|THE SNORKEL (1958)|
Director: Guy Green
Producer: Michael Carreras
Screenplay: Peter Myers & Jimmy Sangster
Cast: Peter Van Eyck, Betta St John, Mandy Miller, Gregoire Aslan, William Franklyn, Henry Vidon, Marie Burke, Irene Prador, Robert Rietty, Armand Guinie, David Ritch
The Snorkel was Jimmy Sangster's third feature screenplay for Hammer, following X the Unknown (1956) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Michael Carreras took on the production but this time, rather than a Hammer regular, a new director was hired - ex-cinematographer and up-coming director Guy Green. Similarly, most of the cast were not Hammer regulars - German Peter Van Eyck, American Betta St John, and child actor Mandy Miller. Only William Franklyn had a previous Hammer connection, having appeared in Quatermass 2 (1957); (he wouldn't appear again for Hammer until 1973's Satanic Rites of Dracula). The film almost didn't get made, Eliot Hyman having backed out of a distribution deal. Hammer were forced to finance the film themselves and, to defray costs, then make acceptance of it a condition for any company who wanted the sequel to Curse of Frankenstein. Columbia duly snapped it up, although they trimmed it by 16 minutes for the US market. It is a notable picture in that, although locations were shot on the Italian Riviera, interiors were shot on the new soundstage at Bray Studios - the first Hammer film to use the facility.
In a villa on the Italian Riviera, Paul Decker (Van Eyck) drugs his wealthy wife, locks the door, tapes the windows, and then proceeds to kill her by turning on the gas - protecting himself with a breathing apparatus he has constructed. When the maid comes in the morning and finds the door locked he hides beneath the floorboards while the door is forced, the body found and the police called. To the police it is a clear case of suicide. When all is clear he makes his escape, and 'returns' from a supposed trip to France. His stepdaughter Candy (Miller) has also returned from school in England and believes Paul killed her mother, just as she believes he drowned her father. No one will believe her, least of all the police, and so she sets out to discover just how her stepfather accomplished it. As she begins to piece together how he committed the murder Paul realises that to protect himself he will have to dispose of her too, while at the same time romancing her governess Jean (St John) and planting in her mind the idea that Candy is mentally ill...
The late 1950s and early 1960s were a creative period for Hammer, where alongside their Gothic horrors the company experimented with other, sometimes quirkier, pictures. The Snorkel is one such film and, in a way, was a foretaste of the psychological thrillers that Hammer would produce in the 1960s, such as Taste of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963), and Nightmare (1964). In common with those, Snorkel also came from the pen of Jimmy Sangster, this time co-writing with Peter Myers, who would later pen Cliff Richard films. Also in common with Sangster's later films is the theme of madness - here the attempt to convince others that the child Candy is mad. But at heart Snorkel is both a rehash of the familiar 'locked room mystery' and also a 'gimmick' film - as the US poster all but acknowledged. This is not to say Snorkel is a poor or derivative film, quite the contrary. For the 'locked room mystery' is given a twist, in that we know from the beginning who the killer is and how he did it - the task is not for us to solve a mystery but for us to follow Candy as she attempts to, and Decker as he seeks to thwart her.
In fact, the film would not work half as well as it does if the method of murder were not revealed early on, for the 'gimmick' needs to be seen in action, and a flashback later on would not have the impact the precredits sequence of Snorkel has. For Snorkel's gimmick is a good one - made all the more effective by Peter Van Eyck's callous use of it. Paul Decker is truly a cold-hearted psychopath and Eyck plays him to perfection. The intricate opening sequence as the rubber-gloved Eyck carefully prepares the murder room and then sits impassively behind his mask as the gas does its work is a chilling one. Equally chilling is Eyck's dispassionate offing of the dog, and attempted drowning of Candy, and complete calm after the event, with just a trace of a smile flickering around his mouth. Not so impressive, unfortunately, are the performances of Miller and St John. Miller is a great little actress but, as the director later acknowledged, simply too mannered and mature for her age to convincingly play the young girl Candy is. And St John simply comes across as callous and simpering. Indeed a major weakness of the film is the lack of real reaction to the death of Candy's mother - the gardner and his wife appear more distraught than Miller and St John.
What makes Snorkel a particularly refreshing Hammer film is its use of locations - the film was genuinely shot on the Italian Riviera. That, and its use of 'non-Hammer' actors, gives it an 'exotic' quality that we don't often get in a Hammer production. The location work is helped immensely by Jack Asher's wonderful b&w cinematograpy, helped no doubt by director Guy Green, himself an Oscar-winning cinematographer for the b&w Great Expectations (1946). The attempted drowning scene is particularly effective as Eyck purposefully pursues Miller through the water. Green produced a cracking little thriller in The Snorkel and it's unfortunate that it proved to be his first and last Hammer film - it would have been interesting to see how he had handled later Sangster thrillers. While not one of Hammer's best Snorkel is an effective and innovative thriller, with a memorable villain in Eyck. While the story is plainly built around the central gimmick (the result, no doubt of pondering on the locked room scenario), and as such is a tad obvious and predicatable (with a few looming plot holes), nevertheless Snorkel is a worthy addition to Hammer's 1957 production schedule, which included such classics as The Abominable Snowman, Camp on Blood Island and, of course, Dracula. Now if only Hammer had gone with Sangster's original ending and allowed Candy to leave Decker to die - that would have put a nasty little sting in the tail of The Snorkel.