A cozy country home, isolated and summery, and, not very far off, Albert Finney beheading a woman. No problem for him, I guess, as all of these wonderful English spots seem to have a pond handy for corpse disposal.
The three women of the house, Mrs. Brandon (Mona Wasbourne), her daughter Olivia (Susan Hampshire), and the maid Dora (Sheila Hancock) go about their apparently tidy lives. Dora I guess thinks herself fortunate to have Danny (Finney) for a fiancee; kind of an English Paul Newman look to him. I’ve read that Finney wore a lot of make-up for the role; I can’t see why. He’s plenty cool, and doesn’t need to look fopish.
It’s clever how he puts on a different act for each person. I’m thinking what the movie would be like if Danny is merely a parasitic manipulator–and not also an ax-murderer. His personality is repulsive enough. Weirdly, he seems to be thrilled that the police have shown up near the house, looking for clues to the murder.
“You don’t like me, do you luv?” he infers from Olivia’s stiff reaction to his intrusive jaunt into her room. Then he just grabs her; why doesn’t she tell her mom? I guess she’s sort of ‘in disgrace,’ hiding out at home from her estranged husband Derek (Michael Medwin). So what? Instead, she just allows him to humiliate her.
Clearly, Danny feels intimidated by Derek; Danny can’t play man of the house with him around, he’s reduced to ‘the help.’ Danny visibly regains his composure when Derek leaves, to the point of deliberately making Mrs. Bramson wait for his help. Nonetheless, Danny’s obsessed with watching Derek and Olivia together. Subsequently, he sets himself up as her confidant.
She gives in to all of his insulating behavior. “You’re a real swine, aren’t you?” she accurately concludes. He compounds his transgressions with Olivia by messing with Dora as well–not only by putting off their wedding–but by nonchalantly claiming that Dora can’t be sure that her baby is his after all.
He’s in full Angry Young Man mode when Olivia goes through his room–justifiably for once. But, again, he mistreats her. Again, she responds by paying him more attention; literally letting him play around with her. He even seems to enjoy dealing with the Inspector (Martin Wyldeck). His hideous grin marks his most sociopathic scenes. “I’m not playing!” insists Dora, finding him lying on Olivia’s bed. Incredibly, he sets Dora against Olivia.
The grotesque ‘play’ stuff with Mrs. Bramson is even more despicable: Danny pretending to be a little boy for his suddenly batty ‘mother’. Is he so deep ‘in character’ that he can’t snap out of it? Things get darker by the second. Lights out for Mrs. Bramson. Danny’s in a fugue state as Olivia finally returns. She finally stands up to him, as he collapses into a fetal position, his obscure power dimming like a candle going out.
Night Must Fall is thoroughly dominated by Finney’s performance. It makes for a great character study; but the three women’s characters are lacking good sense. Mrs. Bramson gets half a pass because her role is essentially passive; though she’s still lets her guard down too readily. Dora and Olivia are vulnerable characters, but Danny is never really respectful or even nice to either of them. I guess in their lingo he’s a cross between a rake and a cad; I just see a jerk.
I need to see the 1930s version of this story, as the casting has a crucial impact on the how the characters interact. A very captivating horror movie despite the uneven performances. 8/10.