This is a strange little film. I’ve called it a gothic, but it doesn’t have much in the way of gothic atmosphere, at least visually. What it shares with the gothic is the theme of the woman in peril. It’s in the same neck of the woods as films like Gaslight or Rebecca, where a woman is threatened by a man who is hiding a dark secret. In Night Must Fall, the elements are somewhat different. There’s a naive young woman named Olive (Rosalind Russell) living under the thumb of her domineering old aunt (Dame May Whitty) in a country estate in England. Into the household comes a cheerful, strange handyman named Danny (Robert Montgomery). Simultaneous with his arrival, the headless body of a woman is found in the woods nearby. Olive begins to suspect that Danny is the murderer.
Night Must Fall is an adaptation of a stage play by Emylyn Williams. It shows its roots, both in the way that the action stays mostly in a few rooms in the house and in the outbursts of grandiloquent speech. What’s probably most compelling about it are the three main characters. They seem just as artificial as some of the poetic speeches they deliver, but they all have a great deal of complexity. The naive young woman is submissive and writes poetry and is unrealistic about love, but she is also lazy and possessed of a morbid imagination. The old woman is querulous and mean-spirited, but she’s also flirtatious with the strange young man and willing to be misled by him. The young man is charming and manipulative, but for all his seductive wiles he seems genuinely lost and uncertain beneath his mask.
Olive’s character in particular is fascinating. She is sexually repressed, and Danny attempts to manipulate her sexually. The film leaves it ambiguous what she is actually feeling about him, and at times her behavior doesn’t make a lot of sense. She suspects him of murder and openly confronts him with the question, yet she keeps helping him get away with his lies. Is he right that she wants him sexually? She denies it, yet she exhibits all the signs of passion barely held in check. Yet when she finally explains her motivations, it is almost purely in terms of wanting to know if her darkest imaginings are true and being compelled to find out no matter the risk. Is it that her morbid imagination is an expression of her hidden sexuality? The film is sophisticated enough to leave this an unstated possibility while also leaving it an open question.