Wednesday, September 28, 2016

THE NIGHT DIGGER 1971

In the little-known (but much-beloved by me) psychological thriller The Night Digger (The Road Builder in the UK), Patricia Neal portrays Maura Prince, a 43-year-old recovering stroke victim who works part-time at a hospital helping other stroke victims relearn to speak. That the 44-year-old Patricia Neal had, in 1965, actually suffered a series of debilitating strokes which left her having to relearn how to walk and talk, adds a layer of autobiographical poignancy to both her character and performance.

Single and childless, Maura is what was once known as a spinster. A spinster who, when not stealing away for those brief-but-rewarding two hours a week at the hospital, is at the harried beck and call of her blind and ailing adoptive mother Edith Prince (Pamela Brown). The two women live alone in a somewhat secluded area in the Berkshire district of England in a cavernous old Victorian mansion whose facade, much like Maura herself, shows the wear of years of neglect and abuse. 
Patricia Neal as Maura Prince
Pamela Brown as Mrs. Edith Prince
Nicholas Clay as Billy Jarvis
Left with both a limp and frozen hand from her stroke, Maura dresses dowdily, looks older than her age, and walks with the weighted-down posture and downcast eyes of the defeated. She's a woman with a broken spirit, only part of which can be said to be attributable to her disability.
Yet in spite of the air of forlorn resignation which seems to follow her around like a personal storm cloud; Maura is surprisingly clear-minded and unsentimental about her lot in life. She harbors no illusions as to why, at age 15, she was adopted by the newly widowed Mrs. Prince (to serve as the elder woman’s free-of-charge live-in maid, cook, nurse, and whipping post); nor does she kid herself as to why she has allowed herself to be subjected to the interfering dominance of her mother for so many years.
Guilt and a sense of duty play a part, for it was her mother who nursed Maura back to health following her stroke. A stroke she had the misfortune of suffering mere months after running away (escaping?) with a man who would later come to abandon her. Guilt and duty play a part, but loneliness seals the bargain. Maura submits to her mother’s strong-willed dominance simply because she has nothing and no one else in her life.

Together, these women live a life of claustrophobic co-dependency in an atmosphere of by-now-routine rituals of passive-aggressive resentment: Maura taking silent, unseen delight in her mother’s food-scattering efforts to feed herself; Edith basking in private, sadistic satisfaction whenever she's granted the opportunity to inflict some petty inconvenience on her daughter.

While gossipy Edith—who’s not above feigning a heart attack to get her way—shares the companionship of two equally talebearing neighbors (Jean Anderson & Graham Crowden); Maura, beyond her duties at the hospital, lives a life solitary and internal. But if her sunlit, pink hued, hyperfeminine, and meticulously cared for bedroom is any indication, one can safely assume Maura’s inner life is a vividly romantic one.
See No Evil and Hear No Evil get an earful from Speak No Evil

If there's nothing real to gossip about, Edith and best friends Millicent McMurtrey
 (Anderson) and Mr. Bolton (Crowden) sometimes have to resort to invention

Into this stifling yet drafty environment rides Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay), a boy of 20 who mysteriously turns up at precisely the moment the women are in need of someone to perform gardening and maintenance chores around the house. Claiming to be a friend of a friend’s nephew, it’s obvious from the start that Billy is a facile (if not particularly adroit) liar, but the means by which he actually comes to know of this particular job opportunity remains one of the many mysteries surrounding the young man's arrival.

Ever the skeptic, Maura sees easily through Billy's lies, but Edith—if perhaps only to annoy Maura—finds herself charmed by the boy's hard-luck stories (invalid mother died in a fire) sincere avowals of religious fealty (a lie which later comes to bite him on the ass). After half-convincing herself that Billy might actually be a distant relative (a delusional leap of faith more designed to silence local gossip), Edith invites the boy to stay on as their unpaid-laborer/houseguest...in Maura’s room, no less. Understandably overjoyed, Billy, who's been living an itinerant existence as a road builder, moves in immediately; his only possessions being his motorbike and a mysterious bundle secured by a leather harness (“Your Bible and prayer book, I suppose?” Maura sarcastically intones).
When forced to give up her room to the handyman, it's revealed that everything about Maura's room stands in stark contrast to the dark, drab, disarray of the rest of the house. It's our first indication that Maura, like Billy, might be quite different than she first appears.

