ROAD BUILDER, THE (THE NIGHT DIGGER)
(director: Alastair Reid; screenwriters: Roald Dahl/based on the novel “Nest in a Falling Tree” by Joy Cowley; cinematographer: Alex Thomson; editor: John Bloom; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Patricia Neal (Maura Prince), Pamela Brown (Edith Prince, Mother), Nicholas Clay (Billy), Jean Anderson (Mrs. Millicent McMurtrey), Graham Crowden (Mr. Bolton), Yootha Joyce (Mrs. Palafox), Peter Sallis (Rev. Palafox), Brigit Forsyth (District Nurse), Sebastian Breaks (Dr. Robinson), Diana Patrick (Mary Wingate), Jenny McCracken (Farmwife), Bruce Myles (Bank Clerk), Zoe Alexander (Stroke Patient), Christopher Reynalds (Young Billy), Elaine Ives-Cameron (Gypsy), Sibylla Kay (Whore); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Alan D. Courtney/Norman S. Powell; MGM; 1971-USA/UK)
“I only felt the more miserable for seeing it.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Long time Brit TV director Alastair Reid (“Baby Love”/”Something to Hide”/”What Rats Won’t Do“)doesn’t help things with his plodding direction of this dreary psychological thriller about a serial killer, that’s best viewed as an unusual gothic curio tale and a disturbing film that just didn’t work.Even if richly atmospheric and finely acted, all the characters are unsympathetic and the undeveloped story is so unpleasant without an upside that I can’t see an audience for it. The pic hits rock bottom when it depicts the implausible romance between the psychopathic serial killer and the unhappy sexually frustrated spinster, who run away together to live in a small croft in the Scottish Highlands despite the spinster suspecting he’s a killer. I only felt the more miserable for seeing it.
Children’s author Roald Dahl, at the time hubby of star Patricia Neal (who had returned to acting after recovering from a series of debilitating strokes in 1965), is out of his usual element as he writes the screenplay that’sbased on the novel “Nest in a Falling Tree” by Joy Cowley. The troubled British production experienced a raging feud between Dahl and the sharp-tongued but talented musical arranger Bernard Herrmann, who insisted the script be altered and got the studio to side with him (he influenced the terrible unsatisfactory convenient ending, which only made this bad film worse). As a result, Dahl disowned the film.
Crabby, autocratic, willful and overbearing dullard Edith Prince (Pamela Brown) is blind and lives in a crumbling English country mansion with her 35-year-old spinster adopted daughter, Maura Prince (Patricia Neal), a part-time speech therapist, whom she brow-beats into submission even as she’s dutifully nursed by the grateful orphan who was given a home. When the 20-year-old drifter Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay) shows up on the premises on his motorcycle looking for work, the delusional Edith hires him as a handyman despite the objections of the sullenMaura. The master of the house insults Maura even more by forcing her to give up her comfortable room to their guest, which the cowardly Maura, a recovering stroke victim, accepts after nursing her wounded feelings.
England has six serial killings in different districts over the last few months, that we’re told were committed by Billy. Once Billy moves into the mansion, he’s shown suffering from anxiety attacks because he’s sexually dysfunctional as a result of a traumatic experience with gypsies when he was a child and called by them a eunuch. A number of incidents of Billy’s sexual problems are shown in black and white flashbacks.
When there’s a few murder-rapes near Billy’s new residence, we view the murders and observe how the perverse Billy cleverly buries his victims under the nearby road construction sites that are soon to be paved. As Billy dutifully tends to the garden and fixes up the Victorian mansion, Maura’s initial resentment to him turns to love and she offers unconditional blind love to this emotionally troubled and volatile man-child with an angelic face.
The Road Builder was released in the U.S. as The Night Digger, but was dissed by the critics and MGM who soon shelved it as a tax deduction.
It has a similar theme to the Night Must Fall (1937).
REVIEWED ON 1/20/2211 GRADE: C