Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Night Must Fall examines the inner workings of a murderer’s mind and explores the fascination murder holds for the remainder of ordinary humanity. Dan clearly has an enormous power to attract and fascinate other people, whom he derides and scorns. The women he draws to him cover a broad spectrum of English society—Mrs. Chalfont, the hotel guest; Dora, the maid; Olivia, the poetic but poor niece; and Mrs. Bramson, the wealthy invalid. Even Mrs. Terence and Nurse Libby appear to be favorably disposed toward Dan. Of this group, Olivia is most attracted to him, as their several exploratory duologues indicate. Olivia believes that crime, and murder in particular, is something extraordinary, something quite outside humdrum, mundane experience. When she actually encounters murder, however, she sees it as surprisingly ordinary.
Dan, throughout his life, has tried to lift himself out of his lowly rut, to make himself more than ordinary. He has apparently attempted a seafaring life, and when that failed, acted his way through different situations employing various guises. It is significant that his first appearance in Night Must Fall is in a page boy’s uniform, since there is very little difference between a uniform and a costume. Olivia comments repeatedly on Dan’s acting and so points to the murderer’s inability to deal with reality. Dan’s arrogance also plays a major role in his constantly shifting personality.
Ironically, the murderer attracts others to him. All the women appear to realize that Dan is far from innocent, but they still allow him to take advantage of them. Dora is pregnant by Dan, Mrs. Bramson gives him her complete confidence (preferring him to a close relative), and Olivia tries to cover up for him even after he has murdered her aunt. The very unreality of the ultimate crime seems to draw murderer and victim together. At the same time, Emlyn Williams creates a convincing picture of genteel life in the English countryside. The bungalow is described in realistic detail, and there is a fair sprinkling of humor, usually derived from the lower orders: Mrs. Terence comments that, though she has found no dead bodies in the woods, she has stumbled across the live bodies of loving couples.