April 13, 2014

Robert Montgomery, Night Must Fall

as DANNY
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Looking through Robert Montgomery's filmography, you'll see that he starred in a ton of forgettable flicks in the early thirties, often as the male counterpart to a bigger female star. He was unable to take the role of Roger Byam in Mutiny on the Bounty, and he passed on the role of Peter Warne in It Happened One Night the year before, giving him the dubious honor of having missed out on two consecutive Academy-Award nominated performances. I've only seen him in three other films, that being The Divorcee, Their Own Desire, and The Big House. In the first two pictures, his roles fall right into the typecast set by his studio--pretty forgettable and merely accessories to Norma Shearer's characters. But he's excellent in The Big House. The role is small, but he infuses his character with such a palpable sense of desperation and fear, and he more than holds his own up against Chester Morris and Wallace Beery. Watching him there, I got a sense that he was capable of so much more than what was being given to him. That said, I'm pretty happy that MGM decided to make Night Must Fall, not only because it's a film so unlike anything else that was being made by the studios at the time, but also because it finally gave Montgomery a plum role that was worthy of his talents.

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When Danny enters the film, he is a polite and soft-spoken gentleman. Montgomery's baby face contributes to Danny in such a double-edged way. He sheepishly chats away to Mrs. Bramson with a genuine sweetness, and you start to see Bramson changing her mind about him--perhaps he isn't as bad as she'd thought. But then the conversation turns to the subject of Mrs. Shellbrook's disappearance, and with that comes a haunting shift in Danny's facade. He suddenly adopts a quietly ominous alertness, that boyish innocence is gone, and there's something really chilling in the way Montgomery's baby face describes Mrs. Shellbrook's features and attributes with an obsessive precision. There's two sides to Danny here, the charming front he puts on and the psychopath that lies beneath it, and Montgomery is potent at playing both men. For much of the film we see the well-mannered Danny interact with Bramson and Rosalind Russell's Olivia and the cops--and Montgomery is so good at making Danny likable, sometimes exasperatingly likable, that I didn't even think it was very significant at first. But then come the scenes where Danny's facade cracks, and it's obvious that this is a very rich and calculated performance. The scenes of likable Danny, which might not seem important initially, are really apart of the cohesive whole of an intricate character. Montgomery shades this complicated man with such interesting facets--the fear that consumes him when he thinks he's been found out, the mental turmoil that wreaks havoc on him while in the privacy of his own room, his realization that he has Olivia in the palm of his hand, his deranged invincibility complex--I found myself watching this guy, not understanding him at all yet wanting to understand him...and I imagine this is the same thing Rosalind Russell's character feels. Montgomery's performance begs the question: what is going on in this man's head? That last scene in which Danny reveals his true self and subsequently unravels in front of our eyes is wonderfully acted, and much like in The Big House, Montgomery brings a complicated sense of emotional frailty that's engrossing to watch. I won't soon forget his delivery of "I'm going to die", and as he's banging his cuffed hands to his knees, you see him with an arched back and a cry of defeat. But he quickly disposes of that vulnerability, and walks out of the film with the same poise as he had when he walked in. This is hypnotic work, and a vivid study of one of the most fascinating characters to be nominated for Best Actor from this era. Because the world is cruel, Night Must Fall wasn't much of a hit with audiences at the time of its release, and had it been a success Montgomery might have had a fighting chance for the win. But as The New York Daily News wrote, the film lifted "the MGM actor out of the lower brackets...into an eminent position among the top-notchers of Hollywood players", and I wholeheartedly agree.



5 comments:

  1. Haven't seen this either, but I own it.

    5 Oscars?! Get outta here! :D

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    1. He's really great! I like the movie as well.

      I would strongly urge you to watch it, but you ended up not being very enthused the last time I did that (The Big House) so I guess I'll patiently wait until you get around to it :P

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    2. Yeah, normally I don't think I'd see it anytime soon. :)
      but who knows...

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  2. Agree agree agree! He's so damn charismatic in this role. Absolutely a 5 stars from me as well. I haven't really liked him elsewhere (not even in The Big House or Here Comes Mr. Jordan), so this is what sticks out in my mind when I think of him.

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    1. I felt like Danny's unraveling in his last scene here was like an extension of Montgomery's last scene in The Big House! That said, I'm certainly looking forward to Here Comes Mr. Jordan now, and I might just go around digging up some of his other movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith if I have the time!

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