Maniac / The Maniac (1963) ****

Such an ingenious thriller you just have to applaud. Opening with a close-up of a predatory eye, this scarcely draws breath as it dashes through a latter-day film noir maze, spawning out auditory and visual cues, beautiful woman luring dupe, twisting the expected narrative round her little finger.

Artist Jeff (Kerwin Mathews) setting up his easel in the Camargue, hardly one of the most tourist-friendly spots in France, eyes up Annette (Liliane Brousse), the daughter of a hotelier Eve (Nadia Gray), but, in extremely opportunistic style, settles for the mother. In true noir fashion she is using him, seducing him into a scheme to free her husband George (Donald Houston), incarcerated in a mental asylum for torturing and killing with a blowtorch the aforementioned predator who raped Annette four years before.

Eve convinces Jeff that in return for his freedom the madman will effectively give his blessing to their affair. It’s a deal only a besotted dupe would fall for. George has an ally inside the asylum, assisting his escape, but when George turns up, and Jeff drives him to Marseilles, he leaves behind the corpse of his criminal associate in the boot. Jeff dumps the body in the river.

Cue the start of a series of strange events. A fired-up blowtorch is discovered in the garage where Georges committed his initial crime. Annette, jealous of her mother’s relationship with Jeff, plans to leave and go with her father.  

And I’m sorry to say that in order to explain the attraction of this neat little picture I’m going to delve into SPOILER ALERT territory.  

All the while of course you are wondering whether George will keep to his side of the bargain, especially as Eve starts to get antsy with Jeff, and the investigating police inspector seems overly suspicious. And it being this kind of picture you expect a twist.

But not one this clever.

George, blowtorch at the ready, traps Jeff in the garage. He has fished the corpse out of the river. He plans to burn the garage to the ground, leaving behind two dead bodies, assuming the police will imagine that in a further bout of psychotic behavior the murderer gave in to his desires and killed again, but in the process accidentally killed himself.

But that’s not the final twist.

One of the victims survives. But which one? He is so badly mutilated as to be rendered unrecognisable and lies in a hospital bed covered head to foot in bandages. Has Eve’s plan backfired? Has she accidentally killed her lover?

But that’s not the final twist.

Eve knows who the man in the bed is. It’s not her lover. Because Jeff is just the dupe. The body dumped in the river was George. All the time Eve was visiting her husband in the mental asylum she was carrying on an affair with one of the guards. The guard killed George after the escape, retrieved the body from the river, left it in the garage and planned to kill off his competition at the same time.  If you’re going to be tabbed a maniac, you better behave like one.

It’s a shame you can’t see the shock on the face of poor Jeff because he is encased in bandages. And this isn’t just the clever villain unable to stop herself boasting about how clever she has been. This is Eve getting into the murder racket. She switches off his oxygen.

But that’s not the final twist.

Jeff ain’t dead. He wasn’t even on a life-support machine. He was just trussed up to tempt Eve in revealing herself. He had escaped the garage inferno and told the police what was going on. So you can guess the rest, but even then there’s one other ironic twist. Just like Jeff, the imposter George is as taken with the daughter as the mother.

The twists are so well done, the narrative so compelling, that would be enough to make a convincing case for entry into the category of cult. What makes an undeniable case is the directorial style. Sights and sounds drive the story as much as anything. The eerie bright light in the garage, the sound of blood dripping on the floor, the bold close-up of the eye, the advancing blow torch, setting it in a bleak rather than scenic area of France, are cinematic notions belonging to classic movies, not to a tawdry B-picture.

Although The Devil Rides Out (1968) is generally considered the top Hammer picture of the decade, I would argue this runs it a close second, and possibly even tops it.  Taking time off from his studio job Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968), later Hammer’s managing director, delivers a little masterpiece working to an effortlessly clever original screenplay by future director Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein, 1970).

It’s enough that Kerwin Mathews (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, 1960) is playing against his screen persona as upright hero. The biggest advantage in casting Nadia Gray  (The Naked Runner, 1967) was that she was unknown and didn’t have the kind of onscreen presence that might have you doubting her motives from the start.  Liliane Brousse (Paranoic, 1963), in her penultimate movie, is initially too much all-arched-eyebrow and pout, only coming into her own when she becomes dutiful daughter rather than wannabe seducer. The pretend George, real name Henri, Donald Houston (A Study in Terror, 1965), hidden beneath dark glasses most of the time, is a dab hand at a pretend psychopath.

Surprisingly effective little gem.

Two for the Road (1967) ***

This film had everything. The cast was pure A-list: Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) and Oscar nominee Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963). The direction was in the capable hands of Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966), working with Hepburn again after the huge success of thriller Charade (1963). The witty sophisticated script about the marriage between ambitious architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and teacher wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) unravelling over a period of a dozen years had been written by Frederic Raphael, who had won the Oscar for his previous picture, Darling (1965). Composer Henry Mancini was not only responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – for which he collected a brace of Oscars – but also Charade and Arabesque. And the setting was France at its most fabulous.

So what went wrong? You could start with the flashbacks. The movie zips in and out of about half a dozen different time periods and it’s hard to keep up. We go from the meet-cute to a road trip on their own and another with some irritating American friends to Finney being unfaithful on his own and then Hepburn caught out in a clandestine relationship and finally the couple making a stab at resolving their relationship. I may have got mixed up with what happened when, it was that kind of picture.

