Known for her sense of staccato sass (His Girl Friday) and commanding grandeur (Auntie Mame, Gypsy), the compelling Rosalind Russell (1907-1976) also gave the world a portrait of dreamy wanderlust with her sweetly confused Olivia in the 1937 gothic noir Night Must Fall. It is a strong and poetic performance even when the film, itself, muddles with Russell’s towering commitment to the character.
Notable at the time for establishing lead actor Robert Taylor as something other than just a romantic comic, Night Must Fall was daring for its post-Code timeframe. Based on a successful play by Emilyn Williams, the film focuses on Walker’s charming bellboy Danny. Beguiling Mrs. Bramson, a manipulative dowager played by Dame May Whitty, Danny soon worms his way into her household. But a hideous murder has just occurred and when the headless body is found in Mrs. Bramson’s yard, it is soon made apparent that Danny is the culprit.
Throughout, Taylor supplies Danny with a nimble menace. Whitty’s performance is a bravura one, as well, particularly in her final scene. This moment brings her supposed invalid from terrified hysterics to unrepentant laughter within seconds of each other. Russell, meanwhile, glows with melancholy and cloudy indecision. Her character grows the most of the trio, forsaking her business-like spectacles for a regimen of inquisitive beauty due to Danny’s encouragement. Intrigued yet leery of her aunt’s new tenant, she initially investigates him, diving into his meager belongings with Marple-like interest. Still unsure, she eventually assists him when his luck seems to be running out. The resulting scene is the most chilling one in the picture.
Having discovered a bowling bag in Danny’s lodgings earlier in the proceedings, Olivia is aware that it could contain the missing head of the victim. But when a local police official asks to examine it, Olivia claims it as her own. Just after the officer leaves, the relieved Danny faints from tense exertion, seemingly giving him away for good.
After this, though, screenwriter John Van Druten clouds the path of Russell’s character. Due to the carnival-like atmosphere at their home (with Whitty’s character reveling in the attention brought on by the body’s discovery), Russell/Olivia ultimately decides to her leave her aunt with Danny. She seeks refuge in the family home of Justin (handsome Alan Marshal), a local businessman, whose affections she has been avoiding. But, she does return later that evening. Determined to give herself to Danny, she finds herself very surprised (and ultimately repulsed) by his true murderous nature. Thus, terrified she fights for her life.
While this scenario is effective in the horror/thriller format, this result does tamper with everything that has seemingly gone before. Surely, Olivia must have suspected that Danny was the killer by her earlier actions. Indeed, that knowledge is what makes the character so interesting. Resistant to conformity, her gaze lands upon an unusual, deadly man and she finds herself drawn to him. That the ending screws with that established fact is a bit bewildering and that it, also, seems to suggest Olivia will settle for a secure, yet bland life with Justin is a disappointment for the viewers whom have invested in her adventurous spirit.
Still, Russell maintains a hypnotic presence from opening to closing and the film, itself, has enough moody suspense and solid acting craftsmanship for those desired repeated viewings.
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!