Paranoiac (1963) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

The young Oliver Reed was under contract at Hammer Studios just before becoming a major star and Paranoiac is among his best films of the period, providing the actor with one of his earliest chances to play the kind of dangerously charismatic drunken roué that would come to define his onscreen persona. Although part of the series of suspense thrillers written by Jimmy Sangster for the studio in the 1960s, this is a slightly unusual entry because it wasn’t a script that originated with him. In fact, although ultimately it was uncredited on-screen (though official in the sense that they bought the rights), it was an adaptation of Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel, Brat Farrar.

“Auntie dear, my sister’s insane”

The novel was originally bought by the studio in 1952 and announced and cancelled more than once, remaining unmade until the success of Taste of Fear (1961) made it seem commercially viable, though Sangster’s changes to the plot and characters ultimately meant that the book received no on-screen acknowledgement. This was the second of three black and white CinemaScope thrillers scripted by Sangster for Hammer in 1962, all of which are variations on the damsel-in-mental-distress theme. Like its predecessors, it is set in the (then) contemporary 1960s but stylistically has much in common with the studio’s better-known costume horror output. Indeed it even begins in a churchyard …

Janette Scott and Alexander Davion in Paranoiac (1963)

It is eight years since the reported death of Tony Ashby who at age fifteen left a suicide note and then swam out to sea and drowned, though his body was never recovered. He was, it is said, despondent over the death of his parents three years earlier and the film begins with a remembrance service for them and introduces us to the remaining members of the Ashby family. The focal character is Eleanor, played with winning mixture of neurosis, innocence and winsome charm (not an easy mixture!) by Janette Scott (the daughter of famed character actress Thora Hird and the second wife of Mel Tormé). Especially attached to her brother Tony, she has never really accepted the official circumstances surrounding his apparent death. At the service she is flanked by her stern aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) and her nurse Françoise (Liliane Brousse, as insipid and inexpressive here as she was in the previous film in the cycle, Maniac), while her caddish brother Simon (Reed) plays the church organ.

Janette Scott in Paranoiac (1963)

At the church, Eleanor collapses after she thinks she sees Tony’s spectre in the shadows. Later that evening Janette once again thinks she sees her dead brother in the garden and chases after him fruitlessly until brought back home. We soon learn that she is quite neurotic on the subject of her dead sibling, convinced in fact that Tony has come back to take her with him to the ‘other side’. But of course, there is more to it as Simon has been playing on her nerves with the help of Françoise, his lover, making her even edgier than she already is. Simon in fact is a bad lot all round – a drunk and a spendthrift who likes nothing better than taking foreign holidays and driving around in his jag, spending money recklessly. In three weeks time he will come into his inheritance, worth some £600,000, but at the moment he is subject to the control of the estate by John Kosset, the family solicitor (a typically scene-stealing turn by the great Maurice Denham), who makes no secret of his dislike for Simon and his profligate ways. Simon gets on better with Kossett’s son Keith, from whom he borrows money having hinted fairly unsubtly that otherwise he will audit the estate after he inherits to see if it is a few thousand pounds short. Keith quickly provides a cash ‘loan’ …

Eleanor has reached breaking point and, going to the same cliffs where Tony’s suicide note was found, she decides to join him and jumps in. She is rescued and brought back to the house by a man (a nice understated performance by Alexander Davion) who claims to be Tony – much to Aunt Harriet”s fury and distrust. Simon initially even tries to run him over in his car before apparently accepting him into the family after ‘Tony’ passes old man Kossett’s identity tests. As is customary with Sangster’s stories from this era, it is when the film reaches its halfway mark that it takes its first major plot twist when we discover that ‘Tony’ is actually an impostor in the employ of Keith, who clearly has been cooking the books behind his father’s back. Simon however is having none of this and decides to bump off all those who stand between him and the inheritance, leading to a literal cliffhanger after the cuts the brakes on his sister’s car. It becomes clear that he is truly unhinged and the story takes a Gothic, Poe-inspired turn as the second half of the story largely relocates to the Ashby’s disused chapel where Simon likes nothing better than to practice playing the church organ in the company of a mysterious figure sporting a grotesque mask, a choir boy’s surplice and wielding a butcher’s meat hook.

