Night Must Fall – UK, 1964

‘The lusty brawling star of Tom Jones goes psycho!’

Night Must Fall is a 1964 British feature film directed by Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) from a screenplay written by Clive Exton. It is a remake of the 1937 film of the same name, which was in turn based on the 1935 play by Emlyn Williams. The movie stars Albert Finney (Wolfen), Mona Washbourne, and Susan Hampshire.

Review:

Outshadowing both the play and original film versions, this study of a serial killer is heady stuff, especially considering it was made in the mid-1960s. Albert Finney, riding high on the back of his breakthrough role as Tom Jones, plays the lead role of Danny, a fresh-faced bellboy who charms his way into staying at the house of his girlfriend, Dora (one of Sheila Hancock’s first screen roles), a maid, and the house owner, Mrs Bramson, played by Mona Washbourne (What Became of Jack And Jill?), who made a career out of playing kindly ladies.

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Once secure in the house, Danny wastes little time in seducing Bramson’s daughter, Olivia, played by perennial star of flouncy TV dramas, Susan Hampshire. So far, so average…yet, one of the early scenes in the film sees Danny striding through a swamp with a headless and limbless torso tucked under his arm.

Things get even stranger as Danny performs peculiar rituals in his room with the severed heads he has kept of his victims, kept, naturally, in a hatbox. As the police begin to find clues scattered throughout the countryside, the net closes in on Danny but who in the household will survive?

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Though the posters quaintly describe Finney as ‘lusty’, audiences and critics were appalled at both his performance and choice of subject. Something of a vanity project (Finney was also a co-producer), it is to his credit that he chose such a challenging role so completely against type; neither Tom Jones nor the Reisz-directed Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, gave any suggestion that a charming, loveable, psychotic, lunatic was the next role on the cards.

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Brave or perhaps foolhardy, Finney’s Night Must Fall venture caused his film career to flounder for a decade until he appeared as Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. 

The film is not without fault – it drags somewhat in places, Ron Grainer’s score is a bit too ‘be frightened here’ and Finney’s performance is occasionally so over-the-top it borders on hammy. And yet the manic switches between his roguish Welsh charmer and feral serial killer are never less than compelling. Also of note is the sumptuous, dreamy cinematography by future director Freddie Francis, perhaps Britain’s greatest practitioner of the art.

Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA

Other reviews:

“It’s Danny’s outsized energy and “suited-to-your-own-personal-needs” charm that attracts the three women in the first place to him, so playing Danny laid-back or quiet or gently nervous like Norman Bates wouldn’t have worked. In fact, in rebellious tone and mocking, nasty attitude, Danny is little different from “Angry Young Man” Arthur Seaton in Finney’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” Paul Mavis, DVD Talk

“Albert Finney plays the psycho as just that—a psycho, and we get so many scenes of him acting loony that the end result is more silly and childish than frightening. This movie gets rid of the stagey talkiness of the original, but it also loses the suspense of the original by making explicit what was only implied in the earlier version.” Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Move Musings and Ramblings

” … a curious affair (neither good nor bad – jus plain curious), that never, for a moment, equals anything like the obvious amount of directorial effort put into it.” John Cutts, Films and Filming

“Unfortunately, Clive Exton’s screenplay is contrived for melodramatic effect more than for psychological logic, and Karel Reisz’s direction is designed, with its rapid jump-cuts and shock transitions, to generate nervousness more than character exposition and narrative continuity.” Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, 1964

“The crisp black and white cinematography is wonderful, and the performances are uniformly excellent. The tension is sustained well, and the feeling of powerlessness as Danny ruin’s everyone’s lives is palpable. Finney is rightly regarded as a film icon but, when talking about his career, he seldom mentions Night Must Fall, which is a shame as it really is one of his best performances.” Chris Wood, The Shrieking Sixties: British Horror Films  1960 – 1969, Midnight Marquee Press, 2010

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“The main flaw in this film is that Finney’s characterization lacks charm, making it difficult to understand why the three ladies find him so irresistible.” Gary A. Smith, Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956 – 1976, McFarland, 2000

“Artfully composed and strikingly photographed, this British-manufactured reproduction of Metro’s 1937 shock-suspense thriller lacks the restraint, clarity and subtlety of its forerunner but makes up, to some degree, in cinematic flamboyance what it lacks in dramatic tidiness and conviction.” Variety, 1964

Cast and characters:

  • Albert Finney … Danny
  • Mona Washbourne … Mrs. Bramson
  • Susan Hampshire … Olivia Greyne
  • Sheila Hancock … Dora Parkoe
  • Michael Medwin … Derek
  • Joe Gladwin … Dodge
  • Martin Wyldeck … Inspector Willett
  • John Gill … Foster
  • Richard Neller … Guest (uncredited)
  • Emile Stemmler … Hospital Doctor (uncredited)

night must fall 1964 poster

Related:

Wolfen – USA, 1981

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