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Night Must Fall

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Written by
Emlyn Williams

Emlyn Williams

First performance

Place premiered
Duchess Theatre

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Date premiered
May 31, 1935 (1935-05-31)

Night Must Fall (1937), Night Must Fall (1964)

Thriller plays, Other plays

Night Must Fall is a play, a psychological thriller, by Emlyn Williams, first performed in 1935. There are two film adaptations, Night Must Fall (1937) and Night Must Fall (1964).


Hoodoo gurus night must fall


Mrs Bramson, a bitter, fussy, self-pitying elderly woman, resides in a remote part of Essex, with her intelligent yet subdued niece, Olivia. Mrs Bramson spends all her time complaining while sitting in a wheelchair (although it is revealed during the play that she has in fact no disability whatsoever). She is thoroughly disliked by her two servants, Dora, a young, sensitive maid and Mrs Terrence, the cook, as well as Olivia, whom Mrs. Bramson also treats as a servant.

One day, Dora reveals she is pregnant. Mrs Bramson considers firing her, but then decides to persuade the father of Dora's unborn child to marry her. The father turns out to be a suave, handsome young man named Dan. He almost immediately charms Mrs Bramson, causing her to forget all about Dora's pregnancy and take Dan on as her private assistant.

Olivia, however, isn't as taken in by the charming Dan as her aunt is; she feels that he is putting on a facade and lying to hide something sinister. Her suspicions grow when, a few days later, it is reported that a local beauty has gone missing. Believing Dan to be involved, she, the servants, and her pompous admirer, Hubert, go through Dan's things when he is not around, finding a picture of him and the missing woman buried among his belongings. This shocking discovery strengthens Olivia's suspicions and determination to prove that Dan is not what he seems.

Then one night, a human hand is found in the rubbish outside the house. Later on, a body is discovered in the woods — it is that of the missing woman, only without a head. Olivia now fears that Dan is a murderer. She also believes he keeps the head in a small hat box that he brought with him. Amidst all the chaos, Hubert tries to convince Olivia to come away with him and be his wife, but she refuses.

One night, Mrs Bramson reveals to Olivia that she has hundreds of pounds locked away in a safe in the middle of the living room. Olivia warns her that it is not wise to leave a safe in plain sight, but Mrs Bramson refuses to listen. Later that night, Olivia tries again to confront Dan and he tells her about his past. She tells him why she puts up with her aunt, even saying that she wished she could kill her, to which Dan replies that she probably couldn't. The two share a brief moment of understanding.

They are interrupted by Belsize, a police officer from Scotland Yard who has come to briefly question Olivia and Dan in connection with the murder. While interviewing Dan, Belsize discovers the locked hat box. He asks Dan for the key, but Dan says it is not his. As Belsize grows more persistent and suspicious, Olivia comes in and states that the hat box is hers and puts it in her room.

Later that night, the servants get ready to go home. Olivia also says she is leaving to stay with friends in London. She tells Mrs. Bramson she is too frightened to stay in the house and warns her to get out of the house too. Mrs. Bramson again refuses to listen to her niece, thinking she is just being overexcited. As Dora and Mrs. Terrence prepare to leave, Dan decides to accompany them. Mrs. Bramson is left alone and for the first time, the audience sees that she too is terrified. Dan soon returns and gets Mrs. Bramson ready for bed.

When she drifts off to sleep, he gets a pillow and smothers her to death, although this is not explicitly shown. Dan then opens the safe and steals the money. He prepares to burn the house down, only to be interrupted by Olivia, who has come back and discovered her aunt's dead body. She tells Dan she has figured him out. Dan confesses. Just then, they see the lights of a police car coming to the house. Olivia says that the police must not get in, showing that she has fallen for Dan.

Belsize and some other officers arrest Dan. Dora and Mrs Terrence are also present. Olivia tries to implicate herself in the crime, but Dan will not let her, confessing that it was all his own work. Before he is dragged away, he looks in the mirror and talks to himself, proving he is in fact insane. Then he grabs Olivia and passionately kisses her.


Dan is an intelligent young man with a slightly Welsh accent. His good looks only mask his wile. He is a cool and calculating liar and greatly skilled at improvising. He is very observant and has an uncanny ability to read people.

Dan is first mentioned in the play when Dora is question by Mrs Bramson about her pregnancy. He is the father of Dora's unborn child as a result of a one-night stand and is brought to see Mrs Bramson in order for her to persuade him to marry Dora. Dan remains very indifferent to Dora right to the end of the play.

He comes off as easy-going. He is friendly and cheerful with everyone around him and constantly grinning (artificially nonetheless). He is overly polite, unassuming, and apologetic, which is of course all an act.

