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The Night Digger (1971): Billy, the Champion of the World

The Night Digger (Alastair Reid, 1971)

[note: review published 1Dec2008]

photo credit: Wikipedia

Is it me, or does that look a helluva lot like Lou Reed?

These days, Alastair Reid’s entry in who’s-who-in-film is pretty much set in stone; he directed Traffik, the 1989 TV miniseries remade into a heavy-handed, almost entirely unwatchable movie by Steven Soderbergh eleven years later (and then remade yet again into another TV miniseries!). Thankfully, no one has thought to remake The Night Digger, the kind of just-this-side-of-cheesy mystery where all the stars were in alignment when someone worked it up: Reid directing, a script by Roald Dahl (Tales of the Unexpected) from a novel by Joy Cowley, one of New Zealand’s most successful writers. And my god, what a cast. Patricia Neal, of course, who was married to Dahl at the time and worked on all his projects. Peter Sallis. Graham Crowden. Pamela Brown. Jean Anderson. Yootha Joyce. And I’m just scraping the tip of the iceberg.


photo credit:

“While you’re out with the serial killer, dahling, could you pick me up some licorice whips?”

The plot is a simple one: Maura Prince (Neal) is a not-so-young-anymore woman who has devoted her life to taking care of her invalid mother (Cleopatra‘s Pamela Brown in one of her last roles). Her life is shaken up when a young stranger (Excalibur‘s Nicholas Clay) arrives and starts to woo her. Question is, is he the Night Digger, the serial killer who’s been preying on lovely young things around the countryside?

photo credit: IMDB

“Don’t look now, but I think John Cleese fancies you!”


It’s very low-key, and not very fast-paced, which pretty much guaranteed that it wasn’t going to make a huge splash at the box office. But you put this caliber of cast together with the connections on the other end of the camera and you’re bound to get something wonderful. Such is the case here. There is atmosphere galore, and the acting is about as you’d expect (which is to say if you’re not a fan of Britcoms from the seventies, you might not find it as wonderful as I do). There’s a plot twist at the end (which I understand is not in the original novel) that could have been done without, but it does fit and isn’t completely out of the blue. Not easy to find these days, but definitely worth tracking down. Patricial Neal’s performance is reason enough to watch this; everything else is a bonus. *** ½ 


Trailer! If you feel like truly spoiling it for yourself, a youtube search on night digger trailer will also pull up a clip of the final fourteen minutes of the film.

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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