Oliver Reed in an eye-catching underwater shot in Paranoiac (1963)

Director Freddie Francis (in collaboration with the film’s DP, Arthur Grant) reuses many of the stylistic tropes he previously put to good effect when cinematographer on The Innocents (1961), in particular using a filter to create a shade around the edges of the anamorphic frame for scenes of particular intensity or to generate a dream-like atmosphere. As the film shifts from the psychological suspense of the first half to the more overtly Gothic Psycho (1960) style of the second half – which involves a mummified body, a climactic conflagration and several deaths and intimations of incest and sexual perversion which caused prolonged run-ins with the censors – so shadows start to really predominate and there are several smart shocks thanks to the superior handling of the material. With some nice underplaying from its main cast and a performance from Reed that only really goes too far in the OTT climax, which largely abandons plot logic anyway, this is a highly entertaining, fairly well controlled thriller with several nicely executed sequences amongst a plethora of red herrings which shouldn’t dent one’s enjoyment (if you’re in the right mood that is).

DVD / Blu-ray Availability: Hammer Horror Series: The Franchise Collection region 1 DVD from Universal and on Blu-ray (region B) in an exquisite transfer from Eureka Home Video.

The full list of Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows:

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

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.

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

This entry was posted in Gothic, Hammer Studios, Jimmy Sangster, Josephine Tey, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Paranoiac (1963) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Curt Evans says:

    I remember seeing this some years ago and recall that they definitely throw incestuous desire into the queasy kettle. Oliver Reed really plays it for its worth (and then some). Have never seen the one where he plays a werewolf, but I imagine he’s quite a believable one!

    • Hi Curtis, good to hear from you. The leading lady is a very sick puppy in this one, first morbidly suicidal and then falling in love with the re-embodied spectre of her own brother! In Wayne Kramer’s invaluable history of the Hammer studio you get several pages of correspondence over the various ‘unhealthy’ parts of the plot …

      • Curt Evans says:

        On the creepy incest aspect, how about Aunt Harriet, who, as I recall, seems to take quite the interest in our Oliver! By the way, I just checked this actress on imdb and she’s Sheilah Burrell, who just died in July at the age of 89. She played a very memorable “Ada Doom” in the film adpatation of “Cold Comfort Farm” in 1995.

        Also, Janette Scott played Simon Pegg’s mother a few years ago, in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Looks like Simon Pegg is a fan! Now I’ll have to look that one up!

        All the stuff with the disused chapel and the organ reminds me a lot of the 1938 English Edgar Wallace film, the Terror, based on his hit old dark house play from the 1920s.

        Such a shame we lost Olver Reed prematurely. He certainly did a lot of junk, God knows, but he was a great actor and I think would have landed some good stuff in the last decade.

        • Simon Pegg is a big horror and Hammer fan of course so I’m sure you’re right about that, and about the Wallace influences. The Terror incidentally is available to view online (stream or download) from the Internet Archive (it’s PD in the US apparently, though not in the UK I suspect …). You can access it easily if you click here.

  2. Curt Evans says:

    Another thing: surely this is Josephine Tey with a very heavy dollop of Edgar Wallace (whose books were being loosely adapted into German fright films constantly in the 1960s)? I like the film myself, but I’m not certain what Tey would have made of it!

