The Night Digger


1h 50m 1971
The Night Digger

Brief Synopsis

A drifter with a deadly secret ignites passions in two lonely women.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Road Builder, The Visitor
MPAA Rating
R
Genre
Suspense/Mystery
Adaptation
Drama
Horror
Thriller
Release Date
May 1971
Premiere Information
London opening: week of 24 Aug 1970: New York opening: 12 May 1971
Production Company
Tacitus Productions, Ltd.; Yongestreet Productions
Distribution Company
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Country
Great Britain and United States
Location
Cornwall, England, Great Britain; London, England, Great Britain; Windsor, England, Great Britain; Commonwealth United Corp.; Commonwealth United
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Nest in a Falling Tree by Joy Cowley (London, 1967).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 50m

Synopsis

Thirty-five-year-old spinster Maura Prince works part time as a speech therapist, spending the rest of her time caring for her tyrannical, blind, and invalided adoptive mother Edith Prince at Edith's musty old mansion in the country. Although Maura's supervisor at the hospital, Dr. Robinson, has asked her to work full time, Edith forbids Maura to consider his offer, sealing the issue by clutching at her heart after suffering an anxiety attack brought on by the thought of Maura leaving her side. The next morning, as Maura is vacuuming the house, Billy Jarvis, an itinerant young man, arrives on his motorcycle and tells Maura that he has been sent by the nephew of their neighbor, Mr. Bolton, to inquire about a job as a handyman. Although Maura is opposed to hiring the young stranger, Billy wins Edith's sympathy by cajoling her with stories about taking care of his invalid mother and asking to accompany her to church. Impressed by the boy's piety, Edith declares that some of her relatives were named Jarvis and therefore Billy must be her grandnephew. Edith hires Billy and tells him to move into Maura's room, thus displacing Maura from her own quarters. Despite Maura's misgivings, Billy turns out to be an industrious worker, patching up the moldering old house. One day, while Maura is serving Billy some tea, he asks her about the slight limp she has in her leg. When Maura explains that it is the result of a brain aneurism she suffered several years ago, Billy assumes that Maura is in her fifties and wonders why she allows Edith to bully her. Quietly offended, Maura tells Billy that Edith adopted her from an orphanage when she was fifteen years old, and that five years later, Maura walked out on her. Billy slowly wins Maura's confidence, and when he panics about fulfilling his promise to attend church with Edith on Sunday, fearing that there "could be trouble," Maura soothes him into going. At the service, Billy notices Mary Wingate, a young nursery school teacher, and afterward, watches as she drives off in the nursery school van. Later that night, Billy slips out of the house and rides his motorcycle to Mary's house. Along the way, he recalls being a boy in the farmyard where a number of women are jeering at him, accusing him of impotency. Upon arriving at Mary's house, Billy sneaks into her room, murders her, and after dressing her in a dress and shoes, loads her corpse onto the back of his bike and drives to a construction site, where he buries her body. The following day, as Billy works on restoring the arbor, Maura brings him some tea and they begin to chat. Soon after, Millicent McMurtrey, Edith's nosy friend, comes to visit and observes Maura and Billy together. Next, Mr. Bolton arrives with news of Mary's murder. Bolton continues that six other young women have been murdered in the vicinity within the last three months, all killed in their own bedrooms, all wearing shoes and dresses when their bodies were found. One day, the district nurse comes to discuss Edith's weakened condition with Maura. After advising more rest for Edith, the nurse leaves the house, and Billy opens her car door for her. Before driving away, the nurse asks Billy to tell Maura that she will return later that night to check on Edith. Later that evening, Edith awakens from her sleep and calls for Billy. When she tries to climb the stairs to his room, she suffers a heart attack, after which Maura calls for an ambulance to take them to the hospital. After the ambulance has departed, the nurse arrives at the house, and Billy tells her that Maura and her mother have gone to the hospital. When the nurse departs, Billy follows her on his bike, and after remembering being taunted and slapped by a prostitute, he kills the nurse and buries her body. Meanwhile, at the hospital, Dr. Robinson assures Maura and Millicent that Edith is out of danger and offers to drive them home. Declaring it improper for Maura to stay at the house alone with Billy, Millicent insists that Maura come to her house for tea. There, when Millicent chides Maura for her impropriety, Maura lashes out that she has stopped caring what her mother thinks. Maura bitterly recalls that when she was twenty, she ran off with a young man before Edith could scare him off like she did Maura's other boyfriends. They were planning to marry when Maura suffered her aneurism, and once she became ill, he left her. Maura returns home just as Billy comes back from killing the nurse. To prevent Maura knowing that he left, he breaks the bedroom window and after climbing in, pulls off his clothes. When Maura comes to his bedroom door, Billy greets her in a sweat and, claiming that he had a nightmare about his mother dying in flames, begs her to stay with him. As Maura tries to comfort the whimpering Billy, he cries out that he does not know what he is doing until it is too late and pleads with her not to leave him. In response, Maura promises never to do anything that might "take him away." The following day, when Maura visits Edith in the hospital, Edith insists that Maura throw Billy out of their house. When Maura replies that if Billy goes, so does she, Edith breaks into histrionics, accusing "her own daughter of deserting her." Retorting that Edith never let her forget that she was not her daughter, Maura walks out of the room. At a news kiosk, Maura sees a headline about the disappearance of a local nurse, and although she suspects that Billy is involved, she withdraws her savings from the bank. After having her hair cut and styled and buying a new wardrobe, she returns home and tells Billy she loves him. Declaring that she does not care what he did, Maura proposes that they go away to the highlands of Scotland. Some time later, after buying a farm on the Scottish coast, they settle into domestic contentment until one evening, while walking along a path, Maura encounters a young woman looking for her dog. When the woman says she stopped at the farm to ask Billy about the dog, Maura, worried that Billy's psychotic tendencies may have returned, hurries home to look for him. Discovering that Billy has gone, Maura wanders the bluffs above the sea. Soon, Billy drives up on his motorcycle, a crazed look in his eyes. Removing his goggles, Billy mouths a plea for Maura's forgiveness. As Maura watches with tears running down her cheeks, Billy revs up the bike's engine and crashes through the guard railing, plunging to his death.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Road Builder, The Visitor
MPAA Rating
R
Genre
Suspense/Mystery
Adaptation
Drama
Horror
Thriller
Release Date
May 1971
Premiere Information
London opening: week of 24 Aug 1970: New York opening: 12 May 1971
Production Company
Tacitus Productions, Ltd.; Yongestreet Productions
Distribution Company
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Country
Great Britain and United States
Location
Cornwall, England, Great Britain; London, England, Great Britain; Windsor, England, Great Britain; Commonwealth United Corp.; Commonwealth United
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Nest in a Falling Tree by Joy Cowley (London, 1967).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 50m

