27 August 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Send for Emeric Pressburger!
'The Part of the Nightie' ... sorry, I mean 'The Night of the Party' is yet one more of the many, many, many 'lost' films that have returned from oblivion ... although this particular movie might perhaps have done better to stay lost. The single most notable thing about 'Night of the Party' is that it was directed by Michael Powell ... a film figure of such major importance that *any* movie he directed automatically merits attention. I saw this movie at National Film Theatre in March 2000; as a Powell completist (and a fan of actor Leslie Banks), I'm glad that I saw 'Night of the Party' but I'm in no hurry to see it again. (Full disclosure: in the mid-1960s, I worked with Ralph Smart, who had worked on the screenplay of this movie. He told me quite a bit about his early career, but he never mentioned 'The Night of the Party'. Now I've seen it, I don't wonder.)
Two of Powell's contemporaries in the British film industry were Pen Tennyson and Arthur Woods. Both of these men died very young during World War Two, after making only a couple of films apiece ... but, in both cases, their immense talent was manifest in these films: so much so, that cineastes must deeply regret that neither director lived to create a mature body of work. In Powell's case, although his life and career were thankfully long enough to create some of the greatest movies in the history of cinema, his earliest efforts (unlike those of Tennyson and Woods) showed little hint of his immense talent.
Here goes the plot, then. Lord Studholme (Malcolm Keen) is a press baron -- one of his newspapers is a tabloid cried the Sun -- and, like most press barons, he's a deeply unpopular man. He hosts a cocktail party in honour of Princess Amelta of Corsova (where's that when it's at home, then?). This movie very quickly shapes up to resemble one of those Agatha Christie novels where several different characters all have strong motives for killing the same person: several different people attending the party make clear their animosity for Studholme. This being a very unusual cocktail party, the guests decide to play a brisk round of Murder in the Dark. The lights go out, and when they come on again ... Lord Studholme is dead. Conveniently, who should arrive at just that moment but Sir John Holland, master sleuth of Scotland Yard (played by Leslie Banks, in his 'Arsenal Stadium Mystery' whimsical mode).
As I've noted, there's no end of suspects for murdering Studholme. However, the most obvious suspect is His Lordship's secretary, Guy Kennington (played by Ian Hunter). I was so bored during this movie, I started thinking up dead-awful puns. If Kennington is the killer, would the corpse be Kennington Offal? Ouch! Anyway, this is the sort of movie where the most obvious suspect can't be the real killer. Or can he?
The climactic scene is the murder trial at the Old Bailey, and it just doesn't come off. It's badly paced and very static, betraying the stage origins of this material. The murderer gives an incredibly banal motive for the crime ... and proceeds to whip out a pistol in the middle of the courtroom. I attended several trials at the Old Bailey in the 1960s and '70s, before metal detectors were standard equipment in courthouses. I suppose it's possible that a trial participant (especially one who isn't the defendant) could have smuggled a firearm into the Old Bailey in those days ... and perhaps it was even easier in 1935, when this movie was made. But I found the climax of this movie deeply contrived, not least because the set design only vaguely resembles the interior of the Old Bailey. But maybe that, too, was different in the 1930s.
The popular character actor Ernest Thesiger is in this movie. Thesiger gave one of his very best performances in 'They Drive by Night', directed by the aforementioned Arthur Woods. Those of you who have savoured Thesiger's pull-the-stops-out turns in 'Bride of Frankenstein' and 'The Old Dark House' will have difficulty believing that this actor is capable of giving a dull performance. Overripe, maybe, but not dull. Well, in 'The Night of the Party', Thesiger's performance is dull and lacklustre. I was more impressed with Muriel Aked -- a tiny, bird-like character actress -- as the party's guest of honour.
I'll rate 'The Night of the Party' just 2 out of 10. I don't recommend this movie to fans of Leslie Banks nor of Ernest Thesiger. I can't recommend it to Michael Powell fans either, unless (like me) you're a completist who wants to see as much of this great director's work as possible. Right, you've been warned. Next case!