    • I’m doing a full review of the Tey novel shortly (I am currently readingg it) so I’ll get back to you on that, but the ‘krimi’ films from Germany were definitely an influence, I think you’re right there. It is fascinating to see how the Wallace adaptations and the 60s Mabuse films split off to create willfully perverse and decadent thrillers that led to the more horror-inclined ‘gialli’ – the Gothic influence at Hammer is certainly part of tht heady mix which combines a love of whodunits and thrillers from the interwar years with a Victorian sense of a society rigidly codified and defined on the surface and teeming with licentious behavious and dissipation underneath – Matthew Sweet wrote an amusing book on parts of this, ‘Inventing the Victorians’ (2001) which is certainly worth a look.

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  4. Colin says:

    One thing I found about Sangster’s thrillers of this period is that they start to blur into each other when you’ve seen a number of them; they all share so many similar characteristics. However, I think Reed’s performance helps this one stand out a bit more, and the “choirboy” figure is a memorable image too.
    Nice review. I haven’t bought the BD of this, sticking with the R1 set for now, despite all the good things I’ve heard about the transfer. I’ve kind of made a bargain with myself not to upgrade any title unless I feel the original SD transfer was in some way inadequate. Up to now, the only exception I’ve made is The Searchers. I guess I just don’t have either the money or the desire to go about rebuying large numbers of titles.

    • Hi Colin, thanks for the comments. Certainly have to agree about the overlapping elements which come through loud and clear for me watching them in such close proximity over the last few weeks – but then, they were also made in such close proximity that it must have been unavoidable. Hysteria was the last of the core group and I’ll be reviewing it next week and it definitely feels like a series that had run its course by then, though in many ways the narrative is much better sustained, which is just as well as th budgets were definitely shrinking by this point. I agree with you about BD upgrades though I have made exception for new extras. The Blu-ray of PARANIAC does have an isolated music (and effects) track … How would you rate the BD of THE SEARCHERS by the way? I was really disappointed by the BD of RIO BRAVO with its grainy, dank and dark colour scheme which was totally different from the previous DVD (which admittedly was probably a bit too pink and smooth).

      • Colin says:

        I’m very pleased with the BD of The Searchers. It doesn’t correct the yellowish tint that the DVD suffers from but, for me anyway, that was never a deal breaker. It’s just such a beautiful film and the BD really shows it off to excellent effect.

        Can’t comment on the Rio Bravo disc as i don’t have it. I did buy the rejigged DVD when it came out a few years back – is that the one you have? – and there were complaints about the subdued lighting at the time. Personally, I wasn’t bothered by this, and I think from reading around it came closer to the lighting scheme (for the interiors anyway) that Hawks intended. Ultimately though, these things are pretty subjective; what looks good or bad to our eyes won’t always tally with the views of others.

        • Great news about THE SEARCHERS – I know John Hodson pointed to issues over day-for-night sequences but like most VistaVision movies you really do want to have the best version possible to retain the original large format look. I have the earlier, region 1 release of RIO BRAVO, which has a different palette from the later versions. I rented the Blu-ray and was disheartened by how grainy and heavy the images were. Thanks for the info. Solely in terms of picture quality upgrade, off the top of my head I would really reccommend the UK BD of IPCRESS FILE for instance, which has a much more pleasing image than any of the DVDs even though it has virtually no extras. The print the BBC showed at Christmas was utterly atrocious …

    • PS and thanks for the advice about using VLC – I used it for the 2 image grabs here.

  5. Yvette says:

    I’ve read BRAT FARRAR a couple of times and also saw the BBC’s version (which I loved) a few years ago. This one sounds like Tey wouldn’t have wanted her name to have anything to do with it. Can’t wait to see what you think of the book, Sergio.

    Not being a fan of Oliver Reed (I always thought of him as a brutish sort of actor – I prefer a bit more subtlety.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen this film. Though your review was excellent, I don’t think I’m adding this to my queue anytime soon. 🙂

    • Hello Yvette, well, I suspect you’re probably right about this movie, though I should emphasise that it is all pretty restrained on-screen. Reed could be an extraordinary actor though, especially in the 1960s though even as late as in Nic Roeg’s little-seen Castaway (1986) he could project a really beguling sense of vulnerability. He’s great in Women in Love (1969) for instance.

