Thursday, March 12, 2020

Can You "Dig(ger)" It?

For so long, The Night Digger (1971) was a movie that I'd heard of, but which seemed as if I'd never actually get to see. (There have been too many of those in my torturous life - LOL! Thank God that along the way a lot of things like this have been unearthed by either TCM, burn-to-order DVD or some other method.) As a fan of leading ladies in career decline as well as good-looking men who like to strip their clothes off, the project seemed made-to-order for me as a viewer! Yet it remains a relatively elusive title. I first got to see it several years back on TCM and they recently ran it again, which prompted me to profile it on this site. You can see a (slightly less pristine, but still decent) print of the whole movie right here. Devised by author Roald Dahl as a project for his wife Patricia Neal in the wake up her recovery from a serious set of strokes, it was a troubled production, but an atmospheric movie emerged nonetheless.

The film opens at a hospital where we meet Neal, who volunteers as a helpmate to various stroke victims. She works there for a couple of hours twice a week, but the doctor on staff would actually like to hire her full time. Sadly, for her, that's not really an option as she has considerable obligations at home and struggles to even make it there the days that she does.

Home is a dilapidated, overgrown house of horrors which has scarcely seen any attention paid it in recent years. The once-grand grounds have been almost completely let go. There is heavy foliage creeping up over everything.

The interior is only scarcely better. The whole cluttered, antique-laden place resembles a faded museum or a funeral parlor which hasn't had a decent overhaul in a decade or two. It's clearly too much for one person to handle, if that person even was permitted the freedom or time to try to tackle it. Neal doesn't have that luxury...

She's too busy waiting hand and foot on her blind mother, Pamela Brown. Brown is her adoptive mother, taking Neal in as a youth and treating her much like an indentured servant in exchange for a (leaky) roof over her head! The commandeering lady likes things done a certain way and on her terms.

When Neal makes the mere suggestion that the hospital would like to employ her full time, Brown suffers an "attack" that sends Neal careening into caregiver mode once more. The idea is quickly discarded, just as Brown would like it to be.

A local acquaintance, the church organist, stops by to deliver some unfortunate news. His nephew was to come and work for Brown as a groundskeeper and maintenance man, but has instead opted to take another position. So the much-needed help she was counting on won't be coming.

Later, the spiteful and vaguely bored Brown concocts a whale of a tale loosely based on a comment that the prior gentleman made. After remarking how efficient the minister's wife is and how she might have made a better religious leader than her husband, Brown tells her neighbor that the two are planning twin sex-change operations!

One day, as Neal is vacuuming the crumbling mansion, she is startled to find a rugged-looking ne'er do well at the door, attempting to be let in. She attempts to ignore him, but he won't have it.

The young drifter, played by roughly handsome Nicholas Clay, tells her that he is a friend of the young man who had intended to work for them and that he would like to take his place as a groundsman for them. Against Neal's protestations, Brown allows the boy to come in.

Clay's no slouch when it comes to making up fanciful stories either and thinks fast on his feet, though he isn't necessarily great at realizing that he'll have to follow through. Before long, though, he has appealed to the older woman's religious convictions and has even got her half-convinced that they may be distantly related! he claims to have lost everything, including his own mother, in a fire.

An already perturbed Neal is positively anguished once Brown insists that the boy be put up in her "old" bedroom. (The only reason Neal isn't currently inhabiting it is because sickly Brown needs her nearby on the ground floor in the night!) She protests this brazen decision, but to no avail.

Neal's lilac bedroom is spotless and bright in contrast to the rest of the house and she resents having to turn it over to a complete stranger. He's humble enough about it, but she remains livid at the imposition.

One thing's for certain. He is working around the house, at least. The next morning, the ladies find him high atop the house fixing the roof. And he's already repaired a broken window prior to that!

He provides Neal with a certain amount of company (and can appreciate her cooking; something her mother tends to complain about - when she can get it on her fork and into her mouth.) The relationship between them is still a bit tense, however, especially when he insinuates that she's an old lady...
"How old do you think I AM??"
Clay has a bit of a problem. He hornswaggled his way into the household by asking if he could attend church with Brown, but he doesn't actually want to go. He pleads with the domineering matriarch of the house that he can't go because he hasn't got any proper clothing.

Brown announces, to Neal's undisguised amusement, that he can wear her dead husband's suit to church. She orders Neal to help her out of bed and get upstairs to an old trunk.

Clay is horrified to find out that the dead man was laid out in the suit! In fact, the withered, crumbling carnation boutonniere is still pinned to the lapel and the whole thing reeks of mothballs.

