The Snorkel (1958) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

This oddly titled movie is an inverted mystery about a husband who comes up with a seemingly full-proof method to bump off his wife. As such we know the identity of the villain right from the start, though there is plenty of mystery here as well as suspense as we see the narrative unravel (in both senses). Perversely of course we always maintain a little bit of respect for such characters, secretly rooting for them no matter how callous and brutal because we admire the ingenuity of their plan and hate to see it go awry after watching all their efforts to make it succeed. Seen today what the film most resembles of course is an episode of Columbo. Like that classic TV show, we open with a wordless 5-minute pre-credit sequence in which we Paul Decker (German film star Peter Van Eyck) makes detailed preparations inside the sitting room of his wife’s villa. Sealing its doors and windows, he is in fact in the final stages of perpetrating an elaborate locked room murder. Right from the star we know that the methodical Decker is ruthless, cruel  and coldly calculating – which he proves again and again as in the course of this film attempts to get away with the perfect murder – not just once but three times!

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.

The film titles begin over the film’s peculiar snorkel signature image as we see Decker use the eponymous SCUBA gear to remain in a locked and sealed room after he turns on the gas which will then asphyxiate his wife, who appears to be snoozing on the sofa. The next morning, before the servants arrive, he hides in a cubby hole under the floor boards only to emerge once the staff and police, who have had to break through the locked door, have left the premises. When the body is found it looks like suicide by gas but her daughter Candy (short for Candace) is unconvinced, especially as her mother didn’t leave a suicide note to explain her motive. In fact she is certain that Decker somehow did the deed since she is also sure that she saw him murder her father years before, though no one believed her. This is a bit of a weak spot in the narrative as no one seems to consider the importance of the lack of a plausible explanation as to why the mother would want to kill herself – it’s as if the fact that the murder method is so full-proof that w are led to assume that Decker in his arrogance hasn’t bothered to think it through. When Candy starts getting suspicious, the story switches tack and we refocus to see if she will manage to escape her stepfather’s murderous intentions.

Peter Van Eyck is particularly good as Decker, the stepfather with ice in his veins and his villainy is so completely without compromise that he even commits that great cardinal sin of the cinema – he kills a dog! In this case he poisons Candy’s pet pooch Toto (played by ‘Flush’, who gets his own screen credit), who inconveniently finds Decker’s snorkel in his bedroom. The rest of the cast is somewhat mixed – Mandy Miller as  Candy is a bit too old for the part and not especially charismatic though perfectly adequate, which pretty much sums up Betta St. John’s role as Jean, family friend-cum-child-minder. She is also there to suggest that she may be the reason why Decker killed his wife, but again we don’t delve into his motives to any great extent, which is a bit of a relief as it keeps the focus on the mechanics of the crime. The forces of law and order however are much better represented, with Robert Rietty in a nice cameo early as a policeman and Gregoire Aslan in great form as the inspector.

“You think I’m mad, don’t you? They all thought I was mad when I said he killed my daddy”

Mandy Miller and Robert Rietty in ‘The Snorkel’.

Although the story is quite an ingenious one (it is credited to the actor Anthony Dawson, probably still best-known for his role as the hired killer in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, not to be confused with ‘Anthony M. Dawson’, one of the pseudonyms used by Italian director Antonio Margheriti), it is the structure that is particularly rewarding. Although we see the murder at the start of the film, there are many elements that do not become clear until the end, such as how Decker was able to get an alibi that placed him across the border in France at the time of the murder, how he was able to get his wife to lie down and accept her fate and how we was hoping to pacify Candy’s inevitable suspicions. Much of this is explained in a well crafted climax when Decker, having failed to drown Candy in the way that had worked with her father, now decides to re-enact the plan with which he killed her mother.

