The Night Digger, a well-regarded cult film that died at the box-office upon its initial release in 1971, has been brought to DVD by Warner Archive. The moody and atmospheric film stars Patricia Neal as Maura Prince, a middle-aged woman who resents having allowed life to pass her by while she caters to her nagging, ungrateful mother (Pamela Brown). The two women live a boring life in a run-down, rural mansion on the outskirts of London. When Billy (Nicholas Clay), a transient young man on a motorcycle appears and requests employment as a handyman, Maura balks but her mother consents. The charismatic lad proves to be well worth his room and board, fixing everything in sight and making no demands on either woman. Before long, the sexually-deprived Maura becomes romantically obsessed with him. Neither Maura or her mother realize that Billy is actually a serial killer of young women who is being sought far and wide by the police. He takes moonlight sojourns on his cycle and breaks into women's houses. After molesting them, he kills them and buries their bodies.
Although the film has a good deal of suspense, it's primarily a character study and a look at the self-imposed prisons many people lock themselves into. Neal, working from a screenplay by (then) husband Roald Dahl, is simply superb. Her willingness to portray everyday women, minus any glitz or glamor, made her one of the most watchable actresses of her day. She receives equally good support from Pamela Brown as the Mother Bates figure, an obnoxious self-centered woman who feels no guilt about destroying her daughter's life so that she can have a constant servant and companion. Nicholas Clay is excellent as Billy, underplaying the demonic side of his character and making him somewhat sympathetic. Had the film been the hit it deserved to be, he would have emerged as a much bigger star. The movie also boasts an impressive score by the legendary Bernard Hermann and intelligent direction by Alastair Reid. The film builds to a suspenseful, if unsatisfying and rather confusing climax that might make more sense on repeated viewings. However, The Night Digger an acting tour-de-force for Neal and emerges as an underrated gem. (The movie was also known as The Road Builder)