Monday, 7 March 2011

Review - Night Must Fall (1964)

The late 60s and early 70s saw the introduction of a new kind of menace to the cinema screen – the pretty-boy psychopath. They were everywhere – Twisted Nerve, Endless Night, The Road Builder, Straight On Til Morning, Blind Terror, you name it, if it had a wide-eyed, long haired, girlish-looking bloke in it, the chances are you’d found your murderer/pervert/murderous pervert. It was as if the sexual revolution had thrown up a new kind of bogeyman – the young lad who can get sex whenever he wants it, so sex has no longer become a goal. He’s looking for a new kind of thrill, and he might be dating your daughter.
Night Must Fall is one of the first examples of such a tale, with Albert Finney taking his disaffected character from Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and tweaking his problems and neuroses up to 11. Without Finney’s astonishing performance, Night Must Fall would be a much duller affair. His character, Danny, is an astonishing example of an eight year old boy trapped in a burly man’s body – all nervous energy and violent mood swings, desperate to be the centre of attention and determined not to let anyone spoil his fun.
But unlike the later films, there’s no ambiguity in this film, no whodunit. In the first few minutes, as we see potential victim Olivia Brunstrom (Susan Hampshire) enjoying her soon-to-be-disrupted idyllic life as she flounces around a sun-drenched garden in a floaty frock, there’s Danny (Finney), busy bludgeoning an unseen someone to death and throwing the body into a nearby pond.
Olivia lives a strange, detached life with her disabled, wheelchair-bound mother – the pair of them looked after by the maid, Dora (another fragile performance by the wonderful Sheila Hancock). Danny is the unsuspecting Dora’s boyfriend, and on a visit to see her he manages to inveigle his way into the Brunstrom’s home, charming the mother (or “Mrs Jam-Spoon”, as he christens her) into giving him a job as a live-in decorator. He arrives the next day on his scooter, the camera lingering on a hatbox he has strapped to the parcel carrier.
Danny, despite all his boasting, is rubbish at decorating, but Mrs Jam-Spoon doesn’t care. She’s fallen for the boy, hook, line, sinker and copy of Angling Times, and he quickly becomes a permanent fixture. Mrs Jam-Spoon may be in love with him (“You could call me mother,” she tells him, her normally strident voice reduced to a simpering, almost orgasmic plea), but young Danny only has eyes for the gorgeous Olivia. Like Danny, Olivia is a child in an adult’s body after a lifetime of being dominated by her mother, and she has watched, powerless to intervene, as the brash, bullying interloper has taken over the house.
But just as Danny seems to have conquered the entire household, the outside world arrives in the form of Olivia’s boyfriend Derek - a four-square, tweed-jacketed, cricket-playing chap of the first order. Danny’s good mood evaporates as he watches through his attic window as Derek arrive in his sports car and instantly becomes the centre of attention for the two Brunstrom women. His composure goes and he flips out, ending up scratching at the walls of his bedroom with his fingernails, over and over again.  He grabs the hat box, opens it, and mouths the word “hello” before retching and throwing it to one side.
But all is not well between Olivia and Derek, and he leaves. Danny begins his seduction of the newly-single girl, as nearby, the police are seen conducting a search of the pond.
Olivia is now falling for Danny’s rough charms, and she wanders up to his bedroom to find out more about him, rifling through his possessions (which include a strangely spooky glovemakers’ dummy hand and little else) to try and find out more about the new object of her affection. He arrives before she has the chance to look in the hat box and reacts angrily to this intrusion (there’s a remarkable ramping up of the tension as she tries to put the jigsaw-like dummy hand back together again), and thinks look like they’re about to turn nasty, but in the next scene the pair of them are laughing and messing about as he teaches her to ride his scooter. Now Olivia, too, is enamoured with the boy (“I just wanted to know you. I love you, Danny.”), putting him at the centre of a bizarre ménage a quatre. And the police have now dragged the pond, and found the body and the murder weapon…
The police come to question Danny (the dead woman used to frequent a bar where he worked) and the scales begin to fall from Olivia’s eyes as she sees that Danny has been playing everyone off against each other. Heartbroken, she tries to speak to Dora about her suspicions, but the maid has had enough and pushes her away.
Back in the house, there is just Danny and Mrs Jam-Spoon left, and they’re having a game of hide-and-seek. But suddenly the game isn’t funny any more.
Night Must Fall was based on a stageplay, and the film occasionally shows its roots (when Derek arrives you can imagine the way it would have played out on-stage – a tape playing of the sound of a car engine, Danny rushing to the window, the sound of voices, but nothing seen by the audience). It’s more melodrama than outright horror, apart from the closing scenes of Mrs Jam-Spoon wheeling her way around the house, the camera close-up on her face as she begins to panic (“Danny, we’re not playing any more”). But there is much to recommend it. The crisp black-and-white photography is wonderful, and the performances are uniformly excellent. The tension is done well and the feeling of powerlessness as Danny ruins everyone’s lives is palpable. Finney is rightly regarded as a film icon, but when talking about his career there is seldom mention of Night Must Fall, which is a shame, as it really is one of his best performances. Much like Oliver Reed’s, his is a genuinely terrifying screen presence, and it is used to perfection here.

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