This is an efficient 90-minute thriller (originally cut to 74-minutes in the USA, but thankfully restored to full length on DVD) which, as would frequently be the case with later Sangster scripts, established a good solid working idea with an attention-grabbing gimmick and then works the plot to a natural breaking point about half-way through. It then has to start again, repeating and varying the formula, giving at worst the impression of a television drama extended and padded out beyond a natural hour-long slot but often introducing an intriguing, ritualistic feel as events repeat themselves and the tables are turned on the villain. This will be seen at its most overt (and perhaps, most successful) in his later film, Nightmare (1963).

This was the first of a series of suspense thrillers that Jimmy Sangster was to write for Hammer Studios. Unusually for the low-budget company, the film is not only set in Italy (Hammer often set films on the Continent) but was in fact partly filmed there, mainly at the Villa della Pergola and in and around Alassio, a once popular holiday location spot on the Italian Riviera and which remains largely unchanged to this day. When first released in 1958, the film was part of new three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures in America which provided some significant investment to improve the facilities at Bray, including the building its largest stage, which was used for the first time on The Snorkel. Combined with the large levels of location cinematography and director Guy Green’s assured handling, this certainly looks and feels like an above average effort for the studio. Historically it also makes for fascinating viewing for the way that it also looks ahead to many of the suspense thrillers that Sangster would later on write for Hammer. Although the point of view is that of the killer, which Sangster would generally avoid, many of the other elements are already in place including starting the film with a murder already having been committed and a young woman being driven to the edge of insanity through a conspiracy. Sangster’s subsequently would refine his thriller formula for Hammer, and then repeat it in several films, which I plan to review soon as they are ll available on DVD either in the US or the UK in pretty decent home video editions.

The full list of Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows, with links to my reviews:

Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

The film’s trailer, very much a product of its time in its over-selling, is available on YouTube:

DVD Availability: Hammer Films: Icons of Suspense Collection from Sony.

The Snorkel (1958)
Director: Guy Green
Producer: Michael Carreras
Screenplay: Peter Myers and Jimmy Sangster (story by Anthony Dawson)
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Art Direction: John Stoll
Music: Francis Chagrin
Cast: Peter van Eyck (Paul Decker), Betta St. John (Jean Duval), Mandy Miller (Candy Duval), William Franklyn (Wilson), Gregoire Aslan (inspector), Robert Rietty (desk sergeant)

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

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19 Responses to The Snorkel (1958) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Yvette says:

    The picture of the guy in the snorkel…I imagined him flopping around the old villa with fish feet. But of course, it wouldn’t have been necessary for him to wear flippers. :)

    Still, if I saw a guy with a snorkel over his face lurking in the shadows, I’d die of fright. Though I assume Decker doesn’t let anyone see him with that thing over his face.

    I remember Peter Van Eyck from, I think, RUN FOR THE SUN, in which he played an evil Nazi hiding in the jungle after the war. Richard Widmark was the hero. I’m looking forward to watching this soon. Netflix has it.

    Terrific post, Sergio.

    • Thanks Yvette – it is a truly bizarre image and if it weren’t for the slow build-up it would be very hard not to laugh, as you say. It’s one of those small genre films that I ended up liking a lot more than I thought I would probably because I had zero expectations and instead it has a nicely layered plot, a great villain, some decent set-pieces and a properly ironic finale – I hope you get to see it.

  2. John says:

    The last time you reviewed a Hammer film I added a slew of films, including this one, to my Netflix queue. I just moved THE SNORKEL to the top of the list. I only read the first two paragraphs of this post and then stopped so I can watch the movie “unbiased” as it were. A few months ago I saw that child molester movie Hammer produced (Never Take Candy from a Stranger, I think is the title) and was impressed with how advanced it was for the 1960s. The final sequence with the two girls being pursued through the woods, then getting in the boat and not realizing it was still ited to the dock was extremely well done. I think I mentioned this previously in some other comment on your blog.