Articles

The Road Builder aka The Night Digger - The Road Builder (aka The Night Digger)


What do you get when you mix together a serial killer thriller, a May-December romance between an older woman and younger man and a masochistic mother-adopted daughter relationship melodrama with echoes of Now, Voyager (1942)? The result, The Road Builder (1971, aka The Night Digger), is much more homogeneous than you'd expect and is an unjustifiably overlooked curiosity in the filmography of Patricia Neal.

On first glance, the project would seem to be an unlikely project for short story writer and popular children's novelist Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach) who was married to Ms. Neal at the time but the bizarre imagination and black humor that made the Willy Wonka books so memorable soon emerges in this gothic tale set in a crumbling mansion in the English countryside. Edith Prince (Pamela Brown), the blind, elderly owner of the mansion, and Maura (Neal), live alone in a master-servant relationship that began years earlier when Maura had a stroke and Edith took her in and paid her medical expenses. Then the relationship reversed and Maura became the caretaker. Now middle-aged, Maura sees her chances for personal happiness slipping away until the arrival of Billy (Nicholas Clay), a young handyman who is hired against her wishes. At first suspicious and resentful of Billy, Maura soon finds herself falling in love with the strange but emotionally volatile man-child. Meanwhile, a serial killer is running amok in the countryside, raping and murdering women and burying their bodies in the path of a soon to be paved public highway.

