The Night Digger: A stroke of very bad luck

The Night Digger directed by Alastair ReidThe Night Digger directed by Alastair Reid

The Night Digger directed by Alastair ReidNot precisely a horror movie, a murder mystery, a slasher film, OR a domestic tragedy, The Night Digger, a British film that was initially released in May 1971, yet combines elements of all those genres into one truly sui generis experience. A largely forgotten film, The Night Digger (or, as it was originally released in the U.K., The Road Builder … an inferior title, as it turns out) is perhaps best known today — for those who know of it at all, that is — for its leading-role performance by the great Kentucky-born actress Patricia Neal, as well as for the contributions of screenwriter Roald Dahl and composer Bernard Herrmann. As the story goes, Neal, after suffering from a series of debilitating strokes, while pregnant, and following her appearance in 1965’s In Harm’s Way, was nursed back to health by Dahl, eventually making a remarkable recovery. Her baby was delivered successfully, and she soon regained most of her abilities, a slight limp being the only outward sign of the ordeal she had been through. Her return to the screen in 1968’s The Subject Was Roses garnered her an Oscar nomination, but following this, her offers were few, and her husband, to whom she had been married since 1953 and to whom she remained married until 1983, thus endeavored to write a screenplay that might be a perfect vehicle for her.

Dahl’s script for the film in question would be his third of an eventual four, having previously adapted the Ian Fleming novels You Only Live Twice (1967, and one of this viewer’s personal favorite films) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) for the big screen; a mere month after The Night Digger was released, his Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, an adaptation of his own novel, would please and delight the world. The Road Builder was based on the first novel by New Zealander author Joy Cowley, entitled Nest in a Fallen Tree (1967), and apparently, Dahl, as he had with his other adaptations, made liberal changes in writing his screenplay. The result was not exactly what the world would call a triumph for all concerned, but given almost half a century’s time to lay fallow and find its audience, the picture today is surely one ripe for discovery for those with a taste for something unique and different.

In the film, the viewer makes the acquaintance of a 40ish spinster named Maura Prince, who lives with her blind and adoptive mother, Edith (Pamela Brown, a great British character actress whom many will recall from such films as 1942’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing and 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going), in a crumbling Victorian mansion somewhere in the English countryside. Maura had once had a five-month affair with a young man whom she had run away with, but that romance ended when she had suffered a stroke (as had Neal, who was also in her mid-40s at the time of this film), and when the young man had abandoned her. Her mother had nursed her back to health, and had later lost her sight. Thus, Maura remains in the decrepit mansion, caring for her mother out of a sense of guilt and loyalty, if not exactly love, and the relationship between the two is visibly strained, to say the least. Maura desires to spend a few hours a week giving speech therapy to other stroke victims in a nearby hospital, but is unable to, due to her mother’s clinging ways. (The dynamic between the two will surely strike a chord for many women, a dynamic that was explored painfully well in 1942’s Bette Davis classic Now, Voyager.)

Into the lives of these two miserable women comes a 20-year-old biker named Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay, who was to give such a memorable performance as Sir Lancelot in 1981’s Excalibur), who claims to be a friend of Edith’s nephew (whether this is in fact true is never determined) and who is looking for work as a handyman. Edith is immediately taken by the young biker, especially after he claims to be a devout churchgoer (a patent lie, as is later shown), and Billy is hired forthwith, even being given Maura’s room to live in, to the younger woman’s anger and disgust. But after some weeks, Billy starts to wear Maura down, and the lonely spinster actually begins to fall in love with the strange young man! But what the Prince ladies do not seem to be aware of is the fact that Billy is also the madman responsible for the six murders of young women that have transpired in the neighboring villages, and that he will soon begin to feel the need to slay again … especially after seeing a pretty nursery school teacher exiting the church that Edith has compelled him to attend…

Those viewers who sit down to watch The Night Digger expecting a tale of suspense and bloody violence might be a tad disappointed at how things unreel here. The film features nothing in the way of gore, hardly any violence, and is barely suspenseful at all … except for the remarkably creepy scene in which Billy enters that schoolteacher’s bedroom at night and strips naked while the woman sleeps, preparatory to … well, we never actually see what happens next, and indeed, it is even to be doubted that Billy actually rapes the poor young woman. (In black-and-white flashbacks, we see a few instances from Billy’s youth that go far in explaining his difficulties with women, and it is to be inferred that had such pharmaceuticals as Viagra existed back in the early 1970s, then a lot of problems might have been avoided, not to mention lives spared, as a result.) All we know is that sometime after, Billy is seen riding his chopper through the night with his unfortunate victim strapped behind him, right before burying her at a construction site. His second victim, a pretty nurse who comes to visit Edith, is done away with in a manner that we also do not get to see.

So again, those expecting grisly thrills and chills here are due for a letdown; this is hardly a slasher film, despite dealing as it does with a serial killer. Rather, what the film has on its mind is more of the effect that Billy’s presence has on Maura and on her relationship with her mother, and so when the lonely spinster and Billy run away to the Scottish Highlands together to live in a clifftop cottage by the sea, the viewer really is surprised at how things have turned out. The three terrific performances by the main players here are surely the film’s main selling points. But there are other pleasures to be had here, as well, including still another fine score by Bernard Herrmann, who, five years earlier, had completed his eighth and final work for director Alfred Hitchcock (ninth, if you count his work as sound advisor for The Birds). Director Alastair Reid adds some interesting stylistic touches to his film to keep things interesting, and Dahl’s script incorporates bits of humor (such as those gossiping neighbors) to keep things offbeat and quirky. The film is consistently interesting and engrossing, and kept me wondering throughout as to what could possibly happen next. I enjoyed it all the way through … until those last five minutes.

Okay, I’m not going to lie to you: I couldn’t understand those last five minutes to save my life. The ending of this film is surely an open-ended one, and decidedly subject to the viewer’s interpretation. Thus, I cannot say with certainty if Maura, as it turns out, was aware of Billy’s homicides before she ran off with him or not, or why, upon hearing him play the harmonica in that Scottish cottage, she suddenly becomes shocked and tearful. Billy’s own actions in that denouement, leading to tragedy in the film’s final moments, are also a bit perplexing. I have my own ideas as to what was going on, but again, cannot say with surety if I am correct or not. Viewers who demand clarity and closure in their motion pictures might again be a tad disappointed in how Dahl has chosen to wrap up his picture. Still, this head-scratcher of an ending should in no wise deter potential viewers from checking out this most unusual and ultimately haunting film.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. It sounds more like a psychological thriller than anything else.

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