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.
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).
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?