Play Acting

I think NIGHT MUST FALL (1937) may be some kind of aberrational masterpiece. It’s kind of perfect, but peculiar. It shouldn’t really work. My guess as to what’s happened to make it the way it is, is this: MGM bought Emlyn Williams play, a very un-MGM tale about a psychopath, his unhealthy influence on a young woman, and what he’s got in his hatbox. They then tried to replicate a theatrical production — presumably the New York run. They imported Dame May Whitty from the stage show, and cast Robert Montgomery as Danny the psycho. Montgomery evidently studied Williams’ performance, because although his Danny claims to be Irish, he sounds Welsh (well, kinda). A bad Irish accent is easier to do (more familiar to the American ear) than a bad Welsh accent, so there’s really no other likely explanation.

Director Robert Thorpe — NOT a brilliant cineaste — Esther Williams remembered him mainly as grouchy — delivers a brilliant film. Montgomery’s accent isn’t a problem (we can imagine that Danny is lying about his origins, as he is about everything else), and the play’s suspense sequences transfer to the screen with tension and terror. Which either should or shouldn’t be the case, because Thorpe is shooting it as if he had the play in front of him. Hitchcock defined one of his better theatrical adaptations as “a play — photographed from the inside.” Meaning you don’t have an imaginary fourth wall, you have a real one, and the editing and camera movement allow us to see it. Cinema in the round.

Well, Thorpe doesn’t do that. His one concession to cinema is to glide from room to room (still viewing them as if from the stalls, but as if one had a wheelchair) and to cut in closer shots. He does edge around a bit when shooting singles, so everything isn’t absolutely flat on. But we only ever see one side of the set.

There are a few Hollywood England exteriors, including a gorgeous sweeping movement across miniature countryside. But the play is the play. A showcase for Montgomery-as-Williams, Rosalind Russell as the strange girl, and Whitty. The drama comes almost entirely from Williams’ stagecraft (he directed as well as writing and starring in the play), minimally from any cinematic devices except basic decoupage. And it’s really terrifically effective.

THIS lovely angle gains power by being just about the only one of its kind. Note the hatbox.

The Karel Reisz remake is worth seeing, but I think they made the mistake of tossing out the play for that one — what they come up with is persistently interesting, but falls apart at the end. I reckon they dismissed the original as a warhorse and thought they could come up with something better. But Williams’ plot is perfectly serviceable, a solid framework, and there’s nothing dated about his observation of psychopathy, which is quite uncannily accurate.

And speaking of uncanny… Montgomery was never so good. His image did not permit him to play many bad guys. He’s electrifying. An actor who always favours stillness, sparseness, simplicity, here he pares away all unnecessary movement. He moves with the elegance of a robot. His face, often with a cigarette drooping from it or with the mouth hanging slack, suggests idiocy, then animal cunning. His eyes, limpid but not especially large or gleaming, come to SEEM enormous.

I think the approach — big elaborate sets and a do-the-play philosophy — is symptomatic of the MGM aesthetic — the more expensive something is, and the more it resembles theatre, the classier it must be. But the play they’ve chosen to lavish all this attention on deals with the seductive power of evil, and makes us feel it. So the classy and respectable veneer fails to conceal something dark and subversive. It’s also self-consciously a play about performance — Danny is, he admits, always acting. Until the very end, when he addresses us not-quite-directly, using a mirror —

What’s a good remedy for a chilled spine?

5 Responses to “Play Acting”

  1. “Night Must Fall” was inspired by a trick Williams once spent a memorable night with who he laterfound out was a serial killer. Th malevolence that lurked beneath his sexual charm fascinated Williams and a play was born. Robert Montgomery is indeed marvelous especiallyin the climaxwhen the ins[ectorputs the cuffson him. Memorable too is the last shot of Motgomery being driven away by the policeinto the night as the music (sparelyused through most of the film) dramatically rises.

    Crime fascinatedWilliams hisbook about the Moors murders, “Beyond Belief” is magnificent. So much better than Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” I scarcely know where to begin

  2. I admire (“love” would be an awkward word to use) both books. Capote’s is the more problematic, owing to his methods.

    May rewatch the Reisz-Finney version soon because it’s got some great stuff in it. I can imagine a future version combining the merits of both films… but I don’t know who could be better than either Montgomery OR Finney.

  3. The Reiz-Finney versionwas very much influenced by “Psycho.” In fact the successof “Psycho” inspired the remake. But it’s a bad fit. Danny is a seductive pshopath, not a “hidden in plain sight” one.

  4. Before she became one of the greatest comedy actresses the world has ever known, Rosalind Russell was a rock-sold “serious actress.” Her two best are “Night Must Fall” and Dorothy Arzner’s version of “Craig’s Wife”

  5. Roz is great in this. The film is keen to tidy her character away at the end, and not have us question why she protects the man she knows is a killer — but the worry has been planted.

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