Clay pleads with Neal, explaining that he cannot go through with it, but she is no help. She only steam irons the suit to try to get the wrinkles and smells out of it so that he can head to church with them.

On that Sunday, as Neal and Brown are about to leave, Clay is nowhere to be found. He knows he has to follow through if he wants to stick around, but he's almost pathologically afraid to go with them. Neal finds him hiding upstairs and finally he comes along.

At the service, he reluctantly takes part, but perhaps all this stress has triggered something inside him. A red flag seems to have appeared...

He observes a young lady, a kinder- garten teacher, who is in attendance and is visibly unsettled by her.

Neal finds him outside and informs him that they're about to head home, but he wants to be alone, explaining that he'll be along shortly.

When Clay fails to appear for dinner, Neal heads upstairs to her his room and knocks on the door. He answers wearing only a low-slung towel, which gives her something of a start. Soon the old lady is calling for him from the bottom level of the house.
This knob may need polishing...
Clay, knowing that she cannot see him, perversely struts across the landing and converses with his employer wearing nothing but this towel. Neal remains unnerved by the situation, but says nothing.
Later that night, Clay leaves the house and tears down the road on his motorbike. As he speeds down the road, he flashes back to a (garishly disturbing) childhood incident in which he, as a schoolboy, was accosted by a pack of gypsy women and sexually molested.

Next he is inside the kindergarten where the young teacher also resides and has slipped into her bedroom as she sleeps! In what is easily the most creepy segment of the film (and yet, thanks to Clay's physique, the most delectable), he begins to remove all his clothing...
Then he circles the bed, all the while whispering little phrases and instructions that she can't even hear, and proceeds to apply thick leather straps to the frame, enveloping her in them! It's a horrifying moment, to be sure, but Clay looks divine (and provides dimly lit flashes of frontal nudity, too.)
Having had his way with her (which is not shown, though it couldn't possibly have been pleasant!), he transports the body to a nearby construction site in which he digs a grave (get it? The night digger?) and puts her into it, covering her with dirt and gravel.

The next morning, in an event he was clearly aware of, a crew comes to pour concrete on top of the area in which she's buried. (The original U.K. title of the movie was "The Road Builder.) Though the schoolteacher will surely be missed, there won't be a body popping up any time soon...!

As Clay continues to work on the estate, Neal's attitude towards him has clearly softened. She brings him tea and rolls cigarettes for him as he works. Brown cannot see any of this, but her associates can observe some of it.

They also alternately revel in and are petrified of the news about the teacher's disap- pearance and apparent murder. It seems she is the seventh victim of an apparent serial killer!

Humpy Clay is making the entire house come to vivid life again and as he does so, Neal is blossoming again in turn. By now there isn't so much as a shred of animosity between them.

In fact, she siphons money out of the household and grocery budget in order to buy him a new robe and shirts! He's grateful to receive them. And at dinner, Brown requests two lamb chops, but Neal tells her there are only one apiece (though Clay gets two.)
Brown, whose health is always tenuous whether she's faking or not, has a visit from a young nurse and, once again, Clay's murderous and libidinous instincts kick in.

While Neal is out, Brown calls and calls for Clay and ultimately suffers a heart attack, falling down the stairs. Clay never comes to see how she is, but instead waits until Neal returns before sauntering down the steps in his new robe.

Neal calls for an ambulance and heads to the hospital with her mother.

Not long after, the nurse comes back to visit Brown, as earlier promised, but finds only Clay on the premises. There's no way this can end well...

At the hospital, the doctor informs Neal that there's nothing more that she can do there and that she ought to go home. Eager to do just that, she acquiesces, but the ever-interfering neighbor insists that she stop by her house for some tea.

The night digger is busy getting rid of his latest victim and has to cover it up in time for the road crew to finish the job the next morning. Meanwhile, Neal is discussing her situation with the neighbor lady, informing her that she once had a chance to leave Brown years ago, but didn't. She nearly eloped, but instead came back and resigned herself to the life she's led.
Clay gets home from his mission and is startled to see that Neal has arrived back at the very same time. He thought she would either be asleep or still at the hospital, but now she's preventing him from slipping back into the house undetected!

As she's calling for him from the foyer, he's clambering up the trellis and bounding into his room as fast as possible. She gets to his door and knocks on it just as he has messed up his bed and stripped down to his tighty whities.

As she heard the crash of the bedroom window, he has to lie and say that he broke it during a violent nightmare. Noting the cold sweat on his brow, she thinks he's getting sick and orders him to bed.

