Night Must Fall (1937)




(director: Richard Thorpe; screenwriters: John Van Druten/based on the play by Emlyn Williams; cinematographer: Ray June; editor: Robert J. Kern; music: Edward Ward; cast: Robert Montgomery (Danny), Rosalind Russell (Olivia Grane), Dame May Whitty (Mrs Bramson), Merle Tottenham (Dora), Kathleen Harrison (Emily Terence), Alan Marshal (Justin Laurie), Matthew Boulton (Inspector Belsize); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hunt Stromberg; MGM; 1937)

“Stagebound, unconvincing and tedious.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A British thriller based on the hit play that was staged in London and New York by Welsh-born writer and actor Emlyn Williams. The film version is stagebound, unconvincing and tedious. Richard Thorpe (“Huckleberry Finn”/ “Ivanhoe”/”Jailhouse Rock”) manages to make the hit play into an overlong and dull melodrama that has no real scares, as everything is contrived and languid. Louis B. Mayer, the MGM mogul, disliked the film so much that at its New York opening he had leaflets passed out of his studio disowning the film. The film was that bad.

A woman is missing in the English countryside and the police expect foul play. At the same time, the wealthy grouchy wheelchair-bound invalid Mrs. Bramson (Dame May Whitty) becomes nosy about her dim-witted maid Dora (Merle Tottenham) and her trouble getting her big-talking hotel pageboy Irish boyfriend Danny (Robert Montgomery) to marry her and invites him in for a chat to straighten things out so that her servant won’t any longer be distracted while working. During their chat the street-smart Danny senses the churlish lady is a hypochondriac and really doesn’t need the wheelchair, and by charming her and acting solicitous he forms a mother-son relationship which gets him an invite to move into her cottage to be her personal servant. Also staying at Mrs. Bramson’s isolated country cottage is her impoverished poetry-minded spinsterish niece Olivia Grane (Rosalind Russell), who doesn’t like being mistreated with verbal abuse while she performs her nursing duties but stays on because she needs the money. Mrs. Bramson’s lawyer, Justin Laurie (Alan Marshal), an upper-class swell is attracted to Olivia and proposes, but she puts him off without rejecting him. After a few weeks the body of the missing woman is found without its head near Mrs. Bramson’s cottage. Even though Olivia suspects that Danny could be the murderer, she’s attracted to him and keeps mum. Under police inspector Belsize’s (Matthew Boulton) bumbling investigation, this farce continues even though Danny has in his possession a hatbox with the missing woman’s severed head. That no one thinks to examine the hatbox when they search the premise or be suspicious of the stranger to the village when he should be a prime suspect, is mind-boggling. The brazen psychopathic killer now sets his sights on the cranky unlikable Mrs. Bramson after noticing her putting money in her safe, as the creaky mystery drags on in a moribund theatrical fashion until the obvious is played out.

Dame May Whitty was 72 at the time and received her title for charity work during WWI, becoming the first actor so honored by the Brits. Surprisingly Night Must Fall was a critical and box-office success. It was remade in 1964 as a blood-splatter film by Karel Reisz.