Based on Joy Cowley's novel Nest in a Falling Tree, Dahl agreed to write the screenplay as a showcase for his wife, who had returned to acting after recovering from a series of debilitating strokes in 1965. Part of the attraction for Dahl may have been the fact that the story's protagonist was also a stroke survivor but more importantly, Neal hadn't received any promising job offers since her post-stroke comeback film, The Subject Was Roses (1968), for which she received an Oscar® nomination for Best Actress. Producers were afraid to hire her for health and insurance reasons. Luckily, funding for The Road Builder was secured, Alastair Reid was hired as director and an exceptional cast of British character actors assembled.

The filming of The Road Builder, which was mostly shot at Twickenham Studios and on an estate near Windsor on the Thames, proved to be an unpleasant experience for Neal. According to author Stephen Michael Shearer in his biography of Neal, An Unquiet Life, "...Patricia sensed that the cast and crew were against her. Some actors and the director himself made unkind remarks about Patricia behind her back. "Stroke survivors develop their senses, and I could hear their talk," she would say later. After filming of The Road Builder ended, Patricia told American celebrity writer Rex Reed, "I don't really care about making films now. I was so ambitious once. But I don't really want to work. I would not care a lot if I don't do another film. I'm just pleased I am married to the man who is my husband."

The Road Builder was an equally difficult experience for Dahl, who would completely disassociate himself from the project after its release. His biggest challenge was working with the brilliant but notoriously difficult and temperamental composer Bernard Herrmann whose contributions to the film were deemed as important as Dahl's, if not more, by the producers. The collaboration began on friendly terms but soon deteriorated. According to director Reid (in A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith), "...everything depended on whether Bernard wanted to do the music. When he first walked in to Twickenham, and I saw this big, gruff person with a Brooklyn accent, he immediately reminded me of a gangster from some Hollywood film. We ran the picture, and as the lights came up, Bernard's one comment was, "You'll have to change the ending." "To what?" we asked - and he told us, although I don't remember now how it differed from the film....There was never any money on that film, so even if we had a better ending we couldn't have shot it. But Bernard said we had to go out and film new scenes...The producer and I eased our way out of the viewing theatre and asked ourselves, "Does he mean we've got to change the ending before he'll do it?" We walked back into the theatre - and saw Bernard had had the projectionist rewind the film to the first reel and was already scribbling music down."

The animosity between Herrmann and Dahl continued as the composer succeeded in having Dahl's script pared down in order to emphasize his score. "This is Pat's film!" Dahl told the mild-mannered Reid, a remark that sent Herrmann into paroxysms: "Do you think they're gonna line up outside the box office in the cold and say, 'Can I have two seats please for Pat's film?'" Herrmann's comment proved to be prophetic as The Road Builder, which was released in the U.S. as The Night Digger, was quickly buried by the studio, MGM, in a limited theatrical release and shelved as a tax deduction. Reid later admitted, "Patricia Neal, Roald Dahl, and I were never paid a penny, since we all derred our payments to royalties...and to this day we've never received a penny. The only guy who came out okay was Bernard Herrmann, who insisted on money up front. And he was dead right."

The troubled production behind The Road Builder would seem to indicate that the film was destined to fail and it certainly has its flaws, particularly in trying to establish Billy's sexual dysfunction, depicted in overstated black and white flashbacks. (Ten minutes of scenes with sexual content were cut prior to its release). The romantic relationship that develops between Maura and Billy and their idyllic escape to Cornwall also seems implausible. And when Neal and Dahl saw the completed picture they were disgusted with Neal saying, "It's pornographic." Critics weren't much kinder with Variety proclaiming "The exercise is only moderately successful," and The New York Times critic writing, "As a study of understated tensions, vague psychopathic sexuality and somber moods, the British made The Night Digger...proves to be more polish than persuasive drama." But even a mildly dismissive review by the New York Daily News indicates both its peculiar appeal and why it was poorly received: "a strange tale that builds slowly to a tragic climax...[T]he tale is strictly for those with a taste for the perverse."