The introduction into the household of an additional target for Edith’s whip-cracking has the unforeseen result of creating a tacit bond between the appreciative Billy and the emotionally guarded Maura. An empathetic, almost maternal-filial bond that comes to threaten the long-established dynamic between Maura and her mother, a bond that soon evolves into something eminently deeper, infinitely more complex, and ultimately, with the town suddenly terrorized by a serial killer known as The Traveling Maniac, ominous and macabre.  
The Night Digger is an unusual film. An odd, not-to-everyone's-taste motion picture in many ways deserving of its advertising tagline "A tale of the strange and perverse."  And while it's not a perfect film: fact most evident in the somewhat rushed feel of the film's third act following the sublime deliberateness of its earlier scenes, it struck as something of an undiscovered, underappreciated gem. (The Night Digger had a troubled shoot involving much script-tinkering and clashes with the composer. Neither Neal nor Dahl were pleased with the results, labeling the final edit "pornographic.")

Saddled with a terrible title and somewhat misleading marketing campaign more befitting a grindhouse slasher or exercise in hagsploitation, The Night Digger is a film so unusual I'm not sure it would have found an audience even if its US distributors had not given up on it so quickly.

The Night Digger is an atmospheric suspense film more in line with art house thrillers like Robert Altman's Images (1972) or unconventional character dramas like Michael Apted's The Triple Echo (1972). Critics have commented upon similarities to Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher (1971), but when I first saw The Night Digger, the films it most evoked for me were Night Must Fall (particularly the 1964 Albert Finney remake of the 1937 classic), and especially Altman's (again) That Cold Day in the ParkWhat The Night Digger shares with the 1969 Sandy Dennis starrer is a quality I'm drawn to in so many of my favorite films from the late-'60s/early-'70s: a willingness to allow a story go to the unexpected places. The Night Digger is an intriguing, emotionally provocative thriller containing just enough touches of humor and humanity to offset its pitch-black edges. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’ve little doubt that the things I love the most about The Night Digger are precisely the things which contributed to it being a film 1971 audiences (and its US distributor, MGM) showed so little interest in that it wound up being shelved not long after briefly playing in limited markets. For me, The Night Digger's chief appeal is in the way it doesn’t settle easily into any particular genre classification.
Promoted as a psychological suspense thriller, The Night Digger, with its measured, serio-comic tone and glum atmosphere of neurosis and dread, is a compellingly effective Hitchcockian melodrama (a major asset being its terrifically creepy score by eight-time Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann). But the “thriller” nomenclature doesn’t fully allow for the fact that the film is at its strongest and most affecting when focused on the interplay of the characters.
At these moments, The Night Digger is a sensitively observed character drama about the despairing interactions of damaged people. People disabled in ways both visible and concealed who allow their lives to be ruled or ruined (and possibly reclaimed) by their infirmity. This angle of the film is, for me, its most rewarding, for it effectively invests you in the fates of its characters before things start to shift into full-tilt weirdness. Once the unconventional love story starts to merge with the disturbing serial killer subplot, it's too late...you're hooked.
The emotional burden of dysfunction - be it physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual -
is at the core of Roald Dahl's unsettling screenplay for The Night Digger

The Night Digger’s offbeat tone and jet-black comedy are largely owed to the contributions of screenwriter Roald Dahl (You Only Live Twice, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, The Witches). The story goes that Dahl purchased the rights to Joy Cowley’s 1967 novel Nest in a Falling Tree expressly for wife Patricia Neal (whom he painstakingly nursed back to health following her stroke), after her Oscar-nominated return to the screen in The Subject Was Roses (1968) failed to yield further job offers.

