Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fragment of Fear (1970)

          Appropriate to its title, Fragment of Fear offers glimpses of the powerhouse psychological thriller it never quite becomes—fragments of greatness, as it were. In fact, the movie screams for a remake because a more vivacious interpretation of the same material could be dynamite. Based on a novel by John Bingham and adapted by the British screenwriter Paul Dehn, the movie has a terrific hook: A recovering drug addict tries to expose a conspiracy, so the conspirators exploit his past to destroy his credibility. Had the movie maximized the tension inherent to that strong premise, it could have hit viewers right in the gut. And indeed, some scenes, particularly the finale, provoke the desired level of audience discomfort. However, the movie is burdened with an unnecessarily convoluted narrative and a preference for loaded conversations over physical action. As a result, the picture feels longer than its 94-minute running time even though most of what happens onscreen is intense and nasty.
          David Hemmings stars as Englishman Tim Brett, a former junkie enjoying the success of his best-selling memoir by taking a vacation in Italy with his beloved aunt. When his aunt is murdered in circumstances so mysterious that the Italian police give up their investigation almost immediately, Brett decides to smoke out the killer (or killers). Meanwhile, he manages a rocky relationship with his beautiful fiancée, Juliet (Gayle Hunnicutt), who’s not completely convinced of Tim’s recovery. As Tim sniffs for clues about the murder, he starts getting threats to back off, which only compels him to dig deeper—until the threats start getting directed at Juliet. The ordeal pushes Tim to heavy drinking, and maybe even back to the needle; by the final act, the lines between what’s happening in the real world and what’s happening in Tim’s imagination have blurred.
          Stories predicated on altered mental states are notoriously difficult, because trying to replicate the twists and turns of encroaching madness often damages narrative clarity—and in Fragment of Fear, the problem is exacerbated by talkiness. Since there’s so little in the way of exciting visuals, dull stretches emerge whenever the plot gets murky. It doesn’t help that Hemmings is a cold fish; although he’s credible as a strung-out hothead, his inability to convey warmth inhibits our ability to root for his character. Having said that, it’s probably best to view the movie through the prism of its reserved Britishness; at one point, a policeman sternly announces, “I shall be in danger of losing my temper!” So, in that sense, Fragment of Fear offers an offbeat alternative to the usual hysterics of American drug-themed pictures. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via

Fragment of Fear: FUNKY

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