The Hammer company stopped acting as its own distributor from the late 1950s, instead making deals with virtually all the Hollywood majors to handle (and bankroll) their output. This film is one of the few made for distribution by that most venerable of studios MGM but is otherwise well in line with the other Jimmy Sangster-scripted thrillers previously released through Columbia and Universal. The main difference is that a man rather than a woman is in jeopardy and the object of a complex criminal plot. Robert Webber is the American in London who, after a car accident, wakes up to find that he is not only suffering from amnesia but is haunted by a woman who apparently died six months earlier.
“I was born four months ago, by the side of a road”
Hammer was a studio that made a virtue of following trends rather than starting them, having its first successes with properties adapted from radio and television serials before hitting the big time by turning to established Gothic literature for inspiration but adding colour and a sense of the ghoulish and the grotesque that pushed at the extremes of what the censors of the day would allow. Having largely turned their back on contemporary thrillers after the success of the Quatermass films in favour of more sensationalist topics, the success of Psycho (1960) inspired them to make some smaller scale contemporary thrillers in the Hitchcock mould, combining scares and expressionistic lighting in a contemporary setting though often retaining the mittel-European flavour of their horror pictures by setting their stories on the Continent. In the case of Hysteria (1965) there is a flashback interlude featuring ‘Chris Smith’ (we never discover his true identity) and a lady of easy virtue set in France (courtesy of the backlot at Elstree where the film was shot) but otherwise the setting is modern-day London. The inspiration seems to have partly derived from Otto Preminger classic murder romance Laura (1944) though there is also quite a sizeable dash of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) added to the mix.
Four months after a car accident in which he was a passenger, ‘Chris Smith’ is still plagued by amnesia, unable to recall who he is or what his previous life was like. His bills at a plush clinic are being paid by an anonymous benefactor. When he leaves, the benefactor also provides ‘Smith’ with an even plusher penthouse apartment in an otherwise unfinished block of flats. He decides to hire a private detective (a great performance, as always, from Maurice Denham, who here gets a much more amusing role that he got in Paranoiac from the same team) to find out who he is, who is paying his bills and the identity of the girl in the photograph that was found with him at the site of the car crash. Back at the flat he starts hearing the voices of a man and woman arguing heatedly through the walls. When he investigates however the rest of the floor is not only empty but still being built. He does find a photo of the beautiful girl in the picture and is told that she was a model who was murdered six months earlier in the building where he is now staying, stabbed in a shower cubicle and wrapped in the curtain. So far so Psycho, but just when he is getting used to this apparent dead-end he spots the apparently dead woman behind the wheel of a sports car. As in Laura, it appears that the beautiful girl in the picture is not dead after all …
By all accounts this was not a very happy production with director Freddie Francis subsequently saying that his heart just wasn’t really in it, though it is all shot with his customary ingenuity and elegance. Indeed, despite some lacklustre sets by Edward Carrick (Hammer regular Bernard Robinson was on another assignment), Francis and his faithful cinematographer John Wilcox once again make good use of the filters the director used on The Innocents (1961) as well as his previous Sangster thrillers Paranoiac and Nightmare (1964). Reportedly Webber didn’t get along with Francis and the crew and didn’t think much of his leading lady Lelia Goldoni either, thus making himself largely disliked by all and sundry. This may explain why he rarely got to star in movies, though he was clearly the fish out of water here, the US actor imported to sell a UK production overseas and he may have disliked being away from home, even for the brief six week shoot. What is certainly true is that he was also one of Hollywood’s most successful character actors, probably tying with William Windom for the number of featured supporting roles on US network telly.
Webber is pretty convincing in a not particularly likeable role – like the protagonist of Sangster’s earlier Maniac (1963), he’s a bit of an adventurer seen leaving one woman and immediately latching on to another. Unlike Kerwin Matthews in that film though, Webber has very little vulnerability – in many ways he comes across a bit like a more pugnacious James Garner but without the wry, self-deprecating sense of irony. Instead he is often querulous and argumentative, pushy and headstrong – in many ways this is a fairly plausible characterisation given the role and it is certainly typical of the way that Hammer films usually didn’t make their star performers particularly sympathetic, which is certainly refreshing, in a bracing sort of way …
Sangster’s script has plot holes that are so large that even one of the conspirators eventually complains that their plan is too complicated. In addition there is a flashback sequence set in France featuring a cameo from the lovely Sue Lloyd that seems to serve little purpose except to pad out the narrative and further establish our protagonist as a hardened womaniser as we see him ludicrously leaping out of the bedroom window of one woman and landing in the car of another woman, with whom he then promptly starts having an affair with. Maybe Cary Grant or Oliver Reed could get away with that, but not Webber … In addition the shower murders are much too reminiscent of the Bates Motel as is the extended denouement, which quickly gets bogged down in talk. On the other hand, the plot for the most part manages to sustain its 85-minute running time fairly successfully with several nice plot reversals. Snd the look, though clearly low budget and not in CinemaScope like it predecessors, is still dynamically shot and framed for maximum impact. A highly entertaining addition to the series, though it is easy to see why this was basically the last of them for several years. Sangster would next return to his Taste of Fear director Seth Holt for the superior but markedly different suspense yarn, The Nanny (1965), starring Hollywood legend Bette Davis.
DVD Availability: Warner Archive Manufacture On Demand, in a pretty decent anamorphic transfer
Director: Freddie Francis
Producer: Jimmy Sangster
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Art Direction: Edward Carrick
Music: Don Banks
Cast: Robert Webber, Lelia Goldoni, Jennifer Jayne, Maurice Denham, Anthony Newland, Sue Lloyd
The full list of Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows:
- 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.
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.