Gas-s-s-s

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What is Peter Van Eyck doing under your floorboards? See THE SNORKEL, the film that dares to ask that question.

Directed by former David Lean cameraman (GREAT EXPECTATIONS) Guy Green for Hammer films, this is a bit like one of their psychological thrillers — think of TASTE OF FEAR or PARANOIAC — but it’s less of a knock-off of LES DIABOLIQUES. Intriguingly, it does something fresh with the locked-room mystery, starting with a complete revelation of how the trick is played, and following a suspenseful investigation, like an episode of Columbo, in which the dramatic tension is generated largely by the question of how the killer will be caught.

The first stand-out scene is the very beginning. No credits. Van Eyck moves around an opulent apartment, taping up the doors and windows, turning on the gas lamps, and then attaching the titular snorkel to his bulging Dutch head and hiding in a trap door. Rubber tubes connect his snorkel to the fresh air via a drainage pipe. Meanwhile his wife suffocates in the locked room, an apparent suicide.

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Titles.

And then a great suspense sequence as the body is discovered, the police called, an investigation made, and Van Eyck’s stepdaughter (Mandy Miller) informed of her mother’s death. All with Van Eyck still snug beneath the boards, sweating and listening. I was seriously thinking that the entire movie would play out like this, with characters coming and going, trying to figure out the motiveless suicide, while PVE awaits his chance to escape.

But the movie dispenses with this promising idea, then recovers smartly with enough intrigue and decent work from the players. The story is by Antonio Margheriti, interestingly enough — the worlds of British Hammer horror and Italian gialli rarely intersected — and the script is by the reliably leaden Jimmy Sangster, assisted by Peter Myers. So the dialogue isn’t too smart, but the structure is nice.

A word on Mandy Miller. This is the last feature film of a great child actress. She has a brief, memorable scene in THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, and a leading role in MANDY, both for Ealing Studios and Alexander Mackendrick. Ealing films are revered in Britain but only seem to gradually becoming known outside. Mackendrick’s THE LADYKILLERS was arguably boosted by the Coen brothers’ wretched remake. Criterion have released Robert Hamer’s KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, which is also a favourite film of Bertrand Tavernier. So the situation seems to be changing.

Filmmaker Greg Pak once asked me what else Alexander Mackendrick had done, since he admired SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS so much. Well, THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT features arguably Alec Guinness’s best performance, and is a devastatingly wicked satire on all forms of human political thought, enlivened by Mackendrick’s shooting style, heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s German work. MANDY is an emotional pile-driver about a deaf-mute girl which is striking for its time (1952) in the way it challenges patriarchal attitudes — quite a radical thing for a boy’s club like Ealing. Seven-year-old Miller is astonishing in it.

She’s a bit less natural as a teen in THE SNORKEL, but so is everybody (co-star Betta St John is another former child actor, having popped up in LYDIA), and this kind of genre material, and Sangster’s dialogue, are not made for total realism. But she’s charming and has a few brilliant moments, as when she torments her mother’s murderer on the beach by singing an extemporised song about snorkeling (she’s just figured out his secret).

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The other smashing scene is when Miller returns to the death villa to look for clues at night, a little visual concerto of shadows and gliding tracking shots, point-of-views and reactions. It’s beautifully shot by Hammer regular Jack Asher, more often confined to slightly lurid Eastmancolor imagery — ex-cinematographer Green no doubt had strong ideas about what he wanted visually.

Overall an enjoyable yarn, and a cute insight into the days when snorkels were pretty new stuff, and therefore subject to suspicion — could this innocent-seeming tube-and-mask arrangement be an instrument of death?

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18 Responses to “Gas-s-s-s”

  1. Always found Peter Van Eyck deliciously perverse. Kind of like Alain Delon’s even naughtier second cousin. He’s unforgettable in The Wages of fear and does a great turn in Mr. Arkadin (a film made up entirely of great turns.)

    The Snorkel woudl make a great All-Hammer Double Feature with The Gorgon

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    David C, I thought Ealing films were very well-known in the USA since they contribute to that American love of British eccentricity? However, thiis may be true of the 1950s/60s generation of American viewers but not their contemporary descendants. I used to grit my teeth whenever anybody mentioned Ealing comedies here since I was into the darker realms of Gainsborough and British film noir but love MacKendrick’s films probably because he has a less parochial vision than Cornelius and Crichton.

  3. Yeah, Cornelius and Crichton have fallen away a little, and Mackendrick and Hamer are moving up the scale of appreciation. In general I think that’s as it should be, although the quality of Crichton’s best work will hopefully keep him from being altogether neglected.

    Van Eyck is indeed a pleasure in Arkadin (“I make it a rule never to remember beautiful women, it’s much too expensive.”) and gets the best speech in Wages of Fear. He’s fun in all those latterday Mabuse films too.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    Hamer and MacKendrick had the type of dark vision that would not necessarily be appreciated by the head of “Mr. Balcon’s Academy for young gentlemen” (not ladies, of course at the time – leading one of the Box women to make their own version of THE BLUE LAMP in response).

    Crichton is a lot less dated that Cornelius.

    Van Eyck is brilliant in ARKADIN and I only saw the first of those Mabuse films directed by the great Fritz!

  5. I will always love both “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Man in the White Suit” — and not *entirely* because of my taste for Joan Greenwood.

    A friend recently gave me a copy of a book collecting John Lahr’s profiles for The New Yorker. One of them, a profile of Mike Nichols, made passing mention of an upcoming Americanization of “Kind Hearts” with Nichols as director, an Elaine May script, and Robin Williams in the Guinness role(s). Although I’d like to see what they might’ve done with it … I breathe easier to know that this remake didn’t occur.

