AVAILABLE ON REGION 1 DVD
RUNNING TIME: 85 mins/ 83 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
American music student Susan Roberts is in France to do research for her Masters thesis on the works of the late composer, Henry Ryman. She’s staying at the rural estate of Ryman’s widow, Danielle, on her invitation, where she will have access to Henry’s materials. She hears someone playing Henry’s unfinished concerto, but is told she heard nothing. She then starts to become aware of sinister secrets lurking all around – Daniell’s wheelchair-bound son Georges’ drug addiction, to the maid Lilliane trying to manipulate Georges into marrying her, to Susan’s resemblance to Georges’ former girlfriend Catherine. And why does Danielle seems to want Susan to stay there….
Crescendo is basically a warmed over rehash of some of the earlier films in Hammer’s mystery thriller cycle, taking an especially large amount from Taste Of Fear – even the design and layout of the house is virtually the same and could very well be the same set with a minimal amount of dressing. It even stretches further back to crib [such as the swimming pool material] a bit from the 1954 French Les Diaboliques which was the main inspiration for these movies in the first place. As a result it lacks any real freshness and really is one film where you’ll probably be able to piece things together way before the supposedly surprising climactic revelations. Even I was able to work much of it out, if not quite all of it. The only notable difference from most of its predecessors is that Crescendo is taken at a rather slow pace and doesn’t attempt to provide much in the way of thrills, chills or twists until nearly an hour in. This would be okay if it had a good amount of creepy atmosphere, but it doesn’t for much of the time, quite a bit of the film having a warm sunny feel – though it is nice to see some the Carmargue area of France [previously used for Taste Of Fear and Maniac] in colour for a change. And if this is the first of these particular Hammer films that you’ve seen you’ll probably have quite a bit of fun with it, so I don’t want to be harsh on it.
This film originated with screenwriter Alfred Shaughnessy, whose 1965 script was written for director Michael Reeves, soon to make the superb Witchfinder General. Reeves, seemingly wanting to direct his own Hammer mystery thriller, rewrote parts himself before then changing his mind and offering the project to Hammer, who got John Gilling to do his own rewrite which went uncredited. Joan Crawford, probably because of her old foe Bette Davis’s success in The Nanny, expressed interest in playing the matriachal Danielle Ryman, but Hammer couldn’t get financing and Crawford eventually bailed after two years of waiting. A few months later though, Hammer got Jimmy Sangster [whom some might say was indirectly responsible for much of the screenplay in the first place] to do yet another re-write and the film finally went into production in June 1969. As well as in the Carmargue, shooting also took place at the ABP studios and Boreham Wood. In the UK it was usually paired with Taste The Blood Of Dracula, while in the US it wasn’t released till 1972, double billed with Dracula A.D. 1972. Its disappointing performance led to another US release the following year which was cut from a R’ rating to a ‘PG’ , losing some brief topless shots of Stephanie Powers and Jane Lapotaire as well as some drug references.
The opening sequence is rather haunting and perhaps gives a wrong impression of what’s going to follow. A man rides his horse in slight slow motion across the French countryside, through a river with cattle, and to racks of fishing nets where he then makes out with a woman before an identical looking man comes along and shoots him. There’s some interesting choice of shots, like the woman being introduced by a vague long distance shot, then by her bosum dominating the foreground. Of course it’s all a dream, which is fine. Unfortunately, the dreamer Georges Ryman has two very similar dreams later on the film, which may very well give part of the game away [especially if you’ve seen Nightmare] to some viewers and their removal could have benefitted the film despite their sinister nature. Anyway, Susan is apparently already at the Ryman house though odd things probably haven’t happened yet. In fact even from now on for a bit the emphasis is less on Susan discovering that things seeem to be up than the various other goings-ons, information about which is often only gradually revealed to us. This is all fine as far as it goes, but unless I missed it it was never explained to me what Lilliane the maid and Carter are in cahoots about. Perhaps Carter supports Lilliane’s schemes, and the two seem to know alot about each other, but it’s not made clear. And I thought it was plain obvious that Lilliane and Georges mother Danielle were keeping Georges hooked on heroin from very early on, yet the revelation of the drug is supposed to be some big revelation towards the end.
Anyway, there sure is a lot going on, and it does keep things bubbling along nicely even if there’s little in the way of shocks or suspense sequences. Lilliane is keeping Georges topped up with heroin, plus keeping him in some kind of sexual servitude to get him to marry her [though I don’t think the reason for her being so keen to wed him is ever given aside from her wanting to be mistress of the house, which wouldn’t be possible with Danielle still around anyway]. The scenes where she’s all over Georges have a rather strong carnal charge to them and Jane Lapotaire totally sizzles in them. Danielle seems determined that Susan should never leave. Susan looks alot like Georges’s dead ex-girlfriend, and Danielle seems to be trying to get Susan to look more like the latter, cue some obvious elements of Rebecca and Vertigo being thrown into the mix. Susan begins to fall for Georges. Somebody seems to be mysteriously playing the piano sometimes in Henry’s cobwebbed music room. Susan eventually wonders down there and sees Danielle welcome somebody [whom we don’t see] to the piano and watch him play. And about half way through Danielle is murdered, stabbed in the swimming pool, a pool which is conveniently drained the next morning. Despite lots of blood spreading in the water it’s a pretty tame scene in a pretty tame film despite the quick flashes of bare breasts. And, while things do eventually reach some kind of crescendo [sorry], it’s just a bit too late even if it is actually quite exciting stuff, and pretty well staged too. Nice to see the main ‘couple’ not together at the end of the film too.
For most of the time Crescendo is content to just hover in one place. Unless you really do work everything out near the beginning and are so disappointed by this that you cannot enjoy the rest of the film, matters are kept interesting, but the film hardly ever seems to want to proceed to a higher level. There are some very minor jolts, such as a cut to the smashed up face of a mannikin, and Mario Bava would have liked the room full of identical female mannikins. But one is never really on edge. Some of this might be due to the direction of TV’s Alan Gibson, in the first of three films for Hammer, which doesn’t seem interested in providing much in the way of urgency, though there are some neat shots, like a zoom out from the body in the swimming pool which takes us through a fence hole and then pans left to Susan in her room. But it mostly looks extremely televisual and doesn’t make much use of the main house set, though that may be just as well as there are times, notably during some outside scenes taking place around the swimming pool, when it looks rather too fake for its own good in colour.
The performers fare fairly well. Stephanie Powers is basically asked to rehash her role in Fanatic which she does decently, but this is one of those films where you wonder why on earth the heroine sticks around for so long. James Olson’s subtly unsettling performance shows what this actor could do after his mediocre outing in Moon Zero Two, while Margaretha Scott almost makes one forget that Crawford was ever involved. The good if not great score by Harry Williamson bases itself mostly around a Rachmaninov piece, representing the unfinished concerto of the film. It’s nice, but employed as it is as both source music and score, it’s perhaps overused with little real variations, and a saxophone-led version is somewhat out of place. A second piece, quite lovely but with dark undertones, representing another Henry Ryman composition, is heard a few times, and there’s a bit of the usual barnstorming stuff, though not as much as usual as there’s little in the film that deserve such backing. I’m not sure that Crescendo could ever have been that much better than it turned out to be really, and it probably deserves its status as one of Hammer’s more obscure thrillers, but there are of course quite a few worse films from the studio. The trouble is, just ‘ordinary”, being neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, can be much less enjoyable than just plain ‘bad’.