  6. Curt Evans says:

    Yes, he is, Sergio, and then there’s his villainous turn in Oliver! and his performance in The Three and Four Musketeers (great chemistry in the second one with Faye Dunaway) and The Trap (anyone who saw that film back when it came out seems to remember it and Reed). Reed was one of the memorable English “Angry Young Man” actors, I think, but he sure made a lot of bad films! Always had that smoldering, ambiguous edge, like Sean Bean today (the actor who plagued Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring).

    Yes, I’m afraid Tey would not have liked this film, which doesn’t capture her lighter “manners” style at all as I recall. I wonder what she made of Hitchcock’s version of The Singing Sands, Young and Innocent, which keeps probably about 5% of the book!

    • Colin says:

      Have to agree with the others here on Reed. He was a seriously underrated actor who had great range and could tap into a kind of tough sensitivity, if that makes sense.
      I think, and it saddens me to say so, that his off-screen shenanigans coloured public perceptions of his abilities. The older he got, and the more poor films he racked up, the more prevalent this negative view became.

      • Curt Evans says:

        “Have to agree with the others here on Reed. He was a seriously underrated actor who had great range and could tap into a kind of tough sensitivity, if that makes sense.”

        Yeah, Women in Love caught that aspect. There have definitely been a lot of women over the decades drawn to his “bad boy” persona. The tough guy they wanted to reform!

        • That does come through in his other major Hammer role in Curse of the Werewolf, which isn’t much of a movie though let’s face it … Incidentally, The Devils is finally coming out on DVD in the UK shortly – it’s an extraordinary and very difficult film, but once again, surrounded by hysteria, he is surprisingly low key – well, until the roasting finale on the pyre that is!

          • Colin says:

            Ah, The Devils – now that’s one seriously challenging movie. That climax is gruesome and one scene that I find extremely difficult to watch.

          • I quite agree and I have only ever been able to sit through it once in one go once actually, though it is definitely the kind of home video release that I want to support and encourage in a shrinking marketplace … When I worked at a film footage library there was a list of slightly (or in some case, very) daft requests that got put through to the information service, and amongst them was a request for stock footage of ‘people with skin complains being burned at the stake’, for which the Russel movie was the best we could come up with. My film buffery could take me no further …

      • No question that his frequently shambolic and drunken public appearances on chat shows and the like got sadder and sadder as they went on – but he actually gives a very restrained performance in his last movie, Gladiator, and I think he did also have a strong comedic sense too, which is always a surprising asset in a leading man. He was certainly a lot more versatile then he is usually given credit for and certainly had bags of charisma – but obviously a lot of insecurities and demons, and most people can relate to that I would have thought …

    • Hiya Curt – Well, I’m sure Tey would have found Paranoiac pretty vulgar – but as for Young and Innocent, Hitchcock was ‘notorious’ (sic) even then for rarely keeping to the letter of his literary adaptations (Rebecca is a major exception and Selznick is the main reason for that) so she can’t have been surprised.

      Reed, like Caine, seems to have made a remarkable number of films just for the cash, but he was hilarious as the god Vulcan in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which I have enormous affection for, and is wonderful in an early Michael (cough) Winner film, The System (incidentally, photographed by Nic Roeg) which has a strong melancholy flavour despite being about young people in the swinging 60s.

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    this would have me up for weeks.

    • Hi Patti – well I suppose was the point but it’s not even remotely as scary as Psycho for example and a few loopy elements towards the end notwithstanding, it is basically a florid suspense movie with lots of twists, not a horror film.

  8. This has turned out to be an instructive class on films, film stars and film-making – thank you, Sergio, Curt, Colin, and Yvette. I haven’t got around to watching Sangster/Hammer thrillers yet and your reviews have been tickling my curiosity no end.

