Friday, October 23, 2009
While obviously one of the long line of psychological thrillers that Hammer (and plenty of other studios) were cranking out by the bucket load in the late 60s CRESCENDO elevates itself above the pack in several ways. The script co-written by Jimmy Sangster is one of his more interesting efforts in that, while stealing wholesale from earlier movies from his own pen such as PARANOIAC , SCREAM OF FEAR, NIGHTMARE and HYSTERIA, he added enough things to make it a bit fresher than it really should be. After all- the plot is essentially the exact same damned thing as three of the four movies I just mentioned! I used to wonder if Sangster wrote a whole new screenplay each time Hammer asked for one of these tales or just scratched out the old names and replaced them. But this is film we’re talking about here. A certain amount of stealing is expected and even lauded if you can make it somehow entertaining. Of course, I’m tempted to give some credit to director Alan Gibson as I’ve always been entertained by his often mocked 70s twofer of DRACULA AD ’72 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA but the truth is the director’s hand is only strongly felt a few times. Gibson does a good job with this story but another competent filmmaker could have probably done just as well.
I won’t run down the plot as I hope to encourage folks to see it. I’ll just mention the stand out elements that I feel worked or didn’t. First- I loved the bookend shot-on-location sections at the beginning and end of the film. As the entire center of the movie takes place in the house/on a (good) set, having the real locations there in those places made Susan’s (Stephanie Powers) arrival and departure seem very much like entering and leaving another world. Almost as if her stay in the French house of her musical hero and his bizarre family was a dream turned nightmare she was lucky to awaken from. In a recent online discussion of CRESCENDO a buddy pointed out the similarity of this bracketing device to Mario Bava’s LISA & THE DEVIL (1972). Powers is one of the best things about the movie in my opinion. She turns in a completely believable performance that makes the journey Susan takes sad and scary by turns. It doesn’t hurt that Miss Powers was a stunning beauty and I was not made unhappy by her time in a bikini or her brief moment of nudity either.
I also liked the sleazy aspects of the tale. There’s drug addiction, sexual deviancy of several types, blackmail and nasty jealousy around every corner. I was almost relieved when the matriarch (Danielle Ryman in a fine performance) of this sick household revealed herself as not quite the sick puppy I thought she might be. I was sure insest was on the plate but I was off a little. There is a dual role in the movie played by James Olson which is handled very well too. Olson has a tough job as he has to appear to be hiding things (which he is) but also seem honest in his affection for Susan. Attributing his swings of emotion and temperament to his addiction is the obvious thing and it provides a solid cover for the warring desires the actor has to play.
I also like the mystery at the center of it all. I can honestly say that when the answer to things popped up I was shocked. It was just about the last thing I was expecting. The small hints toward a supernatural element are almost always a red herring in these movies but I had started to think (as I’m sure we are supposed to) that Olson just went non-verbal in his heroin fits and pounded on the piano…. and maybe his mother, if you follow my incest thought progression. I like the vaguely sinister chauffer/servant played by Joss Ackland and the evil/sexy maid played by Jane Lapotaire. Her exit from the story is quite well handled with the sight of the drained pool adding to the mystery at the time as well as the creep factor.
The one story element that I didn’t think highly of was Susan’s falling in love with Olsen’s character. It was the one element that seemed, in a way, too much....except... Powers had me buying it. That's how good she is here, in my opinion. Also, the obvious emotional rush Susan was feeling at her amazing opportunity to write about her idol made it plausible (to a degree) that she would get swept up in a romance. It wasn't until after the film was over that I thought too hard about that aspect of the story which tells me the movie worked better than it had a right to.
So, if it sounds intriguing please check it out.