It’s Dahl who devised the film's serial killer plotline (not present at all in Cowley’s book) and rewrote the character of Maura as a stoke survivor. These revisions create effectively disorienting tonal shifts in the film's narrative reminiscent of Willy Wonka's terrifying boat ride or the introduction of the memorably terrifying Child Catcher into his otherwise sweet and sunny Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In The Night Digger, these tonal shifts—some delicate, others shockingly abrupt—play out with a sinister purposefulness well-suited to the film’s atmosphere of intensifying unease. Every time you think you’ve figured out where The Night Digger is headed, it throws you a curve.
Peter Sallis and Yootha Joyce as Reverend Palafox and Mrs. Palafox
contribute a hilarious bit as the objects of spurious speculation 

Movies fail for all sorts of reasons, but one of The Night Digger’s biggest hurdles had to have been the fact that an audience most receptive to a movie starring Patricia Neal was also an audience least likely to be welcoming of the film's nudity, violence, and lurid themes. Conversely, those in search of the kind of bloody mayhem normally associated with an R-rated serial-killer movie must have felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under them when confronted with a quaint senior citizen suspenser about a lonely spinster and her elderly mum.
So, how then is it that The Night Digger ranks as one of my favorite films? I guess because I fit the seldom-courted “sentimental dirty old man” demographic.

PERFORMANCES
Both Patricia Neal (The Fountainhead) and Pamela Brown (Secret Ceremony) give truly fine performances in The Night Digger. Neal, who usually commands every scene she's in with that marvelous voice and natural acting style, is given fair and equal support in Pamela Brown, an endlessly resourceful actress with an uncanny ability to convey multiple dimensions of her somewhat reprehensible character all at once. I absolutely adore Patricia Neal and think she gives a performance worthy of another Oscar nomination (had anyone actually seen the film) playing a strong woman who's come to define herself by her weaknesses.
The mother/daughter scenes she shares with Brown are so good (like watching an absorbing two-character stage play) I confess to having initially felt a twinge of regret once the story necessitated the introduction of a supporting cast. Happily, as I so often find to be the case with UK films made during this time, the level of talent assembled for the supporting cast (especially Jean Anderson) is beyond impressive.

Making his film debut in The Night Digger is the late Nicholas Clay (Evil Under The Sun), a favorite actor whose genuine talent I tend to undervalue because of his looks and his (blessed) tendency to take on roles requiring him to appear in various states of undress. The Night Digger sets a fine career precedent, nudity wise, but it’s nice to report he also gives a solid and very engaging performance here, rounding out an overall exceptional cast.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I saw The Night Digger for the first time just a few years ago when it aired on TCM, but I remember wanting to see it back when it opened in San Francisco in 1971. At the time I didn’t really know who Patricia Neal was (her Maxim coffee ads and Waltons TV-movie would come later) but the newspaper ad had caught my eye and I was fascinated. Unfortunately, the ad also happened to catch my mother’s eye, the prominent presence of the word “perverse” in the ad copy effectively putting the kibosh on any hopes I had of finding out what that title meant.
It took a while, but in finally having the opportunity to see The Night Digger (several decades past that must-be-17-years-of-age hurdle), it's clear to me that I would have liked it ’71, but I’m positive it's provided me with a much richer experience seeing it today.
Always a sucker for films about the intrinsic human need to connect and the agony we put ourselves through trying to convince ourselves otherwise, there's a poignancy and pathos to the plight of the film’s characters that would likely have been a bit over my head back in ’71. What the film has to say about the paradox of growth: that growing up inevitability leads to separation/ that growing closer invariably increases one’s chances of being hurt—strikes the kind of emotional chord with me now unlikely to have been stirred at all at when I was twelve.
Similarly, I'm fairly sure that as a young man I'd have taken the more gruesome elements of the story out of context. That is to say I'd likely have looked upon the film's structure - which is to juxtapose scenes of inhumanity with moving passages of emotional longing - as being merely dramatic or "action packed."
Having lived long enough to understand that part of life is making peace with the eternal coexistence of the gentle and the monstrous (the latter too often a result of a lack of the former); the  violent events in The Night Digger don't feel as arbitrary to me as they might have. On the whole, what I like about the film and what I take away from it (and this is 100% my subjective take on a film I love, not a recommendation) is that it resonates with me as a nightmare fable about the life-defining events of our lives and how we choose to be ruled by them, or ultimately choose to grow to rule over ourselves.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

17 comments:

  1. I have never heard of this movie but thoroughly enjoyed reading about it. Great critique.

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    1. Thank you! It came and went so quickly, only to recently reappear on TCM and then on To-Order-DVD. I wonder if it's better known in the UK?

