Maniac (1963)

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*. How good was Hammer, really? It’s a question I often ask myself. They did quite a bit with not very much, but they also have a reputation that I think exceeds their actual production. Some of their movies are quite interesting, and in various ways, but overall I think their work was mostly derivative.
*. A lot of their failings come down to direction. They had a good stable of actors, and the value they got out of their productions was usually pretty good. The writing could be hit and miss, but frequently showed intelligence and effort, with more depth than you’d expect to find in the genre ghetto they mined.
*. But the direction of their films is almost always flat. “Professional” is about the most I’d say for it. It rarely if ever adds anything to the material. Aside from the art direction, it’s hard to identify a Hammer style, or indeed much of a sense of style at all.
*. This is a long way of introducing Maniac. It’s one of Hammer’s contemporary (as opposed to gothic) thrillers, which means it derives more from Hitchcock than Universal. The screenplay, by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, is pure Boileau-Narcejac, spinning a tale of fake deaths and scheming lovers in the Camargue.
*. The locations are pretty. The climax, shot in the quarries of the Val-d’Enfer, is nice and there’s also a delightful (and utterly pointless) trip to the Arles Amphitheatre. But the rest of the film is studio city, and has a TV-set feel to it.
*. The cast is disappointing as well, with only Nadia Gray as the Lady Eve distinguishing herself. Kerwin Matthews is an empty vessel, and his voice is recorded in such a way that he always sounds like he’s whispering in your ear. It’s so bad, the fact that Donald Houston was dubbed doesn’t even stand out.
*. This brings us back to the script and the direction. Bosley Crowther praised Sangster for devising “a plot of extraordinary cunning . . . [It] takes on a twitching suspense that simmers, sizzles and explodes in a neat backflip.”
*. On the page this might have been a fair assessment, but none of that simmering and sizzling suspense comes through on the screen. In fact, I can’t think of a single sequence in this film where Michael Carreras even tries to build suspense. Even that old suspense stand-by, the disposal of the body, is dealt with in a perfunctory way.
*. Because you know you can’t trust Eve from her first appearance as a Camargue cowboy, complete with riding crop, there’s no “backflip” or twist at the end either. The game is given away too soon.
*. The one curve in the script is the odd love triangle, but this remains more confusing than creepy. Is Jeff really drawn to Annette? Eve is sexy as hell, but Annette is eighteen. Decisions, decisions. Eventually he’s locking lips with the hotter-than-her-daughter mom (in fact, Gray was 14 years older than Liliane Brouse, who was 26), but one suspects he was just looking for another sugar mommy to support him. We never see him actually painting anything.
*. Yes, the blowtorch-killer is kind of neat. But aside from that, and a bit of touristy scenery, if you enjoy such stories I think you’ll have more fun watching Les Diaboliques again.

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