Indeed, The Road Builder is perverse. It is also richly atmospheric, genuinely creepy, oddly comic at times with macabre touches and is enhanced by Herrmann's wonderfully evocative score which conjures up associations with some of his best work for Hitchcock but retains a distinctive autumnal mood of its own. The ensemble performances are also first rate with Neal and Nicholas Clay creating believable flesh and blood characters out of enigmatic stick figures, presented with little or no backstory. The real scene stealer though is Pamela Brown as the stubborn, willful matriarch of the mansion whose immediate empathy and attraction to Billy proves she is blind in more ways than one. The Road Builder would be Brown's next to last feature film (she died in 1975); she was always more active in theatre and British television though most will remember her work with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on three films, particularly her bewitching performance in I Know Where I'm Going (1945).

Some other trivia of note: The Road Builder is clearly overdue for critical reassessment though at least TimeOut reviewer Bob Baker noted its virtues: "Starting as an analogue of Night Must Fall, Dahl's script segues fascinatingly into areas explored contemporaneously in Chabrol's Le Boucher. The contributions of [cinematographer Alex] Thomson, [art director Anthony] Pratt and Herrmann are exemplary..." This film marked Nicholas Clay's first major role (he had previously appeared in a minor part in Joseph Losey's The Damned [1963]). He is probably best known for playing Lancelot in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981). Unfortunately, he died in 2000 at the age of 55 from cancer. Director Alastair Reid has focused on television work for most of his career with few film opportunities. He did attract some favorable attention for his lively exploitation feature, Baby Love (1968), in which Linda Hayden plays a sexually manipulative fifteen-year-old who maneuvers her way into an upper class home to seduce and destroy all the family members.

Producers: Alan D. Courtney, Norman S. Powell
Director: Alastair Reid
Screenplay: Roald Dahl; Joy Cowley (novel "Nest in a Falling Tree")
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
Art Direction: Anthony Pratt
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Patricia Neal (Maura Prince), Pamela Brown (Mother), Nicholas Clay (Billy), Jean Anderson (Mrs. McMurtrey), Graham Crowden (Mr. Bolton), Yootha Joyce (Mrs. Palafox), Peter Sallis (Rev. Palafox), Brigit Forsyth (District Nurse), Sebastian Breaks (Dr. Robinson), Diana Patrick (Mary Wingate), Jenny McCracken (Farmwife), Bruce Myles (Bank Clerk), Zoe Alexander (Stroke Patient), Christopher Reynalds (Young Billy), Elaine Ives-Cameron (Gypsy), Sibylla Kay (Whore).
C-100m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Stephen Michael Shearer
A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith
www.britmovie.co.uk/
www.afi.com
IMDB
The Road Builder Aka The Night Digger - The Road Builder (Aka The Night Digger)

The Road Builder aka The Night Digger - The Road Builder (aka The Night Digger)

