Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Crescendo (1970)

          Though primarily known for sexualized creature features set in the 19th century (or earlier), UK horror/thriller factory Hammer Films generated different types of films, as well. Take Crescendo. Not only does the picture tell a contemporary story bereft of supernatural elements, it stars a primarily American cast. And while the movie has plenty of flaws, such as a predictable climax and a slow pace, the whole thing is so sexy, sinister, and stylish that it’s worth a casual viewing.
          In many ways, Crescendo resembles a lost Hitchcock movie, although Hitchcock would have cast an icy blonde in the lead instead of a sexy redhead. The movie concerns Susan Roberts (Stefanie Powers), a graduate student who visits an estate in southern France in order to research a thesis on a deceased composer. Currently residing in the estate are the composer’s widow, Danielle (Margaretta Scott), the composer’s wheelchair-bound adult son, Georges (James Olson), and two servants. At first, Susan regards her new temporary home as a sort of paradise, enjoying elegant meals and refreshing dips in the estate’s massive pool. But the more time she spends with the Ryman family, the more Susan realizes she’s been recruited by Danielle to replace a woman named Catherine, who was George’s lover until he became paralyzed. Meanwhile, audiences learn lurid facts to which Susan is not privy, such as the twisted nature of Georges’ relationship with the estate’s nubile maid, Lillianne (Jane Lapotaire).
          As written by reliable Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster (who reconfigured an earlier script by Alfred Shaughnessy), Crescendo eschews the jolts and murder scenes one normally associates with Hammer, opting instead for the slow burn of psychological terror. There’s no question that Crescendo would have been more effective if an actress of subtler gifts had been cast in the leading role, but Powers is sufficiently alluring and likeable to avoid completely undercutting the movie’s efficacy. Plus, the fact that she spends much of her screen time in bikinis and negligees adds considerably to the film’s appeal.
          Yet don’t let the showcasing of a pretty starlet give the impression that Crescendo is a lowbrow endeavor. Director Alan Gibson and cinematographer Paul Beeson give the picture a truly elegant look, with artful lighting, graceful camera moves, and meticulous compositions. Shooting almost entirely on soundstages (even for the pool scenes), the filmmakers amplify artifice to bolster the lead character’s sense of having been trapped in some weird netherworld. As for the acting, it’s mostly serviceable, with Olson and Powers contributing blandly professional work—although costars Lapotaire and Scott seize on the perverse aspects of their roles, giving the movie extra heat. Crescendo might not linger in the memory too long after a viewing, but it’s a glamorous distraction that adds a surprising twist to the story of Hammer Films.

Crescendo: GROOVY


Booksteve said...

I saw it double-featured with DRACULA AD 1972 and I remember enjoying it at the time (being a big Stefanie fan) and yet I can't recall a single thing about it at these days.

John said...

To be pedantic, if you look at the totality of Hammers output Gothic Victorian horrors were actually in the minority.
Contemporary thrillers, Hitchcockian or otherwise, weren't that uncommon either. Sangster himself had written several including Taste of Fear aka Scream of Fear, Paranoiac, Hysteria, Maniac and Nightmare.

By Peter Hanson said...

Fair point. I confess to having only limited familiarity with Hammer's pre-70s output, so it's likely my immersion in their creature features -- having explored all the Lee-Cushing flicks -- skewed my perspective. I did a bit of research and adjusted the lead of this piece. Thanks for the helpful comment.