While a half century-old Hitchcockian suspense thriller made by Hammer may not be too convoluted, it nevertheless gets a little distracted by some strange plot twists. Mark Fraser reflects upon a modestly enterprising moment in British cinema history.
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Michael Carreras’ Maniac starts with a heinous crime – that being the abduction and rape of 15 year-old French schoolgirl Annette Beynat (Liliane Brousse).
The perpetrator – a drooling middle-aged pervert called Janiello (Arnold Diamond) – doesn’t get to wallow in the spoils of his conquest for too long, though.
Within moments of him pulling up his trousers and wiping the slobber from the side of his mouth, the seemingly not-too-bright rapist is intercepted at the rustic scene by the girl’s father (which may or may not be Donald Houston), who wastes no time in knocking the sexual assailant out with a shifter before lugging his body home and torturing him to death in the garage using an oxy-acetylene set.
Following this rather brutal piece of exposition, the story then cuts to four years later, playing its remaining hand as a suspense thriller involving Annette, her scheming stepmother Eve (Nadia Gray), Eve’s lover Henri (Houston definitely) and a down-on-his-luck artist (Kerwin Mathews).
The result – while not entirely unsatisfactory – is still bit of a mish-mash, with the movie trying to cram a couple of twists too many into its sometimes delirious narrative.
A Hammer Film Production release from 1963, the black and white Maniac possibly reveals the English studio at its most ambitious as it blends a touch of American noir with the European bait-and-switch murder mystery – this while exercising its usual penchant for the gruesome.
In a plot containing dramatic devices lifted straight from James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 movie Les diaboliques*, Mathews plays Jeff Farrell, a surprisingly neat and clean cut painter (read: itinerant) who finds himself taking refuge in a French country pub run by the film’s femme fatale (Gray) and her attractive 19 year-old stepdaughter.
Although the perfectly-mannered Jeff hits on the younger Annette first, it’s the more mature woman who eventually reels him in. Not surprisingly, this seduction ultimately leads to a plot involving the liberation of Eve’s husband, Georges, from the local loony bin, where he has been incarcerated since the opening scene’s revenge killing.
Of course things don’t go to plan when a corpse turns up in the couple’s escape vehicle after they whisk the fugitive off to Marseilles so he can make his getaway by sea.
Life is then further complicated for Jeff and Annette (who is hoping to later rendezvous with her fugitive dad) when it turns out that Eve is not playing with a straight deck.
To be fair, Maniac keeps its head above dramatic water for almost three quarters of its running time, which in no small part is thanks to the dramatic uneasiness created during its not-so-convoluted first half by Jimmy Sangster’s somewhat derivative script.
Before the onscreen drama unfolds with Annette’s abduction and rape**, a short piece of prose describes the French region of Camargue, where the whole thing takes place, as “a remote area in Southern France where wild horses roam, fighting bulls are bred and violence is never far away”.
While the place doesn’t quite live up to this promise, things really do start getting a bit uncomfortable when the American artist initially tries to seduce the younger (and assumedly emotionally scarred) Annette before being easily diverted by the older stepmother, who at first looks like she might be trying to protect the teenager from his convincing sincerity but is, in fact, setting both of them up for a serious fall.
As it turns out, Annette is not as timid as she initially seems. Upset because she has to watch her father’s wife openly cheat with an attractive stranger (and not by the fact she’s been dumped by the handsome painter in favour of another member of the household), the young woman agrees with Eve’s plan – to break Georges out of a nearby asylum (with the help of a guard called Henri) before selling off the Camargue property and splitting the proceeds – provided she can be reunited with her kin.
Like Jeff, however, Annette does not see what’s coming when it turns out her apparent “homicidal maniac” dad now wants revenge more than freedom – particularly on his cuckolding wife and her new love interest.
Adding to this intrigue is the appearance of the inquisitive Inspector Etienne (George Pastell), who may or may not suspect the guilty couple – especially after Jeff (almost comically) fails to properly dispose of the body that “Georges” has left in the trunk of the getaway car.
Ultimately, the whole thing is resolved when everyone literally comes together in an abandoned cavernous asbestos mine during a climatic sequence that can justifiably be described as a little haphazard with a touch of the bizarre.
(Interestingly, in one of the extras which appear on Powerhouse Films Ltd’s Blu-ray issue of Maniac, focus puller Trevor Wrenn recalls how it was clapper-loader Ray Andrew who – while on location at Les Baux – came up with the finale as Carreras and Sangster tried to nut things out on the run: “He walked up to them, and spoke to them in front of the whole crew, and suggested the end of the film,” Wrenn says. “And he was just a new clapper boy!” Given the execution of this sequence, and the build up to it, such an explanation does not seem out of the question. It doesn’t, though, account for why both men are not mentioned in the movie’s opening credits.)
Despite its obvious posturing as a “mini-Hitchcock thriller” (a term coined by director Carreras to describe the “frequently gruesome suspense films”*** that Hammer made during the first half of the 1960s), Maniac is an oddity worth pursuing by any filmgoer interested in the colourful history of this bygone British production house – even if part of it was made using MGM’s Borehamwood facility and not the usual Bray Studios in Berkshire.
Although the ending appears hastily cobbled together, it does not negate the full sum of the movie’s other parts.
Compositionally, some of the Megascope work by cinematographer Wilkie Cooper is quite nifty. Aside from a great extended dolly movement when Jeff and Eva are riding their horses along a beach, the stark exterior night lighting is highly effectively when it needs to be – especially during a few psychologically terrifying moments involving the empty garage and a lit blowtorch.
Furthermore, Carreras is obviously no slouch when it comes to framing his melodrama, even if some of the execution is either sensational (like the close-up of Diamond’s leering eyes during the opening credits) or just flat out dull (such as the extended shots of dialogue when the characters, in an effort to keep the audience completely up-to-speed with what’s about to happen, laboriously spell out chunks of plot logistics).
In this regard some of the finer moments are when Annette discovers – through the open door of her bedroom – that her stepmother and almost-boyfriend are about to become an item, as well as a scene when Etienne questions them the morning after the breakout, the slightly low angle and positioning of characters creating a static mise-en-scene that even someone like Jean Renior would have endorsed.
Nevertheless, the film also managers to remain somewhat aloof from its cast, eventually treating all of its lead characters – including poor Annette – as equals in a set of crimes where some of the players bear a higher burden of guilt than others.
Thus, by the movie’s end, it’s kind of difficult to tell who the titular maniac really is.
*Clouzot wrote the script with Jerome Geronimi. It was based on the book Celle quin’etait plus (She Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narejac.
**In another of the Blu-ray extras, English writer Jonathan Rigby describes the tone of this scene as “very peculiar” and “kind of curious” given the accompanying “uptempo jazz” on the soundtrack (by Stanley Black) helps fool the audience into initially believing it is watching “an exciting thriller sequence” before realising that it is, in fact, effectively witnessing “a 15 year-old schoolgirl being raped”.
***According to English author Julian Petley in “The House of Hammer” (The Movie, 1981, p 830). Interestingly, he also points out that Clouzot’s 1955 opus was a “major inspiration” behind many of the mini-Hitchcock thrillers from this era as it was “one of the few foreign films to get a circuit release at the time”.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Maniac on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films. Maniac was released as part of the HAMMER VOLUME ONE: FEAR WARNING! Limited Edition box set. You can read our other reviews of the films in the box set here: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Fanatic and The Gorgon.
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