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  2. I've never seen this--or even heard of it before now--but, as usual, your insightful reviews make me want to see it right now. When I was much younger (before nighttime tv was wall-to-wall infomercials), this was the type of movie you'd catch on the late, late show. There was a certain type of British horror movie, usually quite sedate, featuring some rather prestige English stage actors with one or two American "names" that would appear on the late show: chopped up appallingly for frequent commercial breaks, but with a quiet power and sense of unease that kept you watching. A sort of anti-Hammer movie (although I like those too).

    And did you know Joy Cowley--who wrote the source novel--is still alive and writes primarily books for young children?

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    1. Hi Deb
      I take it as a compliment if one of my write up makes you curious about a film you’re unfamiliar with.
      This movie was one of those films that dropped off my radar after it disappeared from theaters, never to reappear on the Late-show or anything over the years. When it popped up suddenly on TCM, I didn’t harbor much in the way of expectations …I just assumed there was a really good reason the film had remained so obscure. I was nicely surprised.
      And you’re right in describing “The Night Digger” as one looking like one of those Brit films from the late 60s/early 70s (like "Straight on Till Morning" or "What Became of Jack and Jill?") which feature terrific character performances and manage an uncanny tension and sense of atmosphere. A great many of them (some being late-era Hammer films) are truly bizarre.
      And thanks for bringing up Joy Cowley's career as a children's author. I only came to know who she was while researching this, but it's amazing she went on to such a long,mprolific career going nowhere near the subject matter of this, her first book. I was never able to come across what she thought of the film and all those changes Dahl made to it, but perhaps it was so early in her career she was simply pleased to have her book purchased for a major motion picture.
      Thanks for commenting, Deb!

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  3. Hello Ken, as always, you pick the coolest films to review! I too have never heard of this film. What joy to know that there are more wonderful movies from the late 60's and early 70s to experience! I must try to find this one. Has it been released on dvd? The film sounds very intriguing! Such a shame that it so unknown! I liked Nicholas Clay in "Evil Under the Sun" and here he is again showing his marvelous physique! So true what you wrote: "that growing up inevitability leads to separation and that growing closer invariably increases one’s chances of being hurt". Sad but true.
    Thanks for letting me know about this obscure film!- Wille

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    1. Hi Wille!
      i feel the same way you do about discoveringcertain odd films from the '60s and '70s. It's great when I can catch up on one that slipped by me (like this one) but it's such a delight to unearth a film you never knew existed (I recently caught a 1967 Geraldine Chaplin, James Mason film -with Bobby Darin, yet - tiled "Cop-Out" which was a real oddity).
      This film is indeed available on Made-To-Order DVD, and I did find it intriguing.I'm a sucker for stories where people discover their value after they've been undervalued by life, and I like suspense thrillers that are character-driven.
      Nicholas Clay is very easy on the eyes, and it doesn't hurt that he has a protracted (non-erotic) nude scene.
      I think this is a movie that works as a programmer (a straight-on suspense film) or a character drama. It's so well-acted.
      Thanks for always expressing interest in the films I write about, and should you come across this, I of course (and the readers here, I'm sure) would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks, Wille!

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  4. Thanks Ken, I will. I really want to see this one. I hope I find it. I wish I had a cinema that only showed unknown gems like this one for more people to discover and appreciate and then hopefully turn the films into must-see cult classics, instead of leaving these films unseen in studio vaults just because they weren't enormous hits when they were released.

