Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Taste of Fear

London-based Hammer Films had a fertile and fiscally rewarding period in the 1950s and 1960s styling itself as the British second coming of the old Universal Studios Monster Movies. They gave Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy quite a workout, relying on generally solid and scary scripts, a stable of dependable stage-trained actors, not-bad special effects, atmospheric locations (e.g., Highgate Cemetery) and an abundance of aspiring starlets with daring d├ęcolletage. Many viewers remember Hammer monster movies in their nightmares, but few recall that the studio also turned out some high-quality psychological thrillers, most of them scripted by Jimmy Sangster. This week I recommend my favorite of these films: 1961’s Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear).

The story centers on a frequently-invoked but still effective thriller trope: The central character who has some physical limitation that makes them unusually vulnerable. In this case, it’s Penny Appleby, who has needed a wheelchair since suffering a tragic accident. She has traveled far to visit the wealthy father whom she has not seen since her parents’ divorce over a decade ago. Her father’s new wife and a family friend named Dr. Gerrard greet her warmly, but inform her that her father is away on business. Yet as the days go by, a series of peculiar and shocking events make her start to think her father has in fact been murdered! Has she come across the world’s wickedest stepmother, or is she losing her mind? Nerve-shredding suspense and some inventive plot twists follow.

Taste of Fear is often referred to as Hitchcockian, and while I can see why, it recalls for me much more the French classic Diabolique, which Sangster almost certainly must have seen. Both films create a sense of dread and continually lead the viewer to think “Ah, that’s what’s really going on” to be immediately followed by “I was wrong again – I have no idea what’s really going on”.

Hammer made the film in partnership with Columbia Pictures, which accounts for them landing American Susan Strasberg for the role of Penny. She brings across very well a young woman who is understandably fearful but at the same time determined and smart enough to keep pressing the question. The rest of the cast are British talents of the type that Hammer more typically favored, including Dracula himself, Christopher Lee, as an effectively creepy Dr. Gerrard.

The other undeniable strength of the film is Douglas Slocombe’s pristine, gorgeous black and white cinematography. Both he and director Seth Holt have refined visual instincts regarding the balance of light and shadow that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. They also create a stunningly horrifying shot underwater that I will not detail because it would spoil a plot point, but you’ll appreciate it when you see it. Credit former film editor Holt also for a tightly constructed movie – flabbiness is the enemy of suspense and everything in this movie is lean and tight.

Hammer devotees argue which of the studio’s films was the most creative and well-made, with Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter at the top of many fans’ list. That’s a fun movie, but I find Taste of Fear more tightly constructed and better acted as well. This shamefully-forgotten thriller is available on Daily Motion, which I believe has the legal right to rebroadcast old movies on line, so you can enjoy it free of guilt right here.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama

Robbery

If you are one of the many admirers of the 1968 American classic Bullitt starring Steve McQueen, you will almost certainly enjoy the British film Robbery. Released the year before Bullitt, it’s a partly fictionalized account of the astonishing 1963 heist of a British mail train by a gang of bold and crafty thieves.

Like many heist films, this one begins with a smaller job that introduces us to the characters and sets up the big score to come. The gang upon which the movie centers is led by criminal mastermind Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker). Baker was one of a number of rough-hewn leading men who captivated British audiences in the 1960s. One wonders if we would have ever heard of a similar actor — Sean Connery — had Baker not turned down the offer to play a secret agent named James Bond (Side note: It is nothing less than eerie to see how much an older Baker looks like an older Connery in later projects such as the ITV mystery special Who killed Lamb?). In all his roles, Baker radiates power, even as in this case when his character is intellectual and non-violent. He also did an excellent job producing the film. The production values are first-rate and the film was no doubt good practice for the studio that would go on to make The Italian Job.

The gang escape their first job after a harrowing, thrilling car chase through London, but they don’t spend the money. They need the swag to fund something much bigger that Clifton is planning. The actors playing Clifton’s crew all turn in good performances, as does James Booth as the Police Inspector who doggedly pursues them. We don’t get detailed back stories on any of the characters, but it doesn’t matter because the actors are talented enough to bring them to life and make them distinct.

It was the amazing car chase, much of it shot with handheld cameras by the great Douglas Slocombe, that made Steve McQueen chose Peter Yates as the Director for Bullitt. But that isn’t the only parallel between the two films. Unusually for a director gifted at action films, Yates is comfortable with long silences and seems to encourage his actors to underplay their parts. It creates a distinctive mood that is somewhat melancholy, which fits the many of Yates’ characters who are driven to do things that seem very unlikely to satisfy them in the end.

The bulk of the film is devoted to the painstaking preparations of the gang to pull off the crime of the century, and then the heist itself. As in the actual great train robbery, a number of things go wrong, giving the police a chance to track down the gang and its crafty leader. The resolution of the film is perhaps a bit sudden, and there are a few slow spots, but overall it’s a solid caper film that will please fans of the genre.