Crescendo (1970) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Hammer made a return to the thriller genre after a break of several years by dusting off an old script by Alfred Shaughnessy that originally had been intended as a possible vehicle for Joan Crawford with Michael Reeves to direct. But she declined the offer and by the time the film was put into production several years later, the company was not what it once was. Indeed there is a strong sense in the finished film that this was a conscious attempt to recapture past glories, with the final script by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster once again set in the south of France with a young American tourist plunged into a complex family conspiracy.

The following 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.

“Nothing’s been changed. Nothing will ever be changed “

We begin in a dreamy fashion with a striking slow motion pre-credit sequence in which we see James Olson riding his horse in the Camargue (the setting for an earlier Sangster thriller for Hammer, Maniac). He meets a woman dressed in a pink dress wearing a pearl-encrusted pendant. As they kiss they are approaches by a man carrying a shotgun. We see that it is also Olson – the shotgun is raised and as it fires he awakes from the nightmare.

The story proper begins with arrival of Susan, played by the ravishing Stefanie Powers. She is a music student and has come to say in the French villa inhabited by the family of the late composer Henry Ryman. She is writing her thesis on Ryman’s work and his widow Danielle (Margaretta Scott) has invited her over from New York. Her son Georges (Olson) is now wheelchair bound following an unspecified accident some years before that has left him paralysed from the waist down. The two strike up a slightly uneasy rapport as he is clearly attracted to her but also quite reticent about talking about himself. Apart from a sexy and occasionally impudent young maid (Jane Lapotaire), who seems to have a very strange relationship with Gorges, and a sinister driver/manservant (Joss Ackland), they are the only people staying at the house – and indeed, these five actors make up the entire cast of the film, set in and around the house. This includes a large swimming pool and an annex known as the ‘music room’, a dusty place full of the composer’s belongings and which is also the location for some unexplained goings on late at night. There seems to be some sort of unspoken understanding between the lady of the house and the driver, and before long piano music (Ryman’s unfinished symphony) can be heard being played after dark, though no one will admit to it. Sound familiar? If truth be told, the similarities to the company’s classic Taste of Fear don’t end there either …

Powers makes for an appealing heroine, as she already had a few years earlier in Fanatic (1965), another one of the studio’s neglected thrillers, which had paired her opposite the formidable Tallulah Bankhead. Here she comes across pretty convincingly as a doctoral student, though it emerges that she has, in part, been invited not just for her academic skills but for her youthful good looks. Indeed Danielle, as she immediately insists Susan call her, seems to have a slightly creepy interest in her appearance. The young girl’s trunk has gone missing in transit so she is given some clothes found in the house, which fit her remarkably well. This simultaneously draws and repels Georges … James Olson, who that same year also starred in the company’s ill-begotten and unintentionally laughable science fiction excursion Moon Zero Two, makes for an unconventional leading man. Hs taciturn and saturnine demeanour prove eminently suitable for a bitter ex tennis player who has retreated into drug dependency after a succession of failures. It soon emerges that the mother is hoping to engineer a romance between them as Susan resembles Georges’ long-lost lover, Catherine. Her son in fact is haunted by images of her and these are presented by director Alan Gibson in fairly striking fashion. As we progress through these dream interludes, we slowly find out what it is that is behind the bizarre imagery until we reach a concluding sequence that serves to explain, with a slight ambiguity, much of the mysterious background to the story.

The mother clearly has her eyes set on Susan but the maid, Lilianne, also has designs on becoming the new mistress of the house, using her ability to get drugs for Georges as leverage for a promise of marriage. In a sign of how the studio was trying to keep up with the times, we see her tease him by stripping off and then making him watch as she goes for a nude swim in the pool – this leads to the first major suspense sequence as she is stabbed to death by an unseen assailant. This is staged fairly impressively by Gibson with some fine underwater shots as we see her float in a slowly expanding cloud of red. The next morning the mother explains the maid’s absence in a throw-away line so we are now pretty sure that she must be responsible for what is going on. But who is the killer? Georges had previously asked Susan to leave but now wants her to stay and the two embark on a tender relationship that deserves some kudos for trying to do something a little bit unusual. No one could mistake this for The Raging Moon (1971), Coming Home (1978), The Waterdance (1992) or even Monkey Shines (1988), but the relationship between Susan and the paraplegic Georges is handled with some sensitivity, working mostly thanks to fairly convincing playing from the leads. But then the plot comes back, kicking and screaming for our attention …

