Night Must Fall (1964) is an odd film that feels like a distant relative of Night of the Hunter (1955) or Cape Fear (1962). Here, it’s Albert Finney as Danny (the Robert Mitchum role of Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter or Max Cady in Cape Fear), a psychopath that ingratiates himself into a family and then terrorizes them. This is a very British version of the character and story, so it’s sometimes a little hard to follow or understand.
Finney’s Danny is the boyfriend of Dora Parkoe (Sheila Hancock), housekeeper for, and caretaker of, the elderly Mrs. Bramson (Mona Washbourne). As he works his way into her good graces, his eye moves to Mrs. Bramson’s daughter, Olivia (Susan Hampshire), who’s in a rocky relationship with Derek (Michael Medwin.) It’s all very creepy, leaving an overall impression that Danny would have a sexual relationship with any of them to get what he wants.
What does he want, though? Who knows; he’s a psychopath. Actually, I don’t know if that’s the correct term. It’s probably not politically correct to say this, but he’s just plain crazy and devolves into a state more similar to that of Anthony Perkins than that of either Robert Mitchum. While most of the movie could be considered a fascinating character study, there’s also a slow burn mystery for the police when they discover a headless body in the lake.
What we witness in the very first scene isn’t a spoiler if you read any synopsis of Night Must Fall. Danny violently chops something in the woods, then dumps a body in the lake. He then hurls his axe as far as he can into the lake. We don’t know at the time that the body is headless, but Danny becomes awfully protective of a hatbox that he brings with him when he moves into a room at Mrs. Bramson’s house. Likewise, we don’t see the head, but what else could be in the hatbox?
Besides this brutal act and another one that bookends the movie at the end, Night Must Fall is neither violent nor gory. It’s a remake of a 1937 movie starring Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell that I bet wasn’t violent or gory either. Both are based on the play by Emlyn Williams, which has been adapted into several radio productions. These formats are evidence that the story favors the psychological thriller over outright horror film.
Over the course of the 101-minute running time, Danny drives the other women away from the house so he can have Mrs. Bramson all to himself. We learn that Dora is supposedly pregnant with his child and Olivia is so frightened of his behavior that she flees. We’re left to determine his motive in an increasingly intense game of hide and seek between Danny and the old lady. If he’s hoping she dies from exertion, it doesn’t work, so he executes a backup plan.
Synopses of the play and 1937 movie hint that Danny is after money kept in a safe. That’s too innocent a plot point for the 1964 version, a story that is both more ambiguous and deranged than the others seem to be. All this is to say that the weight of the movie rests squarely on Finney’s performance. It’s good, more effective in everyday moments, though, than during bouts of complete insanity.
Written by Clive Exton
Based on the play by Emlyn Williams
Directed by Karel Reisz
Starring Albert Finney, Mona Washbourne, Susan Hampshire, Sheila Hanock, Michael Medwin RT 101 min.
Home Video Warner Archive (DVD)
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