Maniac (1963) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

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 most 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!

Donald Houston in Maniac (1963)

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 Matthews and Nadia Gray in Maniac (1963)

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.

Liliane Brousse in Maniac (1963)

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:

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

Maniac (1963)
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.

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Film Noir, France, Hammer Studios, James M. Cain, Jimmy Sangster, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Maniac (1963) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Pingback: Taste of Fear (1961) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

  2. p881 says:

    Wow! This was an education. I had never heard of any of these films.

  3. John says:

    Great overview of this minor Hammer crime flick. MANIAC! was on the DVD with THE SNORKEL which I loved and realized I had already seen years ago! Oh the failing memory of middle age. So sad.

    When I visited the Camargue several years ago for the first time it was one of my favoirte parts of my trip to France. Flocks of flamingos had converged there for the spring, we saw a couple of the wild horses acting like cute specimens in a children’s zoo and not exhibitng any of their supposed feral nature. I certainly didn’t encounter a psychotic garage mechanic! It was the rural areas in the Massif Central that had the scary locals – and even more scary roads!

    My favorite parts of this were watching hadnsome young Kerwin Matthews (Sinbad!) do a damn good job with his role, some of the interesting camera work, and the melodramatic finale in the quarry that is filmed like a Hitchcock set piece with all those high angles and low camera angles. The villain is like a baddie out of James Bond, isn’t he? The blowtorch stuff was so similar to Goldfinger – but did that come after this? (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” one of my favorite smart aleck lines from a Bond villain.) Even though there is a real drag in the middle of the film there was enough here to satisfy me – especially the unusal setting and the well done chase in the ending.

    • Hi John, thanks very much for the comments. Goldfinger and his laser definirely came later in 1964 (though of course the Fleming book came out in 1958)- apart from anything else the 1963 release of Maniac was in fact delayed by quite a bit – it was in fact shot during 1962. I hope I didn’t sound too hard on it because I love these kinds of films and I do think it has a lot going for it – and Matthews is definitely a real asset here, no question about it. This came out the same year he played Johann Strauss II for Disney – weirdly it would seem that his movie career started to go off the boil around this time, which seems a real shame.

  4. Todd Mason says:

    Let’s put it this way…a much better film than the other two I’m aware of also called MANIAC…

    • Hi Todd – couldn’t agree with you more – I was actually plannng on mentioning that in the review and forgot – but then, those are films that perhaps deserve to be ‘forgotten’ despite the presence of the lovely Caroline Munro on the 1980 version. I haven’t seen the 1934 film of the same name though – it is available in full online from the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/details/Maniac) … thanks very much for hosting!

  5. This film is not even vaguely familiar to me though I enjoyed reading your review, which was as instructive as ever. Among the other Sangster/Hammer films you mentioned, none of which I’ve had a chance to watch so far, FEAR IN THE NIGHT starring Joan Collins (1972) seems interesting. As does the 1947 version starring DeForest Kelley, a non-Sangster/Hammer offering.

    • Hello Prashant – glad you enjoyed the review. Confusingly, the 1947 Maxwell Shane film Fear in the Night is completely unrelated to the later 1972 Joan Collins / Sangster movie of the same title but is in fact an adaptation of the Cornell Woolrich short story ‘And So to Death’ (aka ‘Nightmare’). To add to the Hammer / Sangster confusion further (!), writer-director Shane remade his own 1947 film in 1956 as Nightmare, which is also the title of another Sangster thriller from 1963 and which will be reviewed here at Fedora next week!

  6. Pingback: Nightmare (1964) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

  7. Pingback: Paranoiac (1963) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

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  14. Steve Armour says:

    Can anyone tell me the location of the last sequences of the film? It was amazing looking.

  15. Barbara Plotkin says:

    Hi, this is a great blog!
    I just saw Maniac for the first time last night and Loved it. I was wondering if you could explain a few things for me however. After the shed is set on fire the policeman says that there were two bodies that burned. Knowing what we know now, there could only have been one body since Jeff was rescued (I’m still unclear how) and the “boyfriend” escaped as well. Also, three people must have escaped from the asylum, the husband who was murdered, the aid who was also murdered and the “boyfriend” however only the husband and the aid were discussed as to having escaped. Did I miss something?

    • Hi Barbara – my memory is that the film cheats quite outrageously in trying to fool the viewer on the way to the surprise ending so I suspect that all your confusion is very well founded! Thanks very much for the kind words about the blog too!

      • Steve Armour says:

        As I recall, there were two victims of the fire; one dead and one still alive (the police lied, there was actually only one victim) and Jeff was supposed to be one of the victims. He allowed himself to be wrapped in bandages at the hospital in order to reinforce the lie. She then went to the hospital and removed his I.V. in an attempt to finish him off. The entire scenario was a setup to trap her. Just before they cut away from the shed scene (before the fire), we see someone looking through one of the shed windows, who we are supposed to assume was the agent of Jeff’s rescue after the fire had started and the killer had fled. At least that’s how I remember it all.

        • I always thought it odd that they filmed it the way they did and that they could have made the scene with the guy in bandages a bit more mysterious actually. I do need to watch it again (but I was trying to avoid spoilers here …)

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