• Classic Horrors Club

A Night of Terror (1937)

Get out your whiteboards and markers for this one…

In 1924, Agatha Christie (you may have heard of her) wrote a short story called, Philomel Cottage. In it, a woman named Alix Martin inherits a fortune. Her boyfriend, Dick Windyford, disapproves of her financial independence. When she meets Gerald Martin and experiences a whirlwind romance ending in marriage, Dick warns her that she knows nothing about him.


The newlyweds move into an isolated country home where Alix has nightmares about Gerald’s death. She soon learns that her husband has made travel plans for her the next day without telling her, and has a mysterious appointment written in his notebook for 9:00 PM that night.


Alix becomes suspicious of Gerald and looks through his belongings. She discovers a newspaper article about an escaped swindler, bigamist and murderer. The picture of this man is Gerald! Fearing for her life, she pours him a cup of poisoned coffee and tries to avoid joining him in the basement until help arrives. Dick, who recently arrived for a visit, and a policeman, get there to discover (spoiler alert) Gerald dead in his chair.


On March 31, 1936, a play based on Philomel Cottage and called, Love from a Stranger, opened in London at the New Theatre. Its author, Frank Vosper, starred in the production. It ran until May 9, 1936, when it moved to the Queen’s Theater and ran until August 8, 1936. Two days later, it reopened at the Streatham Hill Theatre and ran for one week.


The play received good reviews and Vosper took it to Broadway where it played for 38 performances at the Erlanger Theatre and the Fulton Theatre. In both London and New York, Vosper played Bruce Lovell, the Gerald Martin character from the story. Vosper was an actor and writer who 13 years earlier had played Ramon Levine in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934.)


In 1937, Rowland V. Lee, who would later direct Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Tower of London (1939), made a movie version of Love from a Stranger for British studio Trafalgar Film Productions Ltd. The film was released in the United States by United Artists as A Night of Terror. (It was remade a decade later by director Richard Whorf, and that version was released in the UK as A Stranger Walked In.)


After all that, we’re here to talk about A Night of Terror (1937), a film that slipped into public domain and is available from a number of sources. (I watched a Sinister Cinema DVD.) The highlight is the performance of Basil Rathbone as Gerald Lovell, the mystery man whom Carol Howard (Ann Harding) meets after she wins the lottery. I have read neither the original short story or play, but the screenplay by Frances Marion sounds mostly faithful to them.


In it, though, Carol is engaged to Ronald Bruce (Bruce Seton), a hard-working man who can’t accept the fact that she’s now financially independent. He wants to provide for her himself. They break up and she prepares to travel the world, putting her flat on the market. That’s when she meets Gerald, posing as a photographer that is interested in leasing it. Ronald warns her about him and goes so far as to report him to Scotland Yard.


The newlyweds move into an isolated country home where Gerald becomes unhinged. Carol soon learns that he’s made travel plans for her the next day without telling her, and has a mysterious appointment written in his notebook for 9:00 PM that night… the same night that he’s sent the servants out to the local fair.


Carol becomes suspicious of Gerald. When Dr. Gribble (Bryan Powley) delivers a book for him, she flips through it and finds a picture of an escaped swindler, bigamist and murderer who resembles Gerald! Fearing for her life, she pours him a cup of poisoned coffee and tries to delay the inevitable by out-talking him and confessing that she’s also a murderer. Ronald and a policeman arrive to discover (spoiler alert) Gerald dead.


With its globetrotting scope, A Night of Terror doesn’t feel like a filmed stage play. However, the melodramatic performance of Harding does. Several times, we witness literal backs of hands over the mouth or raised beside the face. It’s probably because of the quality of print, but these exaggerated gestures remind me of a silent film. I suppose 1937 isn’t too far removed from the silent era.


We suspect Rathbone’s Gerald from the beginning; however, we don’t realize how psychotic he is. It’s one thing to target Carol for her fortune, and that would be one kind of movie. But it’s quite another for him to be a serial murderer, and that’s another kind of movie. The best thing about the plot is her strategy for talking him out of killing her. With it, there’s a final irony that adds depth to the proceedings.

Written by Frances Marion

Based on the play by Frank Vosper

Directed by Rowland V. Lee

Starring Ann Harding, Basil Rathbone, Binnie Hale, Bruce Seton, Jean Cadell, Bryan Powley

RT 86 min.

Released April 18, 1937

Home Video Public Domain, Sinister Cinema (DVD)

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