The Emlyn Williams play Night Must Fall was filmed in 1937 with Robert Montgomery as charming killer Danny, and told more from the point of view of the women and their growing suspicions of their increasingly creepy handyman/lodger. This 1964 British version takes more of a Psycho route and focuses on Danny’s psychosis, evil, and talent for fooling the ladies, so the viewer wonders less if or why, but when he’ll snap. Finney gives a great, disturbing performance as the Welsh waiter invited to stay in the idyllic country home of wheelchair-bound elderly widow Mrs. Bramson (Mona Washbourne). He comes in as the boyfriend of Bramson’s cook Dora (Sheila Hancock) but once he’s there to take “mother Bramson” (as she insists he call her) for walkies, and do some painting and renovation, Danny becomes interested in Bramson’s beautiful daughter Olivia (Susan Hampshire). Olivia, an aimless and self-centered former actress, is at first creeped out by Danny’s snooping, leering and brutish behaviour, but falls for him anyway.
In the movie’s opening scenes, we’ve already watched Danny murder a woman and dump her body in a pond visible from the Bramson home. As we watch him worm his way into the women’s affections, we (and Danny) also keep an eye on the unfolding investigation, the media coverage. The dragging of the pond leads to discovery of the body and murder weapon, but the victim’s head is missing, so you may easily surmise what Danny keeps locked in his hatbox, and why he gets such perverted kicks looking at its contents, and such terrors watching both police and nosy Olivia snoop through his room.
Finney is riveting and terrifying as the insane, ingratiating and immature Danny. It’s both jarring and fascinating to watch this burly adult dance, spin, giggle, and pull faces like a strange child, and even more disturbing to see how well his weird little boy act works. The ladies eat it up and want to mother him. We see his inanity in his private moments (“this is where I live” he says, pointing to his head), but by the time it’s clear he’s a predator toying with his prey, it’s too late to escape his inevitable deadly meltdown. After a hyper game of hide-and-seek with mother Bramson, Danny cracks. He follows a volcanic explosion with a vanishing act and eerie silence, then reappears wielding a big gleaming garden tool, ready to kill again. It’s worth noting you never see any blood or gore in this movie, it’s suggested powerfully and effectively.
Finney was so handsome, charismatic and polished here, it’s no wonder the women literally fight over him, which not only makes them blind to the danger but also adds an interesting bit of class warfare and some poignant, desperate loneliness to the stark psychological horror. Once he gets Olivia’s attention, Danny dumps the pregnant Dora, who resents and attacks the spoiled rich girl for taking her man. Mother Bramson then scolds Olivia for hogging Danny’s attention, saying she’s the one paying him, after all. They’re all so busy bickering over who owns and gets him, and so fooled by his subservient position and harmless child routine, they fail to heed Olivia’s misgivings (once she finally has some) about his true nature.
Night Must Fall was directed by Karel Reisz, produced by Reisz and Albert Finney, adapted by Clive Exton and photographed by Freddie Francis. The film is available from Warner Archive.