Posted by Susan Doll on February 3, 2014
It is easy to assume that serial killers as a subject for crime movies is a relatively recent phenomenon, particularly those that delve into the unique psychology of the killer. After all, the term serial killer does not pop up in common usage until after Ted Bundy was incarcerated in prison, though it was coined earlier. Credit for the term is often given to FBI Agent Robert Ressler, who adopted “serial killer” and “serial homicide” in the 1970s. However, the phrase “serial murderer” goes as far back as the 1930s when director of police Ernst Gennat used it to describe Peter Kurten. I once read a passage by author James Ellroy in which he lauded Thomas Harris and his 1981 novelThe Red Dragon as a watershed moment in crime fiction because of Harris’s detailed understanding of the psychology of the serial killer.
So, I am always surprised when I come across early pop culture depictions of serial killers that seem to accurately capture the demons that drive them. This Friday, February 7, at 6:30am, TCM will airNight Must Fall, a 1937 drama starring Robert Montgomery as a likable killer named Danny. The film is based on the 1935 play penned by Emlyn Williams, who originally starred as Danny on stage. A working class Irish lad, Danny charms his way into the good graces of wealthy, cantankerous Mrs. Bramson, who exploits her age and presumed ill health to dominate the people in her household. The conniving killer discovers Mrs. Bramsom’s weakness for attention and quickly becomes the old lady’s primary caretaker. Mrs. Bramson’s niece, Olivia, is immediately suspicious of Danny. However, Olivia and her aunt are on such poor terms that Mrs. Bramson refuses to listen to her about anything. The killer’s identity is obvious from the beginning, which might frustrate those viewers who prefer a plot-twisting whodunit. Night Must Fall is not that kind of crime story. The tension derives from the interplay of the characters. It is disturbing to watch Danny worm his way into Mrs. Bramson’s heart, while the cat-and-mouse game between Danny and Olivia hints at her dark thoughts and desires. I chose Night Must Fall as a forgotten film to be remembered for two reasons—the performance by Robert Montgomery as Danny and the insight into the sociopathic character by writer Emlyn Williams.
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