In many ways this is a story that follows the Jane Eye/Rebecca template, with the young girl increasingly feeling that she is following in somebody else’s footsteps as she grows attached to the brooding and secretive master of the house. If Sangster is clearly re-shuffling many of the elements from past successes (and once again drawing on Psycho for the basement sequence in the climax), the attempts to update the plot with doses of drugs and sex (Lapotaire, Olsen and Powers all bravely disrobe briefly for the film) is actually less embarrassing than I first feared. The nudity is pretty fleeting and the violence (mainly shotgun blasts) also boils over pretty quickly in just a couple of shots, so never feels too exploitative (although this is still Hammer we are talking about). The drugs aspect is also handled quite intriguingly as Georges, in his drug-induced dreams, is seen reshuffling the moments leading up to his accident much as Sangster seem to be going over old scripts of his. The recourse to classical music on the other hand does feel like a leftover from an earlier age, as do the credits proudly proclaiming that Malcolm Williams’ score is played by the London Symphony Orchestra with contributions by soloists Tubby Hayes (on sax) and Clive Lythgoe (piano). But the score is in fact quite pretty and melodic and nothing to be ashamed of, though Hammer were probably quite wrong to see it as a selling point for a 1970 thriller emphasising sex, drugs and violence.

Like Taste of Fear, despite some genuine location filming in France, this has an artificial,  largely stage-bound feel with the setting restricted almost completely to the main house and the area around the pool – which appropriately enough serves as the location for the predictably hysterical finale that leaves two people floating dead in the water and the poor heroine fleeing for her life. It does more or less manage to knit together the various strands of the plot such as the bizarre dreams, the obsession with Susan’s appearance, the mother’s infatuation with completing her dead husband’s unfinished symphony and the mysterious piano playing – and does deliver, for this viewer at least, an unexpected big plot twist too. It’s not plausible, it’s not sensible and other may see it coming (specially if they check out the listing on IMDb before watching the movie), but the bog twist, while undeniably from left field, does fit in with general narrative. On the other hand, the actual end of the film, if not exactly abrupt, is unsatisfying in that it leaves most things unsaid and just has one character run away from it all as a solution, which seems in context completely out of character really.

Not a patch on Taste of Fear then but with some decent performances, a nice musical score, and taut direction, this is a fairly enjoyable suspenser that delivers some nice twists  and deserves at least one viewing.

DVD Availability: Available in the US as part of the Warner Archive manufacture on demand series, the DVD offers a decent anamorphic transfer of the original uncut version of the film.

Crescendo (1970)
Director: Alan Gibson
Producer: Michael Carreras
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster and Alfred Shaughnessy
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Art Direction: Scott MacGregor
Music: Malcolm Williamson
Cast: Stefanie Powers, James Olson, Joss Ackland, Jane Lapotaire, Margaretta Scott

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

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

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

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18 Responses to Crescendo (1970) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Colin says:

    I saw this a few times many years ago – it seemed, unless my memory’s playing tricks on me, to run fairly regularly on UK TV up to the mid-80s. Ok, I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I too recall it as a kind of poor man’s Taste of Fear. It’s not a bad film in itself yet, once you’re familiar with its more illustrious cousin, it appears a little weak and lacklustre.

    I’m glad you referred to the sets and the artificial feel they create. I’ve often though that these obvious sound stage settings work a bit better with B&W movies. I’ll grant that sometimes the directors want to emphasise the unreality of the film or plot, but at other times the whole thing just comes across as a bit cheap and fake. I think that a clever director and cameraman could more easily disguise or divert attention from the sets with the flexibility of lighting arrangements that B&W filming allowed.

    Anyway, nice review Sergio.