    I also, for what it’s worth, think the world of Charles Barr’s “Ealing Studios” book.

  6. Yes, Barr is a fine writer and critic. I must have a look at his Ealing book again. Philip Kemp’s Mackendrick bio is also excellent.

    The top woman on the Ealing staff was Diana Morgan, who contributed to Went the Day Well? and Pink String and Sealing Wax, and was known to the boys’ club as “the Welsh bitch”.

    Joan Greenwood was the embodiment of refined sexuality at Ealing, where the filmmakers knew not to push the erotic side since anything like that would make Balcon uncomfortable and would not be passed. But Kind Hearts creates quite a steamy atmosphere by suggestion and performance.

  7. In all agreement, I’d have to say that Valerie Hobson was the refined side of “Kind Hearts” sexuality, whereas there was a hinted anarchy (or desire for such) in Greenwood.

  8. Well, Val is so refined all trace of sex vanishes for me, while Joan is ever ladylike yet brimful of lust. Likewise in Great Expectations its SO disappointing when Jean Simmons grows up to be Valerie H. Actually, even Vivian Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra makes a disappointing grown-up Jean.

    But I know what you mean, Hobson makes Greenwood look positively riotous.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, a deliberate contrast between Valerie as Ealing female propriety and Joan as forbidden fruit. However, wasn’t Valerie much better in CONTRABAND (1940), an Archers, UFA screwball comedy?

  10. Never saw “Contraband,” alas, but I *do* remember her being very decent in “Rocking Horse Winner.”

  11. Oh, yes, and I do remember one moment in “White Suit” where Greenwood listens to Alex Guinness nattering on — in an alley? — and gives him a crooked smile which, while not exactly lewd, seems to offer worlds of possibilities.

    Given the context, a studio which was clearly mystified by young Kay Kendall (“Dance Hall”) and young Joan Collins (“I Believe In You”), it seems like an awful lot.

  12. Yes, Joan could add a little sex to anything without tripping the danger signals in Balcon’s respectable mind. Joan Collins wasn’t likely to get away with anything. Interestingly, Diana Dors turns up in Dance Hall, and she’s very much Diana Dors.

    “I was present on the set of Dance Hall when it was ruled that Diana Dors’s nipples were too prominent through her costume, and she had to be led away to have them stuffed with cotton wool, and her indignation at this was something to be seen.” – Sandy Mackendrick.

    At one point in that film, tired of loser boyfriends, Diana declares her intention to enter a monastery.

    “Don’t you mean a nunnery?” asks her chum.

    Diana’s look in response seems to suggest “I know what I mean.”

    I also like Hobson in The Spy in Black. Any kind of overt sex appeal wouldn’t work with Veidt, but he’s drawn to her restraint and elegance.

  13. The thing that I found most striking about The Snorkel, aside from that incredible opening, was the marvellous trio of climaxes at the finale of the film. The half-acknowledged suggestion that she may have learned a little of her step-father’s sadism gives the film a dizzying spin I found thrilling. The conclusion was never really in doubt, but Hammer also made Revenge of Frankenstein in ‘58, and he sort of gets away with it in that one…

  14. Yes, the Baron is the big exception to Hammer’s normal morality — a villain who can escape to be villainous again. Dracula typically ends each film dead, but we know he’ll be back. While the Baron’s plans get thwarted, he himself frequently escapes punishment, and even at the end of the series he’s all set to go again.

    Yeah, that could have been a deliciously evil ending with Mandy torturing her step-dad, but it’s still pretty darned good. And it provides an end to the detective’s story too.

  15. Like I say, there is never really any doubt she’d turn him in, but her whole “Oh, I must be imagining your voice” act tickled me, despite its cruelty. She leaves him there for what, another hour or so before the police will get to him? All that time would be spent thinking he’s going to starve to slow death. Not that he doesn’t deserve punishment, of course!

    Speaking of Peter Cushing, I finally got to see CASH ON DEMAND, in which he is a bank manager duped by a smooth talking Andre Morrell. It’s a nice, tight thriller, and completely out of step with the Hammer of the time. Cushing portrays weakness and insecurity really well, and it’s an unusual role for him in that he is the foil, rather than a hero or villain. Worth a look.

  16. Oh, he deserves it alright. I was actually wondering if they’d go through with that, and also hoping that if they did soften the end they’d find a suave way of doing it. I think they pulled it off nicely. It’s helped by Mandy’s perf: sympathetic and all, but quite sinister when she’s taunting him on the beach.

    Saw Cash on Demand years ago and loved it. It’s basically A Christmas Carol with bank robbing, you know. And what could be better than that?

  17. Grant Alghren Says:

    Fascinating blog post, and I would love to see the film someday, but I think it extremely unlikely that Antonio Margheriti had anything to do with it. I suspect that there is a misunderstanding here (which like many misunderstandings has been propagated by the IMdB) that has to do with the fact that Margheriti’s pseudonym is Anthony Dawson. But Margheriti did not adopt the name until he began directing in the early 1960s – two or three years after The Snorkel. Presumably The Snorkel’s story is credited to “Anthony Dawson” who might be the well known British character actor of that name, or who might be another Anthony Dawson, but who is almost certainly not our dear Antonio.

  18. Thanks for the info! Yes, it seems possible that the actor might have suggested the story. The movie is playing soon in New York’s Film Forum as part of the Britnoir season, and I think may be available as a DVD somewhere — one of those Hammer Noir box sets?

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