    The disc also has MANIAC on it. Is that any good? Or should I just watch THE SNORKEL? Don’t you think it should’ve had a more enticing title? I wonder how well it did at the box office. I bet most people at the time thought it was a movie about diving or an undersea adventure and not a murder tale.

    • Good to hear from you John – I do remember us talking about Never Take Candy from a Stranger when I did a commemorative post after the passing of writer-producer Jimmy Sangster and which is definitely a film that is better than you think it probably would be. That’s how I feel about The Snorkel – a fascinating precursor of things to come but thanks to a fun story, an excellent protagonist-cum-villain and an unusual setting it definitely rises about the average thriller Hammer had been putting out in the 50s. The Sony Hammer: Icons of Suspense DVD, which is what I have here at home, and which must be the one available on Netflix, has six titles on it (2 per disc): Candy (or ‘Sweets’as it is in the UK, speaking of titles) is paired with Cash On Demand , a really tense drama starring Peter Cushing which is absolutely superb by the way (and which I also hope to post on fairly soon), Joseph Losey’s strange but fascinating science fiction drama The Damned with The Snorkel; and the rather routine Val Guest thriller Stop Me Before I Kill with Maniac, which I plan to review in a couple of weeks as a Forgotten Tuesday as I want to do all the Sangster psych-thrillers as a tribute but which, to be honest, is probably one of the weaker entries, not helped by plodding direction by his close friend (and Hammer executive and heir-apparent) Michael Carreras. I’d go with The Snorkel, but will review Maniac in a fortnight, so if that helps…

      I know what you mean about the titles – Maniac is bluntly exploitative and The Snorkel is pretty silly, though the film does make references to Jacques Cousteau via a movie poster for one of his films (it in fact provides an important clue). Next weak I am doing Taste of Fear (or more prosaically in the US, Scream of Fear) for Todd’s meme, a minor classic in my view and Sangster’s own favourite of his films.

  3. John says:

    OH! The Damned. I saw that! In the US versions of those Hammer double DVDS Never Take Candy from a Stranger is paired with These Are the Damned (the US title). Very strange dystopian movie that I was very puzzled by. Starts off like a strange Brit version of The Wild One or some juvie biker melodrama and then gets really weird with the underground schoolroom. But slowly I caught on to what was happening with those doomed kids. Some very powerful and poignant scenes between MacDonald Carey, Shirley Ann Field, and those children even for this jaded viewer. I’m sure it was incredibly disturbing to the audiences of the 1960. Viveca Lindfors was very impressive in one of the most interesting roles as the eccentric sculptress who sacrifices her life in trying to rescue the kids. I nearly turned it off, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Very unusual and well worth a look. Joseph Losey, the director of The Prowler. Aah! no wonder I liked it.

    Scream of Fear reminded me of a poor imitation of Les Diaboliques. But I fell asleep watching it and haven’t a clue what happened in the final third. Oops. Maybe I ought to try it again. If I can find it — Netflix has pulled it form circulation for those of us who like the old mail me a DVD option.

    • I’m doing Taste / Scream of Fear for next week’s Tuesday’s Forgotten Film so I’ll get back to you on that, though I like it a lot more than you did, while not denying the fact that it is clearly made in a ‘mode’ shall we say that is highly reminiscent of Les Diaboliques – but I think it is superbly well made and shot and worth trying again -see if I can persuade you next week! The Damned (aka We Are the Damned) is a great and very strange movie, kept on the shelf by Hammer and Columbia for a long time – one sometimes wishes that Losey had a greater sense of humour but his handling of actors and difficult material is matched by a superb visual sense – intriguingly, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe more or less shot Taste of Fear and Losey’s classic The Servant back-to-back and it is fascinating to compare the cuckoo-in-the-nest storylines of both these films, as told for a genre audience on the one hand and for the art-house viewer on the other – glad to say I belong to both churches!

  4. Steve Lewis says:

    Todd’s weekly compilation of “Forgotten” Films is extremely frustrating. Too many movies I’ve never heard of, especially if you read the comments, too. Thanks, guys!

