In the movies it seems that the ‘Rural South’, irrespective of where it may actually be in the world, is synonymous with savage attitudes and retrograde customs; an atavistic haven where old customs die-hard; and where outsiders, usually from the cities, are viewed with deep-rooted suspicion and often outright hostility. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Naples of Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all’ Italiana) or the Georgia wilderness of Deliverance – and it is certainly true of the small community depicted in Maniac, an intriguing but little-known 1963 thriller from Hammer Studios. In fact the film really lays on this aspect of the story, starting with an opening scrawl reminiscent of the silent movie era, the pre-credits title card informing viewers that they are about to visit:
” The Camargue … a remote area in Southern France where wild horses roam , fighting bulls are bred and violence is never far away
Not sure what the French tourist board would make of that! The exploitative tone continues in the opening section that follows which, all spoken in French, acts as an extended prologue to the main action of the film. It amplifies the silent movie vibe with everything presented in the basic of terms: a teenage girl is sexually assaulted by a sweaty, lip-smacking old man and her father’s retribution is swift and brutal, courtesy of the movie’s signature gadget … an oxyacetylene blowtorch!
This was the first of three distinctive black and white cinemascope murder mysteries all written and produced by Jimmy Sangster for Hammer Studios in 1962, made in the wake of the success of Taste of Fear (1961), which I reviewed on this blog a fortnight ago (you can read it here). If that film was a variation on Les Diaboliques (1955), then this next entry in the cycle eventually resolves itself into a pastiche of Cain’s 1934 Noir classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice. As with that story, a young man arrives at a cafe, takes a room in the back and starts an affair with the owner’s wife, which will eventually lead to murder. The difference here though is that the owner has been locked up in an asylum for the last four years, after he killed the man who assaulted Annette, his daughter.
Kerwin Mathews, best known for starring in such fantasy epics of the time as Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jack the Giant Killer, is the leading man and is surprisingly credible in a not particularly likeable role. He plays an American painter who, after a fight with his wealthy British girlfriend, is left stranded at a roadside cafe. Having just left one lady in the opening scene, within minutes he is hitting on Annette, the teenager serving drinks in the bar (he knocks back prodigious amounts of brandy, presumably less as a mating ritual and more to signal that his life is in complete disarray). Then shortly afterwards, having been told of her troubled past as the victim of an assault and her father’s notorious act of revenge, he starts an affair with her stepmother – practically on the following day! But as the film progresses, were are less inclined to treat him as a cad and more as a victim of circumstance – he may not be all that bright, but it turns out he is basically honest if perhaps a little bit lacking in judgement.
Liliane Brousse, who would shortly after also appear in Paranoiac, the next Sangster film in the series, is a bit of a drip as Annette actually, even though she is absolutely put through the emotional ringer in this film: attacked in the opening scene, she then witnesses her father murder a man, then the man she thinks she loves falls for her stepmother who apart from anything else is still married to her beloved father and who conspire to break him out of his asylum but fall foul of the police. Then her Dad’s old blowtorch starts to develop a life of its own in the shed, lighting itself apparently of its own accord (the film never quite bothers to explain this particular ‘boo’ in terms of narrative logic however). By the end she has also been kidnapped and nearly got thrown off a cliff, and yet despite this she sails through proceedings with a decidedly inexpressive face, so it’s hard really to empathise – Susan Strasberg she definitely isn’t! Much better though is Nadia Gray as Eve, the sexy stepmother who still feels an obligation to support her insane husband even after all these years and drags her lover into a hair-brained scheme to break her husband out of the asylum in the hope that he will then agree to a divorce. While her character has to go through several changes as the plot switches gears she remain compelling throughout. Gray only appeared in a few more films after this and seems to have made her last appearance in a pair of idiosyncratic but stylish spy tales: The Naked Runner starring Frank Sinatra and ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’, one of the best episodes of Patrick McGoohan’s cult classic TV series The Prisoner.
Matthews deserves real credit though for giving a fairly naturalistic performance throughout in fairly trying circumstances - he even survives having to dance what must be the slowest and least impressive rendition of the twist ever committed to film. The blame for this has to be laid at the feet of Michael Carreras, the Hammer producer here making one of his occasional and generally undistinguished forays into movie directing. He does achieves some pretty compositions on location in France, especially for a sequence filmed on location at the Arles arena, but on the whole he fails to really give the film any real dramatic momentum, weirdly undercutting some of the most important scenes such as literally not letting us see the crucial moments when the couple decide to help Donald Houston escape from the asylum, or when a body is discovered in the back of the family Citroën 2CV. Again inspired by Les Diaboliques, there is an extended sequence in which a body is hidden in the water but then later resurfaces (sic) but Carreras just doesn’t make enough of it and even manages to fluff the (literally) cliff-hanging climax. And it doesn’t help that two of the cast members – Norman Bird as the local policeman and Houston as the maniac himself – are both dubbed. Critics at the time were not very kind to Carreras, the Monthly Film Bulletin memorably excoriating the film by saying,
“Maniac is finally and decisively trampled into dim mediocrity by the direction of Michael Carreras, with its marked absence of film sense.”
But there is in fact much to enjoy here – the scene in which the eponymous blowtorch-wielding madman regales a trussed up Geoff with a diatribe on how the authorities would expect an insane person to behave is wonderfully ambiguous and Sangster”s script includes some thoroughly unexpected twists in its final stages. In this regard the film cheats outrageously during the early part of the film but it would be unfair to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet and ultimately this knowledge just adds to the enjoyment, showing the efforts the filmmakers did go to fake the viewers out.
One just wishes that the able cast, the unusual locations and the potentially intriguing thrills in the script had got a bit more of a chance in the hands of a less flat-footed director – it might be more fondly remembered if Seth Holt or Freddie Francis had been at the helm, that is certain, especially if one compares it with the Sangster thrillers made immediately before and after it by the same team at Hammer. Indeed Sangster would continue to looks for new wrinkles in this formula for Hammer in several further films, which I plan to review soon as they are all available on DVD either in the US or the UK.
The full list of Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows, with links to my reviews of them so far:
- The Snorkel (1958)
- Taste of Fear / Scream of Fear (1961)
- Maniac (1963)
- Paranoiac (1963)
- Nightmare (1964)
- Hysteria (1965)
- The Nanny (1965)
- Crescendo (1970)
- Fear in the Night (1972)
My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.
DVD Availability: As part of the Sony DVD Hammer Films: Icons of Suspense
Director: Michael Carreras
Producer: Jimmy Sangster
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: Bernard Robinson
Music: Stanley Black
Cast: Kerwin Matthews, Nadia Gray, Liliane Brousse, Donald Houston, Norman Bird, Justine Lord, George Pastell
This review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.