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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Horror Ahead Of Its Time?


Robert Montgomery Goes Psycho for Night Must Fall (1937)

I'll go on a limb to ask this: Did Night Must Fall have impact on audiences similar to sock that Psycho would deliver twenty-three years later? And here's another: Did Hitchcock get his idea for off-casting benign leading men as bent killers from seeing Night Must Fall? I realize this Metro adapt from a Brit stage hit pulled punches, but coming from the thriller-timid lion, it was a brave roar. We never do find out for sure what's in Robert Montgomery's hatbox, though mere thought of its being a dismembered head would have been enough to traumatize audiences who'd never been exposed to stuff rough as this. Was Night Must Fall the first major talking picture about a serial killer who dismembers victims? I pondered that while watching --- couldn't offhand think of any. I'll bet Night Must Fall handed out more nightmares than whatever Frankensteins and Draculas the 30's gave us. MGM actually tried to distance itself from the finished product for fear of backlash, so say histories. Bob fought valiant to play the thing after seeing NMF on B'way and realizing this was the image tweak for him. Elizabeth Montgomery remembered her father hiding in the closet to whistle his character's baleful theme (Mighty Lak A Rose) and scare hell out of her (scarcely a wonder Liz had Daddy issues). Montgomery does a beautiful show of sinister here, maybe his best performance in anything. Till 1937 a cocktail and shakers man, RM really put forth a creep well off path he'd trod so far at MGM.


A Backstory Sequence Deleted From Final Prints
Had any talker star, especially of romantic bent, done such before? Hitchcock had to have been mightily impressed by Night Must Fall (likely an only occasion when a film under Richard Thorpe direction would inspire him). AH's stuff admittedly topped Night Must Fall, but the latter came first, at least insofar as stars misbehaving so. There's more than a little Montgomery in Robert Walker's Bruno Anthony of Strangers On A Train, and of course, Anthony Perkins was final summation of nice young men doing the unspeakable. I admired Night Must Fall as much for what it might have been as what it actually was. For all of caution and Code restraints, this was still pink, if not blood red, meat for 1937. Queasy notion that charmer Bob has chopped up and planted a body in the garden outside a quaint English cottage is still potent stuff of sleeplessness, and we don't really need to see that head to know it's stored in his grip (one character picking up the box comments that "this seems awfully heavy for a hat"). Night Must Fall was remade in the 60's, with Albert Finney far more explicit in his cleaving, but that one lost money for Metro, whereas the 1937 earned profit, if modest, for such a disturber as this chiller surely was.

2 Comments:

Blogger Tom said...

In 1944 Montgomery pal James Cagney played Danny in a radio adaption of Night Must Fall. Co-starring with him were Rosemary De Camp and Dame May Whitty.

White Heat didn't require charm from Cagney when he played that psychopath, as this role would have.

It would have been interesting to see Cagney tackle this role on screen, not to mention what fan reaction to it would have been like.

11:33 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

I avoided it for years because it was hard to find a good print. Finally, last night, I caught up with it, and I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did. It's smooth, nicely designed and there's a quaint tracking shot of a splendid miniature forest and cottage that reminded me of my toy train set replete with trees and lakes from bygone years. "Night Must Fall" is ultimately cosy and likeable as Montgomery's 'babyface' plays nicely with Whitty's tart, selfish victim - one can imagine the audiences rising tension as hers escalates in a quite astonishing few moments of theatrical nonsense whens she's set upon at the end, a 'cat and mouse' unrivalled till an even more powerful scene of mayhem in Braham's "The Lodger" in 1944. Russell is miscast but adequate, and the 'english' eccentrics are kept in check - unusual for MGM, and the only real flaw is Bob's uncertain Irish (Welsh in the play) brogue.

6:49 AM  

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