    • Hi Steve – I know exactly what you mean – there’s a big difference between ‘forgotten’ and ‘never heard of’! But I always enjoy reading about things, even if I know nothing about the subject, as long as the people writing are genuinely passionate about them!

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

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

  7. Excellent review. I saw this film when I was young in the mid 60s and it made a really powerful impression on me. I’d love to see it again.

    • Hello Martin, thanks very much for the comments. It’s a great little movie and the DVD is definitely above average in terms of picture quality – no extras apart from a trailer but the film is the thing here and thankfully manages to raise itself above being a mere ‘gimmick’ movie.

  8. Colin says:

    Sergio, I just watched this one tonight, and enjoyed it quite a bit. You’re right of course about the weak/absent motivation. I think, as you mentioned, the apparently foolproof method blinds everyone to that and it’s supposed to do so with the viewer too.

    I thought Van Eyck was excellent – ruthless, yet somehow sympathetic too. Actually, sympathetic isn’t the word but, probably as a result of his meticulous planning, you do find yourself half rooting for him. I have a hunch too that Mandy Miller is partially responsible for that feeling. You say she’s about adequate, and I guess that’s fair enough. However, I also found her pretty irritating for some reason, and that’s a very damaging quality; this kind of movie needs to have a heroine whose side you’re unquestionably on. I didn’t get that sense, partly because Van Eyck did such a good job, and partly because Ms Miller didn’t really.

    Anyway, a nicely juddged review and a worthwhile movie.

    • Hi Colin, great, really glad you managed to catch up with it and found it worthwhile. It is a shame, as you say, that the leading lady isn’t strong enough against such formidable opposition – now, had it been someone like Pamela Franklin (albeit a few years later) then ti might have been a very different movie – but then , it was always going to be Van Eyck’s show, wasn’t it? It’s so hard not to play fantasy football casting sometimes ..!

  9. Todd Mason says:

    Consideration of THE SNORKEL, thanks to the one-sheets post on Bill Crider’s blog, got this going on the Horror List at Indiana University today:

    From: Pearce Duncan:
    Eric G. Anderson wrote:

    > “The Snorkel?!”

    It’s a shame they didn’t cross it over with one of their more traditional series.

    Frankenstein Created Snorkels!

    Taste the Snorkel of Dracula!

    Quatermass Snorkles the Pit?

    Okay, I’m done.

    Cheers,
    Pearce

    From: Todd Mason
    (THESE ARE) THE SNORKLERS…

    DRACULA IS SNORKELING FROM THE GRAVE…

    FIVE MILLION SNORKELS TO EARTH in the States…

    THE DEVIL SNORKELS OUT…

    STRAIGHT ON TILL SNORKELING…

    FRANKENSTEIN AND THE SNORKEL FROM HELL…

    And, of course, the hype line for all of these is: “I Will Show You Fear in Three Feet of Water…” or “Just Breathe…” or “Go Ahead. Spit in the Mask. You Won’t Like What You See….”

    TM

    • Womderful stuff Todd, thanks very mich for sharing! One can imagine the pop craze tie-in: ‘Groove to the latest dance craze – Get hot and hevy and Do the snorkel

      My borther and I used to have a game with Bond movies along the same line: Man with the Golden Frog, Frogfinger, You Only Frog Twive … and so on.

      • Todd Mason says:

        As it turned out, I couldn’t resist one more:

        THE FOUR-SNORKEL TRIANGLE. TM

        and then Eric lobbed this over the net:

        From: Eric G. Anderson
        And let’s not forget the vastly superior Italian version IL RESPIRATORE.

        [so:]
        –released in the States as FOUR HORSEFLIES ON GREY NEOPRENE…

        TM (ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET FROG is certainly an interesting image-generator)

  10. Pingback: A Taste of Evil (1971) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

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