Sunday, July 20, 2014

THE NIGHT DIGGER (1971) movie review

Night Digger, The (1971) d. Alastair Reid (UK)

Curious, moody, secluded-English-country-manor chiller about a spinster (Patricia Neal) and her overbearing blind mother (Pamela Brown) whose humdrum lives are disrupted by a motorcycle-riding drifter seeking work as a groundskeeper (Nicholas Clay, who achieved cult status a decade later as Lancelot in Excalibur and Oliver Mellors in Lady Chatterly’s Lover). Despite her adopted daughter’s protests, the elder woman invites the mysterious youth to stay on – after all, it would be nice to have a man around the place, especially with this spate of ghastly murders going on in the area....

Rather than a conventional whodunit with red herrings and last minute reveals, the suspense is sustained by allowing viewers to identify with all three emotionally wounded characters, such that our alliances are torn even as we witness Clay committing his horrible moonlit crimes and literally covering them up in road construction sites. The tender and fragile romance that evolves between Neal and the ruggedly handsome lodger is quite touching, as is her feminine reawakening after decades under Brown’s thumb; by contrast, the harrowing real-time sequence where he breaks into a young victim’s room is an exercise in creepy claustrophobia.

Adapting Joy Cowley’s novel was none other than famed children’s author Roald Dahl, with the role of Maura earmarked for then-wife Neal, and Bernard Herrmann’s superb, harmonica-laced score ranks among the composer's best. A rushed, enigmatic ending - one that fails to deliver the hoped-for knockout blow - proves the film’s sole misstep, but it's hardly a deal-breaker.

Deserving of a wider audience, The Night Digger (aka The Road Builder) is available on DVD through Warner Archive (as well as the occasionally showing on TCM).

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