    If you like "stories where people discover their value after they've been undervalued by Life" you could see "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" with Maggie Smith from 1987. She's amazing in it. (It's not a thriller though, just a slice of life from Britain in the 1950s.)
    -Wille

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Wille. What a cast! I've heard of the film, but somehow never got around to seeing it.
      And it is a shame about all those shelved or forgotten films idling away in vaults, but I must say that whole Made-to-Order DVD thing, while imperfect, really has allowed a lot of films with low profit potential to see the light of day. It's been one of the best things to happen. maybe as streaming grows more popular, Studios will be able to put a lot of their more obscure libraries online.
      What kills me is the DVD availability of nearly the entire Kung Fu oeuvre of the 70s! Who the hell needs to see that many Kung Fu movies?

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  5. Count me among the uninitiated when it comes to this. How can I not know of it when I'm such a Roald Dahl fanatic? Thanks for enlightening all of us ignorant cineastes, Ken.

    "hagsploitation" Love it! I believe this is the first time I've encountered this very excellent neologism. Did you coin it?

    Went looking for a DVD copy in Region 1 and discovered I can rent it via amazon for $2.99. Exciting! Can't wait to watch it. Then I plan on a "retrospective" of all of movies in which Nicholas Clay plays some sort of demi-god of masculine beauty (Evil Under the Sun, Last Days of Pompeii, among others.)

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    1. Hi JF
      This movie really did seem to disappear without a trace! Making it all the more amazing that someone chose to give it a DVD life.
      Maybe as a Dahl fanatic you'll note and appreciate his dark touches.
      Alas, "hagsploitation" is not a word I coined, but I do love it. It sounds like something the trade magazine Variety would come up with.
      Congrats on tracking down a copy. Hope you enjoy it! And for your Nicholas Clay retrospective, don't leave out 1981's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" - he's naked a lot in that one. I appreciate that in an actor.

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  6. Watched it yesterday evening. That tagline "A tale of the strange and perverse" is an understatement as far as I'm concerned. The scenes with the gossip mongering friends of Mrs. Prince. Wow! The organist's interest in the lurid nature of the sex crimes was beyond creepy. All those close-ups of his fine white teeth chattering, practically salivating over the details. The bits about the vicar and his wife were hysterical to me. Yootha Joyce (a favorite of mine) should've been given more to do than her brief scene with Peter Sallis after church services. The relationship that develops between Billy and Maura reminded me of THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK but in the end was more poignant. I sort of liked how the director left it up to the viewer to figure out Billy's disturbing past and why it haunted him so leading him to do the things he does. The ending came as a complete shock. Very rare for me these days. I thought the story would end sadly, but not have it feel like a sucker punch.

    Thanks for the write-up which I have now read in its entirety post-viewing (what I usually do). I'd probably never have discovered this forgotten movie on my own. And I'm so glad I had the chance to see it thanks to you, Ken. Truly unique. Now on to EVIL UNDER THE SUN!

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    1. Thanks for reporting back. Wow, I think your thoughts on the film make a slightly more compelling compelling case than my own. I at least came to it with a pre-awareness from my childhood, but you chiefly went by what you read here.
      I enjoyed reading your thoughts in the films odd tone and how it still manages to be quite moving. Your thoughts on the gossipy friend's over-interest in the killings echo my own. Very fittingly creepy.
      And I too loved the whole bit with the vicar and his wife. Really hilarious.
      I cracked up when the mother expresses concern over the bad weather and how the vicar's wife would manage the church bazaar was going to manage: “What do you expect her to do…shelter the stuff under her ridiculous bosom?”
      It's always interesting to find out how an older film plays in a different era. Especially one that doesn't already have the blessing of having been "rediscovered" as a cult film (people love embracing a previously underappreciated film after they've been given permission to like it).
      Thanks so much for the excellent follow up and I'm pleased you enjoyed the film.Not because it agrees with my opinion, but because I always think it's a shame when an interesting film languishes on obscurity.
      Enjoy your Nicholas Clay retrospective!

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  7. Hi Ken,

    I enjoyed reading your take and discovering I wasn't the only one who had seen this! Up to now that's been the situation, though I can't say I'm surprised when a mention of it draws a blank stare.