    • Cheers Colin – and I agree completely that in Black and White the automatic artificiality makes a less naturalistic approach much more plausible – or as Orson welles said to Peter Bogdanovich, “Black and white is the actor’s friend”. Obviously in the review I didn’t want to include any spoilers, but I was quite surprised by the bizarre turn of the story in the conclusion even though I think it has been more than adequately prepared for. You probably need to be a bit indulgent to truly enjoy this movie – in the wrong mood and it would be easy to be scathing abotu the small cast and somewhat cliched scenario. It was a lot better than i anticipated, let’s put it that way! Olson was one of the those actors that was incredibly visible in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up (The Andromeda Strain is one of my favourite movies from that time), but it’s easy to forget that since he has not, according to IMDb, been on film & TV in the last 20 years. I hope he is well and happy – he’s in his 80s now …

      • Colin says:

        I hadn’t realized that James Olson hasn’t appeared in anything for so long. Like you say, his face was such a familiar one back in the day. It seemed that he made an appearance in just about every TV show I watched in the 70s and 80s. Quite a distinctive looking guy.

        • I found myself really warming to his understated performance – I know he can be quite chilly in a lot of his performances (let’s face it, he just looks lofty) and got lumbered with a lot of villainour roles after a bit, but in Crescendo you end up feeling quite a lot of sympathy for him. In the resolution though there is am intriguing ambiguity that you cna’t go into without really spoiling things – suffice it so say, how responsible does he feel for the death in his dreams – the way it’s shot you get the impression he is pushing the woman in the pink dress in harm’s way …)

          • Colin says:

            I’d actually like to see this movie again – you’re doing a good job of selling it. I don’t like the Archive price though for a film I’m just curious about. Still, I reckon it will turn up somewhere in Europe in due course; more and more Archive titles are becoming available, particularly in Spain, all the time.

          • I know what you mean – and it is nice that Spanish releases and the like are replicating some of these Warner and Twilight releases (THE EGYPTIAN is available now on blu-ray in a Danish release though it doesn;t have the extras apparently). I got tempted because I really wanted to do the complete Sangster ‘run’ as it were, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have forked out what I did – but as I say, a pleasant surprise.

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  3. Patti Abbott says:

    Have never seen nor heard of it. My goodness.

    • Hi Patti – well, I’m not surprised really. The Hammer thrillers used to get a bit more airtime on British TV up until fairly recently so they’re better known on this side of the pond I suppose. it’s not the best of the series, not by a long chalk – if you see Taste of Fear (US title Scream of Fear) and like that, then it may be worth a look. But if not, then I’d probably give it a miss!

  4. John says:

    Not sure I’ll hunt this one down, especially since it’s one of the Warner Archive DVDs. I rented one of those (NORA PRENTISS starring Ann Sheridan, a melodrama it turns out with a minimal crime plot towards the end) and had two problems: 1. It wouldn’t play in my DVD hooked up to my TV and I had to watch it on my laptop. 2. The disc skipped and pixilated on and off throughout the duration of the movie. It started happening at the midway point and was really bad for several scenes. I vowed never to rent another of those POD equivalent discs, but discovered that Sony Pictures (Columbia Classics) has a series as well and inadvertantly rented one. Guess what? Far superior production. Not only did it play on my regular DVD player so I got the big screen experience which I much prefer, there were absolutely no problems while it played.

    • Hello John – shame about your bad experience with that Warner disc. Inevitably there are bound to be more problems with burned DVD-R discs as opposed to standard pressed discs made available for mass distribution, though by definition each disc will have been burned individually so it should mean that the playback problems would be localised, right? I’ve got about 15 of the Warner Archive discs (mainly Michael Curtiz movies and a couple of Hammer titles) and well as a couple of the MGM Limited Edition releases (including their release of Robert Culp’s sublime Hickey and Boggs is fantastic), which are also POD, and I have had no problems at all with any of them. Just lucky I guess. They’re not available in the UK except as imports but rentals always seem a bit iffier to me.

      You can get a download version, but only for purchase as far as I know – Crescendo is worth a look I think but there are much better movies out there too! And if Taste of Fear put you to sleep …

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