He dons the new pajamas she's purchased for him and she tucks him in. By now she's suffering from a combination of mother love and sexual attraction for her young gardener.

Soon after, Brown is alert again and loaded for bear. She's been informed that Clay and Neal have been enjoying their coexistence at the house and that it looks bad to the community. She tells Neal that he has to go... TODAY!

Neal isn't about to let go of her second chance at getting out from under the thumb of her sour, demanding, narrow-minded adoptive mother and tells her that she's not sending Clay away unless she goes with him, too. Needless to say, this does not sit well with the woman.

Neal discovers that now there's been yet another young girl felled by the serial killer and clearly has some doubts and suspicions about the object of her affection, but she doesn't let that stop her from proceeding to plan a new life.

She heads to the bank and withdraws every penny from her account. (It's more than eight-hundred pounds which equates to about about $1,000, though that went a lot further in 1971 than it would now!)

Clay is once again tinkering with his beloved bike when he hears Neal arriving back at the house. He turns around and can hardly believe what he's seeing. She's in new clothes, has changed her hair and makeup and is like a whole other person. (It should be noted that the score for this film was by Bernard Herrmann who, after Vertigo, 1958, and Psycho, 1960, knew a thing or two about both transformations and disturbed young men!)
Neal reveals to Clay that she did all this for him and that she has the money to establish a new life for them someplace else. The heretofore impotent Clay is somehow able to finally love (and make love) to the newly-transformed Neal.
Next thing we know, the couple has moved north to a charming seaside cottage. They set up house in a remote, but charming, region where they overhaul the building, raise sheep and generally take pleasure in one another's company. But is a happy ending truly in store for these two? 
Neal, who had won a Best Actress Oscar for Hud (1963) and was nominated for The Subject was Roses (1968, the award that year being a tie between Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter), found practically no work of note coming her way after the latter film. She did not find this an easy movie to make. Not only had she lost her spark for acting in general (which she did regain), but all through the process, she felt that some of the crew were making fun of her physical ailments. She'd not only suffered (and mostly recovered from) that series of devastating strokes in 1965, but also the death of one child and the severe injury of another.
Neal never looks quite this pulled together in the actual film for whatever reason, even after the big makeover. Perhaps it's the flattering lighting here that makes the difference.
As if that weren't enough to cope with, there was her individualistic and strong-willed husband's relationship with the set designer for Neal's highly successful Maxim coffee TV ads. The two carried on an eleven-year affair which ultimately broke up Neal and Dahl's thirty-year marriage. Neal was a survivor, but ultimately succumbed to lung cancer in 2010 at age eighty-four. in 1989, she teamed with Shelley Winters in An Unremarkable Life, about two sisters living together who encounter tension when one finds unexpected romance. Cookie's Fortune (2000) might have been her final movie, but in 2009 she appeared in the Billy Ray Cyrus/Heather Locklear epic Flying By!

Brown was from an impeccable stage background and parlayed that into memorable appearances in movies and on TV. She (and star Julie Harris) took home Emmys for the televised rendition of Victoria Regina in 1961. Some of her movies include Richard III (1955), Lust for Life (1956) and The Scapegoat (1959.) She later appeared as well in Cleopatra (1963) and Becket (1964), among others. Only fifty-four at the time of this movie, she was felled by pancreatic cancer only four years later, depriving the world of further probing, distinctive acting portrayals.
The Night Digger had some cuts made prior to release including this scene. One shudders at the thought of anything with a shirtless Clay being removed...!
Another moment from the trimmed sequence between Neal and Clay.
We've long adored Clay. He was one of our earliest stars to receive a tribute here. Though he receives an "Introducing" credit here, he had been doing TV and the odd movie for a decade in addition to considerable stage work, though none terribly recently. From this he proceeded to the lead in The Darwin Adventure (1972) and more high profile projects like Zulu Dawn (1979), Excalibur (1981) - which really put him on the map - and Evil Under the Sun (1982.) Though he continued to work up through 2000, when liver cancer claimed him at only age fifty-three, he never quite received the fame that ought to have been his. Charming, gorgeous and ever-talented, we always love seeing him pop up in any project.
Well, if you must be done in by a murderous nutjob, I guess there are worse options...!
The End!


hsc said...

Great review, as usual! I've been curious about this one since I discovered Nicholas Clay from EXCALIBUR and LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER.

And even though you're always careful not to give too much away (which I greatly appreciate), since you included a way to see this, I actually stopped reading part-way through until I've had a chance to watch. I did scroll down to the cast notes, though.