    I only saw it last year during TCM's Summer Under the Stars when they had a Patricia Neal day-my favorite month on that station it's always a great way to explore a performer's career beyond their best known films. Her day turned out to be a great gap filler since beside this film they also played the oddities Raton Pass and Psyche 59, though sadly not my Holy Grail title for her-Three Secrets which co-starred Eleanor Parker & Ruth Roman (LOVE them both) but I actually found that online about a month ago and almost wept with joy!! As a bonus I loved every tortured soapy second of it since it provided an opportunity for all three ladies to anguish attractively and emote, emote, EMOTE!! Now if I could only find her most obscure title, the '54 Italian film La tua Donna, her filmography would be complete...but I despair of ever doing that.

    Anyway back to Road Builder, I can't say I loved it but I found it intriguing and strange. Both Pat Neal and Pamela Brown really dug into their roles and Nicolas Clay exuded that unsettling air. He really was the most refreshingly unshy performer-I'm sure it didn't hurt that he realized he was a looker but that hardly factors for many actors when a scene where it would make sense for them to be nude and they resist. A personal choice for sure but bless him for being comfortable with it.

    I don't know that I would hurry to watch it again but I'm glad I was able to catch it the once. What a pity that studios were leery of offering Patricia Neal work after years of acknowledgement of her great talent because of her health issues. Though to be fair understanding of strokes and the aftereffects was much less in the public consciousness in the 60's than it is today. Still how much great work we missed out on and to her credit she kept plugging away until she worked pretty consistently though never at the level of her pre-stroke fame.

    I did notice that this is going to be shown again on TCM in December for anyone who wants to catch it then.

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    1. Hi Joel
      I've always liked the way you seek out all the works of a favored actor. It seems to have the side benefit of exposing you to films obscure and/or those you might otherwise have no interest in.
      I also like when TCM breaks from the usual fare and unearth rarities like this film, exposing them to a broader audience.
      Patricia Neal is one of those actresses whose work I only really noticed after I became an adult. She really has a remarkable way of appearing to be both very strong and very vulnerable at the same time. I think you're right about the skittishness about strokes and the like in the past. So many Hollywood bios have actors hiding their very normal health concerns from their employers, lest they be seen as a insurance risk (although Hollywood seemed to have no trouble with its vast number of functioning alcoholics).
      I also agree about that quality you note in Nicholas Clay's ease with appearing naked in movies. In certain contexts I've often found it annoying to distracting the lengths to which some actors go to cover themselves in scenes where nudity would be more effective or natural.
      Thanks for tipping off any interested readers in "The Night Digger" reappearing on TCM's schedule in December.
      Thanks for contributing, Joel, and good luck with finding La tua Donna. If I come across it, I'll for sure make an effort to let you know.

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    2. That's a great observation of Patricia Neal's particular gift as an actress. She seemed someone who could handle anything thrown at her, which is quite accurate considering her personal history, but while she could withstand the blows she was could be hurt and show it though not defeated. Always exemplary I think her strongest work was in A Face in the Crowd and The Breaking Point.

      I love my project of working through the filmographies of my favorites and it's so exhilarating when I complete someone.

      But on the other hand it can be frustrating. When I started I thought the more I had to find for a particular person the more irksome it would be but it's turned out just the other way around. For instance I still have about 20 films left for Claire Trevor (the queen of working just about everywhere!) and every now and then I run across one and so the number goes down which gives me a sense of forward motion. Instead it's when I get down to those one or two truly elusive titles that drives me crazy. You would be amazed how many performers have those one or two films that defy detection. Right now I have 28 that I'm thisclose to finishing off. It holds for even the most famous-both Cary Grant and Garbo are in my almost there group. ARGH!!

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  8. I see that NIGHT DIGGER is going to be shown on TCM on December 28, 2016! Your review has made it a must-see in my book.

    http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article.html?isPreview=&id=1205671|1279738&name=The-Night-Digger-Alice-Sweet-Alice

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    1. Thanks for the link and heads-up, Vito! I'm going to pass the word to some friends who have been dying to check out this rarely-screened movie! Much appreciated, and thanks for the kind words, too!

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