Dame May Whitty received her first Oscar nomination for playing Mrs. Bramson in Richard Thorpe's Night Must Fall. The film is an incredibly interesting one, and does wonders with a hackneyed and overdone storyline -- the mysterious stranger who comes around just as a murder is committed. Robert Montgomery gives an absolutely astounding performance, and does wonders with a thankless role. He plays Danny, a charismatic man who uses his charm to get a job in the house of Mrs. Bramson (Whitty), a wealthy old 'crippled' woman who lives with her niece (Rosalind Russell) and her servants. A murder of another old woman has just been committed the day of his arrival, and the niece quickly becomes suspicious of this man as Mrs. Bramson takes a liking to him, and is put totally under his spell.
I've seen only three movies starring Dame May Whitty (the others being her second Oscar-nominated performance in Mrs. Miniver and Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion), and I can already tell that she is one of those actresses who is typecast, in her case into the role of 'cantankerous old lady'. Mrs. Bramson is a character that is meant to be unlikeable and rude, with an aristocratic superiority and that British accent that has somehow been associated with arrogant affluence. There was a reason why Whitty was so frequently typecast, obviously because she is so adept at playing that role. She can throw out a harsh comment at the drop of a hat, and has a deliciously abrupt way at turning her disdain onto the maids or her niece at any moment. Or, as I put it in my notes while I was watching the film: "Bitches beautifully". Still, the role is basically one note for most of the film, as Mrs. Bramson's derision travels from one person to another, until settling eventually on her niece.
Where Whitty is given a chance to make her character a bit more two dimensional through her interactions with Montgomery's Danny. He is the only person in the movie with whom Mrs. Bramson sheds away the rough exterior and it's easy to see why. Danny is such an alluring and magnetic presence to her for numerous reasons, but mostly because he doesn't treat her like an old woman and actually seems to almost flirt and be playful with her. It's become such a cliche, but he makes her feel young again. Any time they are in a scene together, Bramson's face lights up he seems to imbue new energy and vigor into her. In many scenes she becomes infantile when around him, with an abundance of quiet cackles and incessant giggling. Whitty is most impressive, however, at her ability to switch from harsh to nice in the course of a single scene (sometimes even in seconds) and make it believable.
There are, however, some plot limitations that not even Whitty can push past. Mrs. Bramson seems to turn so extremely on her niece (played rather tediously by Russell), much to quickly. Yes, we see her yelling at her in the entire film, but the extremes at which she seems to turn on her aren't believable. There is also something undoubtedly off about the character, because while Whitty does make her susceptibility to Danny's charms tangible, the way she treats the other characters in the film leads you to believe that she shouldn't be. It is that final scene that leaves you with a punch in the gut, where we see this broken woman finally pulling away the facade of the entire film in a desperate, well-done panic.
Dame May Whitty's performance is one that I admire a lot, with a mix of her typical typecast tendencies and a surprisingly layered complexity into one character. She makes a potentially one note character into an full, well-rounded one. A very, very strong 4/5 that I so badly want to bump up to a 4.5, but just don't feel justified in doing so. I'm too reticent about her non-Montgomery scenes to do that.