What do you get when you mix together a serial killer thriller, a May-December romance between an older woman and younger man and a masochistic mother-adopted daughter relationship melodrama with echoes of Now, Voyager (1942)? The result, The Road Builder (1971, aka The Night Digger), is much more homogeneous than you'd expect and is an unjustifiably overlooked curiosity in the filmography of Patricia Neal. On first glance, the project would seem to be an unlikely project for short story writer and popular children's novelist Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach) who was married to Ms. Neal at the time but the bizarre imagination and black humor that made the Willy Wonka books so memorable soon emerges in this gothic tale set in a crumbling mansion in the English countryside. Edith Prince (Pamela Brown), the blind, elderly owner of the mansion, and Maura (Neal), live alone in a master-servant relationship that began years earlier when Maura had a stroke and Edith took her in and paid her medical expenses. Then the relationship reversed and Maura became the caretaker. Now middle-aged, Maura sees her chances for personal happiness slipping away until the arrival of Billy (Nicholas Clay), a young handyman who is hired against her wishes. At first suspicious and resentful of Billy, Maura soon finds herself falling in love with the strange but emotionally volatile man-child. Meanwhile, a serial killer is running amok in the countryside, raping and murdering women and burying their bodies in the path of a soon to be paved public highway. Based on Joy Cowley's novel Nest in a Falling Tree, Dahl agreed to write the screenplay as a showcase for his wife, who had returned to acting after recovering from a series of debilitating strokes in 1965. Part of the attraction for Dahl may have been the fact that the story's protagonist was also a stroke survivor but more importantly, Neal hadn't received any promising job offers since her post-stroke comeback film, The Subject Was Roses (1968), for which she received an Oscar® nomination for Best Actress. Producers were afraid to hire her for health and insurance reasons. Luckily, funding for The Road Builder was secured, Alastair Reid was hired as director and an exceptional cast of British character actors assembled. The filming of The Road Builder, which was mostly shot at Twickenham Studios and on an estate near Windsor on the Thames, proved to be an unpleasant experience for Neal. According to author Stephen Michael Shearer in his biography of Neal, An Unquiet Life, "...Patricia sensed that the cast and crew were against her. Some actors and the director himself made unkind remarks about Patricia behind her back. "Stroke survivors develop their senses, and I could hear their talk," she would say later. After filming of The Road Builder ended, Patricia told American celebrity writer Rex Reed, "I don't really care about making films now. I was so ambitious once. But I don't really want to work. I would not care a lot if I don't do another film. I'm just pleased I am married to the man who is my husband." The Road Builder was an equally difficult experience for Dahl, who would completely disassociate himself from the project after its release. His biggest challenge was working with the brilliant but notoriously difficult and temperamental composer Bernard Herrmann whose contributions to the film were deemed as important as Dahl's, if not more, by the producers. The collaboration began on friendly terms but soon deteriorated. According to director Reid (in A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith), "...everything depended on whether Bernard wanted to do the music. When he first walked in to Twickenham, and I saw this big, gruff person with a Brooklyn accent, he immediately reminded me of a gangster from some Hollywood film. We ran the picture, and as the lights came up, Bernard's one comment was, "You'll have to change the ending." "To what?" we asked - and he told us, although I don't remember now how it differed from the film....There was never any money on that film, so even if we had a better ending we couldn't have shot it. But Bernard said we had to go out and film new scenes...The producer and I eased our way out of the viewing theatre and asked ourselves, "Does he mean we've got to change the ending before he'll do it?" We walked back into the theatre - and saw Bernard had had the projectionist rewind the film to the first reel and was already scribbling music down." The animosity between Herrmann and Dahl continued as the composer succeeded in having Dahl's script pared down in order to emphasize his score. "This is Pat's film!" Dahl told the mild-mannered Reid, a remark that sent Herrmann into paroxysms: "Do you think they're gonna line up outside the box office in the cold and say, 'Can I have two seats please for Pat's film?'" Herrmann's comment proved to be prophetic as The Road Builder, which was released in the U.S. as The Night Digger, was quickly buried by the studio, MGM, in a limited theatrical release and shelved as a tax deduction. Reid later admitted, "Patricia Neal, Roald Dahl, and I were never paid a penny, since we all derred our payments to royalties...and to this day we've never received a penny. The only guy who came out okay was Bernard Herrmann, who insisted on money up front. And he was dead right." The troubled production behind The Road Builder would seem to indicate that the film was destined to fail and it certainly has its flaws, particularly in trying to establish Billy's sexual