes enough. His sleepy-eyed reserve erupts too easily into manic merriment. His gleeful recitation of nursery rhymes, his cigarette, forever perched at the same obtuse angle on his lip, that tune he whistles as a default noise—all these idiosyncrasies endow him with an automatic quality. Montgomery’s roguish Irish accent, though quite convincing, also contributes to the mechanicalness of the character: too smooth, too mannered upon closer observation.
Throughout the film, Montgomery often makes his usually animated face go unnervingly blank or impassive, especially when Danny doesn’t think anyone’s watching. At his comic best, the actor could screw up that beautiful mug of his into any number of funny grimaces or provoke laughter with a twitch of his eyebrow. By contrast, in many medium close-ups from Night Must Fall, his cigarette practically betrays more emotion than he does. Devious melodrama villains snicker and rub their hands whenever they think they’re unobserved; this is at least recognizably human. Danny apparently possesses the ability to flip his emotions on and off like an electric current—which suggests that he never really felt those emotions anyway.
Thorpe heightens the uncanniness of Montgomery’s performance by presenting Danny as a cipher. As the killer delivers a protracted, morbid speech, imagining the congregation in the local church shuddering as night closes in, the audience sees only the back of Danny’s head. Of course, we might as well have been looking at the back of his head the entire time, for how well he conceals his identity. The menacing, hypnotic stream of words that pours forth from Danny, in contrast to the unreadable back of his head and shoulders, creates an eerie counterpoint that couldn’t have existed on a stage. Danny’s terrifying inscrutability washes over the spectators, jolting us into the realization that even the most outwardly affable individual could harbor a horrible, unknowable hole in place of a personality.
Nevertheless, the film offers the viewer one unadulterated peek into Danny’s head, one glimpse of the blinding, childish panic that may represent his only genuine feeling. On the night the body in the garden is discovered, Danny peers out through the lace curtains of his window. We see him from the outside, the glass pane a sliver of light in the midst of darkness, reminding us of the metaphorical barriers the murderer uses to protect himself. Yet, that illuminated square also seemingly holds Danny a prisoner, evoking a sense of claustrophobia as his sins threaten to find him out.
Suddenly, as he reaches to draw down the curtains, a match-on-action transports us inside his small room. In his pajamas, he appears more vulnerable than usual and almost collapses into a chair. The camera tracks in close, until we’re practically on top of his head, looking over his shoulder, aligned with his mind. Then the focus racks to give us a sharp line of vision to the hatbox under his bed. The box which, the viewer knows by now, probably contains the head of his victim. We get a cut to a close-up of Danny, his shadow an abstract blur on the wall, as he covers his face with his hands.
This brief, surreal scene, with its especially fancy racked-focus long take, provides the viewer with a benchmark of realness in a film full of dissimulation. (I’d also note that the subjective, psychological camerawork foreshadows the first-person point-of-view in 1947’s Lady in the Lake and thus might indicate that Montgomery had a hand in directing this scene.) Danny’s apprehension, his disgust at the object he’s brought into his own living space, and even a hint of necrophilia all bring the nightmare realm of his mind into relief. For the most part, as Cleckley would say, Danny “is not real.” But for about 30 seconds here, he is. It’s not pretty.
Nevertheless, Montgomery harnessed his own star image to amplify Danny’s power as a fantasy vehicle. Awful though his deeds are, still more awful is his ability to leverage his evil to serve as a kind of aphrodisiac. As the Scotland Yard inspector jokes about the unknown murderer, he’s a “regular film star” who revels in the publicity and the aura of romanticism that his crimes generate.
The stakes of Night Must Fall don’t depend on whether Danny is caught or not, but on whether he succeeds in seducing Olivia and, to a certain extent, the audience. His capacity to horrify relates directly to how much we, like Olivia, are excited by his ruthlessness. Danny draws us into pity with stories of his wretched childhood, elicits awe with the virtuosity of his lies, and even gets us rooting for him by targeting the nasty old bag Mrs. Bransom.
Only at its conclusions does the film allow spectators to perceive Danny in his truest form: a predator who thrives on control and domination. In Williams’s play, Danny, manacled and about to be hauled off to the police station, grabs Olivia and kisses her “violently on the mouth.” Since the movie adaptation of Night Must Fall was released after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, nothing doing there. But try not to infer a sort of sexual gratification in his wordless triumph as Olivia skulks back to the house to join him—even though she suspects that he’s killed her aunt. Montgomery powerfully translates Danny’s ugly arrogance, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction and biting his thumb suggestively.
All in all, Montgomery’s Danny alludes to a hidden temptation, affably fooling most characters, but coaxing viewers and Olivia irresistibly with the promise of a glimpse of what’s beneath his mask. That we want to see—and that we do watch the howling animal he becomes—chastens us, but leaves us wiser. Well, at least, I hope so.
In 1937, Photoplay magazine concluded its review of Night Must Fall by warning, “This will have you looking under your beds at night.” Worse, it’ll make you think twice about the next person who calls you pretty. And it might even encourage you to look under his bed—for a hatbox…”
On her blog, The Nitrate Diva celebrates the best of classic cinema and offers fresh takes on old movies. When not writing (or marveling over William Powell’s mustache), she also makes an assortment of film GIFs which you can find on her Tumblr.