In a tiny town in England, the police are working overtime in search of Mrs. Shellbrook, a local woman who has been missing for several days.
Dora (Merle Tottenham), a maid at the nearby home of Mrs. Bramson (Dame May Whitty), knows Mrs. Shellbrook, sort of. Her boyfriend Danny (Robert Montgomery) works for the missing woman.
When Danny pays a visit to the Bramson house, Dora hopes Mrs. Bramson will convince him to propose, but instead he is met with suspicion by Mrs. Bramson’s niece, Olivia Grayne (Rosalind Russell).
Earlier the same day, a detective visited the Bramson house and asked the women if they had seen anything suspicious that may be connected to Mrs. Shellbrook’s disappearance. Olivia wonders, could Danny have murdered the woman?
Night Must Fall was directed by Richard Thorpe. It is based on a play by Emlyn Williams.
Night Must Fall has plenty of behind-the-scenes appeal for classic film fans as a significant career point for several of the actors involved.
First, it is one of five films to co-star Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell, also allowing Russell an opportunity to play a character much different from her usual glamorous society gals.
According to TCM, Montgomery fought to be given the role of Danny after seeing the play in New York. The character, like Roz’s for her, was quite different for him and Louis B. Mayer was sure the film would be a failure. Montgomery agreed to personally contribute a portion of the film’s production costs due to the studio’s lack of faith. In the end, they were both sort of correct. The film was not a big box office hit, but did garner positive reviews from the critics.
For Dame May Whitty, though this film was released nearly 10 years after the rise of the talkies, it was her first Hollywood sound picture. It was a good career move, earning her an Academy Award nomination as supporting actress and leading to consistent work in film through the 1940s.
All of that history is interesting, but what of the film itself? I, for one, enjoyed it quite a lot. It feels very much like a stage play and sometimes that bothers me in stage-to-screen films, but here I think it works pretty well. Rather than coming across as too static or wordy, there’s a sort of claustrophobia to much of the film which works well for a muder-mystery story, especially as Olivia’s suspicion of Danny grows. Mrs. Bramson is confined to the house, and much of the action is confined to the house along with her.
Night Must Fall features strong performances across the board. Whitty is very convincing in her role of Mrs. Bramson, Montgomery equal parts charming and eerie in the role of Danny.
My favorite of the bunch, though, has to be Rosalind Russell. Olivia is not a very happy woman, trapped caring for her grumpy aunt, no money of her own and nowhere else to go. Her life is void of romance and excitement until Danny enters the picture, but the excitement he brings isn’t quite the type she was hoping for. She sees in him all of the trademarks of a murderer, and then she has to live with him when Mrs. Bramson hires him! Roz’s performance has notes of fear, anger, intelligence, sadness, strength, curiosity. She’s fascinating to watch and adds so much to the film.
Mysterious but not too dark, Night Must Fall is a very good watch which I’d definitely recommend, and readily watch again myself. The score: 4/5