dysfunction, depicted in overstated black and white flashbacks. (Ten minutes of scenes with sexual content were cut prior to its release). The romantic relationship that develops between Maura and Billy and their idyllic escape to Cornwall also seems implausible. And when Neal and Dahl saw the completed picture they were disgusted with Neal saying, "It's pornographic." Critics weren't much kinder with Variety proclaiming "The exercise is only moderately successful," and The New York Times critic writing, "As a study of understated tensions, vague psychopathic sexuality and somber moods, the British made The Night Digger...proves to be more polish than persuasive drama." But even a mildly dismissive review by the New York Daily News indicates both its peculiar appeal and why it was poorly received: "a strange tale that builds slowly to a tragic climax...[T]he tale is strictly for those with a taste for the perverse." Indeed, The Road Builder is perverse. It is also richly atmospheric, genuinely creepy, oddly comic at times with macabre touches and is enhanced by Herrmann's wonderfully evocative score which conjures up associations with some of his best work for Hitchcock but retains a distinctive autumnal mood of its own. The ensemble performances are also first rate with Neal and Nicholas Clay creating believable flesh and blood characters out of enigmatic stick figures, presented with little or no backstory. The real scene stealer though is Pamela Brown as the stubborn, willful matriarch of the mansion whose immediate empathy and attraction to Billy proves she is blind in more ways than one. The Road Builder would be Brown's next to last feature film (she died in 1975); she was always more active in theatre and British television though most will remember her work with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on three films, particularly her bewitching performance in I Know Where I'm Going (1945). Some other trivia of note: The Road Builder is clearly overdue for critical reassessment though at least TimeOut reviewer Bob Baker noted its virtues: "Starting as an analogue of Night Must Fall, Dahl's script segues fascinatingly into areas explored contemporaneously in Chabrol's Le Boucher. The contributions of [cinematographer Alex] Thomson, [art director Anthony] Pratt and Herrmann are exemplary..." This film marked Nicholas Clay's first major role (he had previously appeared in a minor part in Joseph Losey's The Damned [1963]). He is probably best known for playing Lancelot in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981). Unfortunately, he died in 2000 at the age of 55 from cancer. Director Alastair Reid has focused on television work for most of his career with few film opportunities. He did attract some favorable attention for his lively exploitation feature, Baby Love (1968), in which Linda Hayden plays a sexually manipulative fifteen-year-old who maneuvers her way into an upper class home to seduce and destroy all the family members. Producers: Alan D. Courtney, Norman S. Powell Director: Alastair Reid Screenplay: Roald Dahl; Joy Cowley (novel "Nest in a Falling Tree") Cinematography: Alex Thomson Art Direction: Anthony Pratt Music: Bernard Herrmann Cast: Patricia Neal (Maura Prince), Pamela Brown (Mother), Nicholas Clay (Billy), Jean Anderson (Mrs. McMurtrey), Graham Crowden (Mr. Bolton), Yootha Joyce (Mrs. Palafox), Peter Sallis (Rev. Palafox), Brigit Forsyth (District Nurse), Sebastian Breaks (Dr. Robinson), Diana Patrick (Mary Wingate), Jenny McCracken (Farmwife), Bruce Myles (Bank Clerk), Zoe Alexander (Stroke Patient), Christopher Reynalds (Young Billy), Elaine Ives-Cameron (Gypsy), Sibylla Kay (Whore). C-100m. by Jeff Stafford SOURCES: Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Stephen Michael Shearer A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith www.britmovie.co.uk/ www.afi.com IMDB

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

The film's working titles were The Road Builder and The Visitor. The scenes depicting "Billy's" flashbacks were shown in black and white. Although Variety press review listed The Night Digger's running time as 110 minutes, according to Filmfacts, ten minutes of sexual scenes were cut shortly before the film was released. According to a January 1970 Daily Variety news item, the film was initially to have been produced by Commonwealth United Corp. At that time, Ronan O'Casey and Lynn S. Raynor were set to be the executive producers and Allen Hodshire was to produce. Youngstreet Productions, the film's production company, was an American company. M-G-M, which put up front money for the production, was slated to distribute The Night Digger before it began production, according to an August 1970 Daily Variety news item.
       As noted in the end credits, the film was shot "entirely on location and completed at Twickenham Studios, London, England." Filmfacts added that location shooting was done in Windsor and Cornwall, England. At the time of the film's production, writer Roald Dahl was the husband of actress Patricia Neal. According to an October 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item, Dahl wrote The Night Digger especially for Neal. However, the Hollywood Reporter review noted that Dahl "disassociated himself from the finished product." The Night Digger was the first film in which Neal appeared since the 1968 film The Subject Was Roses (see below), and marked the motion picture debut of Nicholas Clay.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1971

Released in United States 1971