Night Sweats

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A Phantasmagoria of Fright! bawled the posters. FRAGMENT OF FEAR (1970) just about lives up to that, but it’s a more subtle, creeping paranoiac fear that you’d think. Richard Sarafian directs, right before he made VANISHING POINT, and David Hemmings stars, accompanied by wife Gayle Hunnicutt and every familiar face that could be collected into a British/European feature at the time — Philip Stone and Dave Prowse are about to do CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Arthur Lowe and Mona Washbourne are both fresh from THE BED SITTING ROOM, Wilfred Hyde-White is fresh from everything else, and Flora Robson, Yootha Joyce and Roland Culver may not be exactly fresh but they’re certainly familiar.

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Hemmings, who was yet to put on the pounds and develop his eyebrows into great cavorting caterpillars, is at his height as a leading man, looking as he always did, like a cross between Michelangelo’s David and a waxwork rabbit. He plays — with consummate skill — a recovered addict and author whose beloved aunt (Robson) is murdered in Italy. As Hemmings investigates the murder, a conspiracy is uncovered which seeks to discredit him and drive him mad — or is it all in his mind? Unlike in BLOW-UP, there definitely, definitely is a body, definitely dead, but everything else falls into doubt. Hemmings receives a threatening letter typed on his own typewriter and hears a menacing laugh recorded on his own tape deck. The criminal organisation which offed auntie has tentacles everywhere, and has a very nasty way of dealing with those who attack it.

Starting off like weak Agatha Christie — I was never convinced anyone concerned knew anything about drugs or the drug scene (Hemmings may have, but he didn’t tell the writers) — this gets better and better, reaching its crescendo at the point where you really believe there’s a massive international criminal organisation masquerading as a charity and behaving exactly like an acute case of paranoid schizophrenia. It’s good on the vertigo of the London underground escalators and the sarcasm of the British policeman (see also DEATH LINE).

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Ultimately, the story doesn’t amount to that much — but the journey is engaging. It should have been as creepy as THE TENANT, but doesn’t have the grungy visual originality. Serafian’s fish-eye lenses, used to suggest disorientation and dissociation are a rather kitsch trick, and the hallucinations, consisting mainly of substituting one character for another, aren’t that scary. It’s the slowly building sense of reality disintegrating that disturbs, aided immeasurably by Hemmings’ committed perf. The coziness of all those beloved character players crowding in from all sides, like in THE MEDUSA TOUCH or LIFEFORCE, actually blends nicely with the persecution and perspiration.

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2 Responses to “Night Sweats”

  1. Vanishing Point was scripted by the great Cuban novelist and film critic Gulliermo Cabrera Infante, writing under the name “G. Cain” Sarafian’s film is just OK, but there’s a lot to the script he doesn’t explore.

    I cannot recommend highly enough Cabrera Infante’s collected film criticism “A Twentieth Century Job.” The title is of course a play on words.

  2. I’ll put it on my Christmas list! Thanks for the tip.

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