  9. John says:

    Will have to check this out. I’ve seen so many of these Sangster Hammer films, but this one has yet to arrive in my home as issued from my seemingly endless Netflix queue. (I guess I ought to move it up and get cracking on watching all 70 plus movies in my queue now that I hear they are on the verge of bankruptcy. No more DVDs arriving in my mailbox? The horror!)

    I’ll just add my two cents on the Reed comparisons. I’d say that the closest thing to Oliver Reed we have these days is Jason Statham. Though I know nothing of Statham’s personal life and don’t know if he was into heavy drinking, sexual carousing, or acting up in public as Reed did repeatedly Statham’s oncreeen persona is the closest (I think) to Reed’s early career. And if only Reed had done more light comedic roles like his turn in those marvelous Musketeer movies. They were a blast! And he was darn funny.

    (P.S. My first Ed McBain review will arrive at my blog in about two weeks!)

    • John, thanks for that (can’t wait for the McBain review!). This is certainly more perverse than Nightmare, let’s put it that way … I have never heard the Reed comparison made to Statham, which is certainly intriguing – certainly in the Lee Marvin vein perhaps, though I don’t find him as charismatic as either to be honest … Reed was a bit of a one-off though, and that’s the truth and it is a real shame that he didn’t make more good movies like the Richard Lester versions of the Musketeers films which I also think are great.

  10. Skywatcher says:

    The Musketeer movies were wonderful, although I always felt that there was a fine edge of melancholy to his Athos. He starred alongside Diana Rigg in a splendid period comedy/thriller THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU, which deserves to be much better known. Reed played a light leading man role effortlessly in the film, and you have to wonder how he would have played 007 (he was considered for the role). He did some tosh, but for every few time wasters he would give an absolutely corking performance in a good movie. Definitely taken before his time.

    • Reed is absolutely splendid as Athos in Lester’s Musketeers film – it’s a great role but it definitely helps when you have a great actor play the part. And he did get to play some lighter roles in the sixties often for Michael Winner (who did make some more than acceptable movies at the time, lest we forget). Indeed, along with the Lester and the late Ken Russell, he was the director he worked with the most often. Haven’t seen Assassination Bureau in about 25 years or more but I always remember the scene when he sprays someone with brandy and then sets fire to it! His other great Hammer role was in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (aka We Are the Damned), not to be confused with the Dirk Bogarde movie of the same name, which is well worth rediscovering for anyone that hasn’t seen it – makes you wish reed had worked more often with major directors. Incidentally, he was the nephew of Carol Reed, who directed him in Oliver!

  11. Ela says:

    I really enjoy Tey’s novels, and recognise a good deal of Brat Farrar’s plot in your review of the first half of the film… In the novel Eleanor is troubled by her feelings for Brat since she thinks he’s Patrick (but isn’t, of course). Simon in the book is still unpleasant but at least not completely unhinged!

    • Hi Ela, thanks very much for the comments. I’m just starting to read the book now so I’ll have to get back to you on how faithful it is to the original – it’s my understanding that it is basically the same in terms of the throughline of the story , but with Hammer’s Gothic trappings added on top – but I plan to do a proper review of the book, hopefully next week (fingers crossed) …

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  13. Bacon Fry says:

    Sorry for the belated reply, but just wanted to add what an excellent review this was – I’ve had a soft spot for Paraoiac since buying it as part of Sony’s excellent R1 set. It’s certainly an effective little thriller, with one or two standout moments – Oliver Reed’s general unhingedness always being good value, and the scene where Eleanor thinks she’s heading towards an incestual relationship with ‘Tony.’ Janette Scott was ravishing in it and I really like the photo you’ve used.

    As for Mad Ollie, I remember a holiday in Malta where I could enter a bar that advertised itself as his drinking hole during the making of Gladiator. A bit grim, really. He’s just brilliant in the Musketeers movies, all that pain and heartache pent up within a subtle, soft-spoken series of performances. I do wonder, though, if his many drunk/hungover scenes were the result of good acting or Reed applying ‘the method.’

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