The Archivist #73: Happy Birthday, Roald Dahl! [36 HOURS and THE NIGHT DIGGER]

An appreciation of legendary author’s chilling screen work.

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-ray discs (which, unlike the DVDs, are factory pressed rather than burned). Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

For decades, many generations of children have enjoyed the works of legendary author Roald Dahl, with his books warming the hearts of young readers by showing that true imagination really is limitless. The author’s works have famously been ripe for the screen with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, Matilda and most recently, The BFG all enchanting movie audiences over the years.

As much as he was able to tap into the imagination and capture the attention of children the world over however, Dahl was equally adept at writing for adults as well. Though not as famous as his works for younger readers, Dahl’s collections of stories for grown-ups were just as captivating as they all managed to touch on the dark and macabre aspects of life in the most inventive of ways. In celebration of the author’s 101st birthday, we look at two such works which eventually made their way to the silver screen in the form of 1964s 36 Hours and 1971s The Night Digger, both of which serve as further reminders of the Dahl truly was one of the greatest authors who ever lived.

36 Hours

In the midst of WWII, American Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner) is drugged and kidnapped by German officials while on a secret mission in Lisbon. The Germans’ plan once Jefferson wakes up is to convince him that the year is 1950, the war is over and he has been suffering from amnesia following his failed mission in Lisbon. By doing this, the Germans, led by Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor), hope to extract secret information from Jefferson regarding the suspected Allied invasion of Europe. Aiding in the plan is the beautiful Anna (Eva Marie Saint), a nurse whose past is darker than the plan itself.

Based in part on Dahl’s short story “Beware of the Dog,” 36 Hours contains so much of what made 60s cinema so explosive: a plot with many twists and turns, dynamic acting and endless amounts of paranoia. All three of the leads are in top form here, with Garner turning in the kind of classic performance which made him an icon. Meanwhile Saint showed a layer of a talent that Hollywood sadly never capitalized on, unearthing various hidden sides to her complex character. It’s Taylor however who has the most intriguing role as he makes his mastermind captor both determined and cunning, but also human. 36 Hours is frightening in its concept and made all the more chilling through its execution beginning with the scene in which Gerber addresses the entire team who have been coached on how to appear American. The tension is real and exists through and through right up until the last scene. Dahl wasn’t often heavy on the political with most of his grown up writing and thankfully 36 Hours isn’t either as it relies on the sheer plausible unbelievability of its plot to grab hold of audiences and never let them go.

The Night Digger

Set in the English countryside, The Night Digger focuses on lonely spinster Maura (Patricia Neal, Dahl’s real-life wife) who spends her days taking care of her blind mother Edith (Pamela Brown) in their decaying mansion. When the mysterious young Billy (Nicholas Clay) turns up asking for a job as a live-in groundskeeper, Edith agrees to his employment despite Maura’s objections. Before long however, Maura finds herself growing close to the handsome young Billy, who begins to win both women over as he masks a dark history and a sinister secret.

Dahl adapted Joy Cowley’s novel for the screenplay of The Night Digger and the results are never less than superb. The film starts off somewhat melancholy with Maura living out the kind of existence she gets absolutely no pleasure from and eventually evolves into an eerie affair once Billy enters the picture. The way he is able to win over the new women in his life without having to try in the slightest is perhaps the most frightening aspect of The Night Digger. The film offers up a truly gothic villain in the form of Edith; a mother well-versed in the art of emotional mind games and outright cruelty all while under the guise of propriety. Yet as it proceeds, The Night Digger becomes a portrait of the damaged Billy, whose own personal history has wreaked so much havoc on his psyche, it has plunged him into a place that there is no coming back from. The Night Digger may well be the most daring and hard-to-watch work Dahl ever wrote, yet it remains both telling, honest and without question, unforgettable.

Previous post THE FLORIDA PROJECT Finds Beauty and Heartache in America’s Forgotten Places
Next post Fantastic Fest 2017: LET THE CORPSES TAN is a Genre Fan’s Fantasy