A linear narrative might have helped, but not much, because their relationship jars from the start. Mark is such a boor you wonder what the attraction is. His idea of turning on the charm is a Humphrey Bogart imitation. There are some decent lines and some awful ones, but the dialogue too often comes across as epigrammatic instead of the words just flowing. It might have worked as a drama delineating the breakdown of a marriage and it might have worked as a comedy treating marriage as an absurdity but the comedy-drama mix fails to gel.

It’s certainly odd to see a sophisticated writer relying for laughs on runaway cars that catch fire and burn out a building or the annoying whiny daughter of American couple Howard (William Daniels) and Cathy (Eleanor Bron) and a running joke about Mark always losing his passport.

And that’s shame because it starts out on the right foot. The meet-cute is well-done and for a while it looks as though Joanna’s friend Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) will hook Mark until chicken pox intervenes. But the non-linear flashbacks ensure that beyond Mark overworking we are never sure what caused the marriage breakdown. The result is almost a highlights or lowlights reel. And the section involving Howard and Cathy is overlong. I kept on waiting for the film to settle down but it never did, just whizzed backwards or forwards as if another glimpse of their life would do the trick, and somehow make the whole coalesce. And compared to the full-throttle marital collapse of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) this was lightweight stuff, skirting round too many fundamental issues.

It’s worth remembering that in movie terms Finney was inexperienced, just three starring roles and two cameos to his name, so the emotional burden falls to Hepburn. Finney is dour throughout while Hepburn captures far more of the changes their life involves. Where he seems at times only too happy to be shot of his wife, she feels more deeply the loss of what they once had as the lightness she displays early on gives way to brooding.

Hepburn as fashion icon gets in the way of the picture and while some of the outfits she wears, not to mention the sunglasses, would not have been carried off by anyone else they are almost a sideshow and add little to the thrust of the film.

If you pay attention you can catch a glimpse, not just of Jacqueline Bissett (Bullitt, 1969) but Romanian star Nadia Gray (The Naked Runner, 1967), Judy Cornwell (The Wild Racers, 1968) in her debut and Olga Georges-Picot (Farewell, Friend, 1968). In more substantial parts are William Daniels (The Graduate, 1968), English comedienne Eleanor Bron (Help!, 1965) woefully miscast as an American, and Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, 1966).

Hepburn’s million-dollar fee helped put the picture’s budget over $5 million, but it only brought in $3 million in U.S. rentals, although the Hepburn name may have nudged it towards the break-even point worldwide.

The Naked Runner (1967)***

We always knew the spy world was filled with the worst kind of legal renegade, the type who can get away with murder in the name of King and Country, with little regard for collateral damage, claiming the Cold War justifies any action. British espionage chiefs, wishing to assassinate an escaped spy before he can reach the Russian border, recruit against his will widowed businessman Sam Laker (Frank Sinatra). The spy top brass don’t care what methods of persuasion are used, “blackmail or drugs,” and eventually they decide that kidnapping his only son will make Laker toe the line.

Spy chief and wartime colleague Martin Slattery (Peter Vaughan) is a cold-blooded killer aiming to turn an ordinary man, albeit with a distinguished war record, into a cold-blooded killer.  Laker is duped into delivering a message while on a business trip to Leipzeig in East Germany. When his son disappears it is at the behest of the equally ruthless East German secret police boss Colonel Hartmann (Derren Nesbitt) and thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse between Sinatra and the two spymasters competing for his services especially when it transpires he is a crack marksman. He is shifted to Copenhagen to assassinate the fugitive.

Naturally, the web is soon even more tangled. Laker becoming even more tense, with his son’s life hanging in the balance questions of morality are void. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff because the audience is as much in the dark as Laker about what is actually going on. Fans of the sophisticated spy thriller will not be surprised that there is a surprise ending.

The main departure from the book by Francis Clifford (also author of the source novel for “Guns of Darkness,” 1962) is the movie overview. The book follows the hero from start to finish. Only at the end is explanation offered. In the book the assassin’s target is a defector not an escaped spy. However, opening the book up to involve Slattery discussing his methods and providing an overview of the espionage world is a bit like tacking on an unnecessary message to an otherwise straightforward thriller. Straying from Laker’s point-of-view lessens rather than increases tension. Sinatra Enterprises produced the picture so presumably screenwriter Stanley Mann’s change of emphasis had the actor’s blessing.

Director Sidney J. Furie has some form in this murky world, having helmed the ground-breaking The Ipcress File (1965) whose spies are lot less glamorous than their James Bond counterpart. Even so, Michael Caine was a jaunty hero. Sinatra is the polar opposite. A more dour individual you could not meet. Sinatra is excellent in a role that asks him to bury a normal screen persona that oozes self-confidence. Furie is obsessed with odd camera angles and extreme long shots and extreme close-ups which has probably the intended disconcerting effect, concentrating the viewer on characters rather than surroundings.

While this approach worked in The Ipcress File and The Appaloosa it is less effective here, largely I think because Sinatra cannot brood with Brando’s intensity nor is his face as open and inviting as Caine’s. Although Sinatra is good in the role it does not suit the director’s intent which was surely to portray a man about to crack. Whereas the director’s impulse for the unusual made The Ipcress File a stylish film, here the camera angles get in the way of what is otherwise a taut story of a man driven to the limit. In fairness, the abundance of close-ups may not have been Furie’s fault. Sinatra disappeared for several days when the shoot moved to Copenhagen forcing Furie to shoot around him and inserting previous filmed close-ups.

Edward Fox (Day of the Jackal, 1973) has a small role as a diplomat and Romanian Nadia Gray (Two for the Road, 1967) appears as Laker’s initial contact in Leipzig.

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