He almost immediately endears himself to the unbearable and cynical Mrs Bramson, a testimony of his brilliant acting ability. He recognizes Mrs Bramson's relentless self-pity and plays up to her by passionately acknowledging and sympathizing with her. Going so far as to tell her she reminds him of his mother who was also sick (despite the fact that he never knew his mother). He fully realizes Mrs Bramson's belief that she is an invalid and that other people should do things for her, and he plays on this fact to get hired by her as her caretaker. He is successful at this to the point where Mrs Bramson offers him to call her "mother". As he charms Mrs Bramson more and more, he taunts Olivia (who is outspoken about her disliking him from the beginning) with sarcastic remarks.

The act he puts on is good enough to fool anyone except for Olivia who almost immediately senses the artificiality of his exaggerated amiability. Dan in turn recognizes Olivia's discontent and boredom at her life. At one point Olivia comments on the blankness of Dan's look. Since he knows Olivia does not buy his act, and upon her probing, Dan privately reveals to Olivia that he enjoys his act, much to Olivia's fascination. Dan claims he has been acting for so long that he doesn’t remember what he was "really" like. Olivia goes on to say her diagnosis of Dan would be that he has "no feelings at all".

Olivia openly tells Dan that she suspects him of being the killer. Dan confesses nothing but continues to taunt Olivia by provoking her suspicion with sarcastic remarks.

Dan has a fondness for alcohol and is slightly more open when drunk. At one point in the play, a drunken Dan confides in Olivia about his true past and jokingly compliments her that she's the only woman he has ever told it to. He goes on to describe his laborious and undignified life as a pageboy, becoming more and more furious as he does. He finally breaks down in tears stating that nothing in the world troubles him except "a pair of eyes staring at [him]"

When Belsize arrives at the murder scene Olivia means to cover up for him (despite the fact that he openly intended to kill her). Dan however does not allow her to get mixed up and takes full responsibility for the murders; his only noble act. In the end it is revealed the "eyes" that torment him are his own empty eyes.

Dan is a chain smoker and has a habit of putting the stub behind his ear. He can read but does so rather laboriously.

Dan hums and sings the following verses throughout the play, to the tune Mighty Lak' a Rose.

"I'm a pretty little feller ... everybody knows ... Don't know what to call me--but I'm mighty lak a rose...."

"Their home addresses ... and their caresses ... linger in my memory of ... those beautiful dames"


Produced by Miles Malleson, the original production of Night Must Fall premiered May 31, 1935, at the Duchess Theatre in London. The formal West End opening was preceded by a preliminary tour of Edinburgh (April 29, 1935), Newcastle and Glasgow. The play ran in London for 436 performances.

  • Eric Stanley … The Lord Chief Justice
  • May Whitty … Mrs. Bramson
  • Angela Baddeley … Olivia Grayne
  • Basil Radford … Hubert Laurie
  • Dorothy Langley … Nurse Libby
  • Kathleen Harrison … Mrs. Terence
  • Betty Jardine … Dora Parkoe
  • Matthew Boulton … Inspector Belsize
  • Emlyn Williams … Dan
  • New York

    The New York production of Night Must Fall opened on Broadway September 28, 1936, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by Emlyn Williams, the play ran for 64 performances.

  • Ben Webster … The Lord Chief Justice
  • May Whitty … Mrs. Bramson
  • Angela Baddeley … Olivia Grayne
  • Michael Shepley … Hubert Laurie
  • Shirley Gale … Nurse Libby
  • Doris Hare … Mrs. Terence
  • Betty Jardine … Dora Parkoe
  • Matthew Boulton … Inspector Belsize
  • Emlyn Williams … Dan
  • Revival

    Matthew Broderick starred as Dan in a Broadway revival presented February 2–June 27, 1999, at the Lyceum Theatre and the Helen Hayes Theatre. The cast included Judy Parfitt as Mrs. Bramson, and J. Smith-Cameron as Olivia Grayne.


    A 1937 film adaptation using the same title was written by John Van Druten, starred Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell, and Dame May Whitty, and was directed by Richard Thorpe. Dame May Whitty revisited the same role from when the play was performed in London and in New York City.

    A 1964 film remake was directed by Karel Reisz from a script by Clive Exton, and starred Albert Finney, Susan Hampshire, and Sheila Hancock, but was not as successful as the original film.


    A radio adaptation of Night Must Fall was presented on Philip Morris Playhouse October 24, 1941. Starring Burgess Meredith, Maureen O'Sullivan and Flora Robson, the program has not survived in radio collections.

    Night Must Fall was adapted for the July 24, 1944, broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater, starring James Cagney, Rosemary DeCamp and May Whitty.

    Robert Montgomery produced, hosted and starred in a CBS Radio adaptation of Night Must Fall on Suspense March 27, 1948. May Whitty, Heather Angel, Richard Ney and Matthew Boulton costarred.


    Night Must Fall Wikipedia

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