The Night Must Fall is one of those films from the 1930s that depresses me. Not because it’s a sad film, or a bad one… but one that because of limitations is not able to live up to it’s potential. I suppose it could be said about any time period, but the staginess of this film is a trademark of it’s time more than anything. Unfortunately I can’t see many director’s handling it much better than it is here… the film still gets high recommendations from me, the performances and the tension are beautiful. I just wish it were more cinematic in it’s presentation.
The film is set in a rural area, where a woman is missing and presumed murdered. Some revel in the excitement of this event, while others can’t help fearing that perhaps a murderor lurks among them. Around this time, a young man, Danny, charms his way into getting a better job at an elderly woman’s home. She adores him, but not everyone is as trusting.
The film is one of the more interesting stories about murderors I’ve seen. It doesn’t rely on cliches, or cheap scares and presents truly fascinating character portraits. The original material is above average, although I wouldn’t go saying it is exceptional. What really makes the film work are the performances. Robert Montgomery uses his good looks to the advantage of his character “baby face”, giving perhaps the best performance of his very successful career. He is all at once sinister, and charming, but he isn’t an intellectual (I mention intellectual, because the premise of charming suspicious characters is usually relegated to the very rich and eccentric, which Montgomery is far from). It’s hard to take your eyes off him when he’s onscreen. It’s really a shame he didn’t get an opportunity to ever really work with some of the real auteurs of his time (like Hawks, or even Capra)… his directorial efforts are quite interesting though. Russell is also very good, I’m used to her in comedic roles, but she handles her character wonderfully. Somehow she manages to exude an attraction to Danny even though she never truly admits or gives into her urges.
The film is by no means perfect, and is in essence a very glamorously filmed stage play. I still think it’s well worth seeing, as it’s still very tense and Montgomery gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.