Night Must Fall (1937): Behind the Mask

posterNowadays, playing a psychopathic murderer is practically a rite of passage for movie stars eager to show off their versatility. But, in the 1930s, Robert Montgomery had to campaign for the privilege.

As Photoplay magazine reported, “He pestered M-G-M 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 coy sophisticate. To put this into perspective, only 10 years before Night Must Fall hit theaters, the ending of another famous thriller, 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.

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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.”

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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 Psycho—a devilish blend of charisma and repulsiveness.

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Night Must Fall is a delicate exercise in encroaching dread—and one largely controlled by Montgomery, who supposedly took the reigns from uninspired director Richard Thorpe. 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. This crotchety, verbally abusive dowager, played to whinnying perfection by Dame May Whitty, is a just the sort of lady who’d tempt even the most morally-upstanding individuals among us to sweeten her tea with cyanide. She’s well known in the area for her bad temper and supposed cache of hidden money.

Starved for excitement and adventure, Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia, little more than a servant herself, sets out to expose Danny’s true nature at the risk of losing her heart and her life.

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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.

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With brooding shadows from cinematographer Ray June and, most likely, directorial influence from Montgomery, Night Must Fall paints an idyllic Hollywood version of England, albeit one perpetually teetering on the cusp of darkness (as the title suggests).

Unlike the play, which opens with a judge intoning a sentence at a trial, the adaptation 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.

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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. A ruthless zero-sum game ironically embellished by roses and doilies. The late-afternoon sunlight and quaint tweedy textures mock the viewer with their insincerity.

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From this tenebrous set-up, the movie as a whole hinges on Montgomery’s performance. 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.

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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.”

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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 a rakishly 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.

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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.

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The camera heightens the uncanniness of Montgomery’s performance by presenting Danny as a cipher. For instance, as the killer delivers a protracted, morbid speech, imagining the congregation in the local church shuddering while night closes in, the audience sees only the back of Danny’s head. Of course, throughout the entire film, 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 in quite the same way. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Lady in the Lake, indicating 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—I mean, why steal the head?—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, to resort to clinical terminology, shit gets real. Very real.

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While fully embracing the ugliness of his character, Montgomery also harnessed his 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 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.

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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.

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Only at its conclusion 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.

However, just you 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, a master of irresistible smugness under any circumstances, conveys Danny’s triumphant arrogance, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction and biting his thumb suggestively.

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All in all, Montgomery’s Danny alludes to a hidden temptation, affably fooling most characters, but coaxing the film’s viewers and Olivia irresistibly with the promise of a glimpse of what’s behind his mask. The fact that we do 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.

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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 erode your trust and force you to question what’s real. It’ll make you think twice about the next person who compliments you, who makes you feel special, who makes you feel alive.

And it might even encourage you to look under that person’s bed—for a hatbox…

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This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Shadows and SatinSilver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the other wonderful posts!

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11 thoughts on “Night Must Fall (1937): Behind the Mask

  1. I love this review! It captures everything that’s great about Robert Montgomery and “Night Must Fall”.

    This is my fave R. Montgomery performance – I had no idea he had to lobby to hard to get it. Honestly, I gasp at how gifted his performance is. He draws you into the film and makes you feel Danny is a real person, not an actor. I love how he pours the charm on May Whitty and has her giggling like a schoolgirl.

    Thanks for joining our blogathon and for choosing such a terrific villain.

    • Thanks for letting me cover this one for your awesome blogathon! I join you in gasping at Montgomery as Danny. His rapport with the amazing Dame May Whitty is indeed extraordinary.

  2. A truly underrated film and performance. Montgomery is at his very best-even if not his most enjoyable. Your descriptions of his character are dead on, and your love of this film comes shining through. A marvelous selection for a blogathon than is just filled with the worst of the worst.

  3. Excellent choice and analysis of a disturbing character and perfect performance.

    I first saw “Night Must Fall” on stage and it was a truly chilling experience. I didn’t expect the impact of the film to be the same, but being able to again and again been drawn in by Robert Montgomery’s memorable performance has surpassed even the earlier experience. The final scene between Dame Whitty and Montgomery is one of the greats. Their Oscar nominations were truly deserved. In my world, they would have won.

    In her autobiography, Rosalind Russell said that Robert Montgomery virtually took over the directing of the film at one point. That he could be so masterful in both roles is something I find quite impressive.

    • Wow, I didn’t realize that Montgomery got so involved in the direction, which explains a lot about how interesting this film is. It’s funny, because that rack-focus shot I wrote about reminds me a bit of the POV camerawork in THE LADY IN THE LAKE.

      Thank you so much for a great thread to follow! Once I get my hands on a copy of Russell’s autobiography, I might have to update this post!

  4. I really enjoyed your write-up and your analysis of Montgomery’s character. Although this film was recommended to me several years ago by a co-worker, and I have it in my collection, I’ve never seen it — perhaps because I don’t really want to see my beloved Robert Montgomery in this kind of role. But your post has persuaded me to bite the bullet and check it out — my tape is now queued up and just waiting for me to press play. I look forward to re-reading your post after I do. Good stuff, ND.

  5. excellent choice, as a huge Montgomery fan I love his charm but like Cary Grant he could turn it to something sinister and ambiguous too. He is acting all along, very intelligent and that’s scary. Such a great role for him, and as you point out a bit of a groundbreaking one in the portrayal of psychopaths. Also really interesting about his involvement and the technique later seen in Lady of the Lake. thanks so much for such a great pick and for being a part of the event 🙂

  6. I wasn’t convinced Montgomery would make a good villain but he certainly proved me wrong. I love that his fan mail went up after this role, just proves bad guys are irresistible 😉 I had never thought about this role within the development of psychopaths, he certainly is one of the screen’s most chilling villains.

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