Had Alain Resnais taken the paranoia/gaslighting B-movie route for the esoteric Last Year in Marienbad he might well have ended up with a twisty concoction like this. Whereas Marienbad struggles to get anywhere near a third act, Bernard Wiesen’s unheralded under-rated debut thriller has a stonker of one. It’s the last 15 minutes when the unravelling from an unexpected source takes place that makes this well worth watching. So, I’m sorry to say, spoiler alert, as I take you through why this is so good.
It’s a twist to top all the previous twists, of which there have been many. Movies like this generally rely on story much more than character, but here we see the two main characters substantially alter, almost, psychologiclly-speaking, changing places.
Secretary Sharon (Mala Powers) on an overnight business trip by train discovers a male killer and a female corpse in her cabin. Knocked out, she regains consciousness to find herself accused of murder by cop Joe Brady (Robert Karnes). Managing to escape, she is almost run down by handsome divorced Frenchman Paul (Jacques Bergerac), delivering his son back to wife Denise (Anna Lee Carroll), who gives her a lift to Los Angeles.
Paul, an erstwhile alcoholic it later transpires, pursues her with romantic notions in mind, but she gives him the brush-off. Back in her apartment she finds sozzled ex-lover Keith (John Baer). Paul, not the kind to be so easily brushed off, persuades her to go for a coffee but when she returns to her apartment Keith is dead. Chased by the killer, she is rescued by Paul.
Gradually, she reveals that she once had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental institution. But when she goes to see her employer Milo (John Seymour) to explain she has lost the package with which she was entrusted, quite a different scenario awaits.
Brady is there and denies all knowledge of ever having met her. Milo denies sending her on a trip. Worse, Keith is not dead and the package she was carrying contains $3,000 stolen from Milo’s safe, to which she has access.
No wonder the most likely reason for all this confusion is that she is losing grip of her mental faculties. But, if nothing else, Sharon is quick-witted and concludes that too many pieces of this jigsaw are missing and in the absence of Milo’s wife and chauffeur Steve (Peter Brocco) that he has murdered his wealthy partner and is setting up her up to take the rap. That idea only lasts as long as it takes for wife (Helena Nash) and chauffeur to turn up.
Worse, Sharon was committed for killing the woman in her care. She pleaded self-defence and got away with it but her mind crumbled with guilt.
So just when we’re going along with the notion that this is one crazy woman and that “recollections may vary” not as much as she would like and that she is not inhabiting a parallel universe, the Frenchman does a bit of investigating on his own and finds Keith’s corpse.
Now here’s when it turns very tricky indeed. Although by this point Sharon should be dead in the water, mentally at least, she sparks into life, continues along the line of Milo killing his wife (the body on the train), and begins to point to all the flaws in his plan, beginning with his bungling associates. Milo, who had initially appeared in complete control, now begins to lose his temper and snap at his employees.
Milo and his associates take her to a cabin in the woods. The stronger she grows, the weaker Milo becomes, as she continues her barrage of accusation, picking more holes in his grand plan, until he realises that the police are not going to do his job for him, in condemning Sharon for his wife’s murder. The supposed wife turns out to be Milo’s sister and she, too, begins to crumble with the fear of being found out and her beloved brother going down.
So it’s heading for a complete turn-around, the supposed maniac having been gaslighted, the supposed upright employer turning shadier by the minute and unable to deal with the consequences of an action that has gone so badly wrong. Milo ends up the gibbering idiot with Sharon regaining the faculties she thought she had lost.
The Frenchman comes to the physical rescue and even though at one point the doting sister has the drop on him, she falls to pieces at the thought of what she would have to do to safeguard her deluded brother.
Quite a third act.
But there are a couple of other interesting sequences. When Paul rams on the brakes to prevent his car running over Sharon, that sends his son sitting in the front seat, in the days before seat belts, straight into the dashboard, a rather overly realistic event as regards kids in those days. Picking up Sharon and pacifying his son means Paul is late bringing the boy home to his mother and she lets rip, refusing him any future access. But, unexpectedly, later she turns up in his apartment, asking forgiveness, realising her son was so excited spending time with his father that it would not be right to deny him that.
And with all great B-films this is short and snappy, barely 80-minutes long, and hardly one of those minutes going by without a twist. Sharon is a very interesting character from a psychiatric perspective. Although cleared of killing the woman in her charge, she clearly feels enormous guilt that she allowed it to happen, and once you start falling into a mental trap of your own making it’s pretty hard to get out.
You can always pick holes in movies like this, but the two main characters, Sharon and Milo, seem to me very believable, lost in their own fantasies, especially Milo, who saw his perfect plan falling to pieces.
Unfairly, this was pretty much a dead end for all concerned. Mala Powers (Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, 1969), the object of Cyrano de Bergerac’s affection in Cyrano (1950) and star of Rose of Cimarron (1952), had lost her way in Hollywood and not been in a movie for three years since The Colossus of New York (1958). Despite giving an excellent performance, Fear No More didn’t prove the answer to her Hollywood prayers and she only had three further movie roles in the 1960s.
Jacques Bergerac – better known for marriage to Ginger Rogers – made his final picture in 1966 but didn’t rise much above the likes of Taffy and the Jungle Hunter (1965). Prior to this director Bernard Wiesen was a producer-director on television and after it that’s what he went back to.
Catch it on YouTube.