But just in case you didn't mention this in the body of the review, a further note on Pamela Brown:

I don't know if this informs her performance in this film in any way, but Brown was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis as a teenager and was in a severe state by the '50s, which made performing difficult. She eventually limited her stage work and moved to films and television.

She was in three of director Michael Powell's films-- ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING (1942), I KNOW WHERE I"M GOING! (1945) and TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951, in which she played a male character).

She also became his life partner after divorcing her husband in 1953; her devout Catholicism prevented her from remarrying him, but she became his devoted companion until her death in 1975.

I wonder if casting Brown as the blind mother in this film is a nod to Powell's controversial thriller PEEPING TOM (1960), in which Maxine Audley played Anna Massey's blind mother? It's probably just an odd coincidence.

Thanks for another great posting and another link to a film I've wanted to see!

Poseidon3 said...

You know, I INTENDED to include info about Pamela Brown's nearly lifelong struggle with arthritis, but ultimately didn't (probably out of sheer haste to get the post finished. I'm always trying to juggle five or six things, not the least of which is my JOB and if I'm not careful I run out of time before I can get things done.) Thank you for listing this in the comments for others to see. Brown had the perfect look for playing this character. Her somewhat buggy eyes read wonderfully as a blind woman! I enjoyed the chemistry between Neal and her. All three performers' stage training helped to make the film compelling. Sad about the cuts to it, which probably fleshed things out further. Take care! Glad you liked this.

Gingerguy said...

I almost watched this lol, had it recorded and everything, but the house depressed me and I turned it off. I was thinking it would be similar to "Night Must Fall" and after reading this, more similar to that British blind -Mia Farrow-serial killer-shocker "See No Evil"
Patricia is great looking in this and actually looks younger before the makeover.
I laughed at the door knob, thanks for that. And loved that plastic rain hat on the neighbor. I remember when ladies had those in their purses to whip out for unexpected showers.
He is hot but a bell went off when you mentioned "Excablibur" he is gloriously shot in that and unforgettably beautiful, as are most things in that movie.
This post made me realize that I often like films with "night" in the title (including the recently viewed "The Night Visitor" Thanks Poseidon, I really dug this said...

Hey Poseidon,
I've been aware of this movie for awhile, and your Nicholas Clay screen caps have suddenly pushed it to the top of my must watch list! Loved him in his lil swimsuit in Evil Under the Sun.

And Pamela Brown, loved her as one of Mia Farrow's kooky aunt antique shop owners in "Secret Ceremony." The scene where she goes at it with Elizabeth Taylor, who's called them on their light fingered ways, is highly entertaining!

Cheers, Rick

hsc said...

Ack. I just noticed the typo (in boldface, yet)-- it's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, not "CHATTERLY"!

And I want to add, Poseidon, that I greatly appreciate all the effort that you and others put into blogs like this one.

At times like we're currently facing, when we have to isolate ourselves for a while, the internet is all that's holding some of us together.

It's bright spots like the one you've created that make the darkness more bearable.

Many thanks for all you do, and stay safe and well!

jobj69 said...

"This knob may need polishing..." Tee-hee...great one, Poseidon!

I caught this oddity on TCM several months ago and, as Gingerguy mentioned, shades of Night Must Fall came to mind for me as well (the Robert Montgomery/Rosalind Russell version). Of course, similarities aside, this variation doesn't hold a candle to that! Still, some quirky fun, and I always enjoy Pat.

Stay well.

rigs-in-gear said...

I remember this film and Twisted Nerve bringing a little homoerotic thrill to the psycho-killer genre, a trend still going strong over a decade later in 10 to Midnight. Speaking of psycho-killers, have you ever seen Run, Stranger, Run, released around the same time as Digger? It stars Patricia's daughter, Tessa Dahl, and Ron Howard in a twist on the killer-on-the-loose formula.

angelman66 said...

This is still on TCM on demand so I am now going to watch!! Clay was a good actor, and always generously shared his physical charms in film after film, from Lady Chatterley to Evil Under the Sun to Excalibur. He looked great and was always watchable with clothes on or off!
- Chris

Poseidon3 said...

I hope you enjoy it, Angelman! Great of TCM to make it available like that.

Jack said...

I always loved Neal as the wealthy socialite in Breakfast at Tiffany's, who is bankrolling hot gigolo, George Peppard. She also played "mama Walton" in the premier episode of The Walton's The Homecoming, a role that eventually went to Michael Learned.