Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Movie: Hysteria (1965)

One of my screenwriting heroes is Jimmy Sangster. Before coming Stateside and cranking out scripts for the staples of ‘70s crime drama, he penned many of the movies that put Hammer Studios on the map. He has a clutch of credits from those days that, in the words of Ed Gorman, “put him in the driver’s seat of the white shimmering Shell Scott Caddy convertible waiting for him in Pulp Heaven.”

Hysteria finds Sangster and frequent collaborator behind the camera Freddie Francis in thriller mode. An American amnesiac in London begins his post-car wreck recovery armed only with a photograph of a fashion model and the aid of a mysterious benefactor. Before long he’s suffering hallucinations and suspecting himself of murder.

Character actor Robert Webber, charter member of the “That Guy!” club, excelled at playing men who were a bit too slick but had the decency to feel bad about it. Here, he makes the most of a rare shot at a lead role.

Movies with an is-he-or-isn’t-he-nuts? premise tend to disappoint in the second half. Sending the character round the bend is fun, but eventually you have to start explaining things. Sangster can’t avoid that pitfall completely, but he does soften the blow with a dandy plot turn that riffs on the Webber persona. I’d love to know the origins of this movie; it seems like one of those projects that came about because the producers had access to an interesting location, in this case a half-completed block of luxury flats complete with creepy abandoned parking lot.

Hysteria is no lost classic, merely a clever diversion assembled by professionals. I would have watched it in any case because it begins with a shot of a spinning hypno-spiral. I’ve never been able to turn off a movie that starts with a hypno-spiral. Not once. In fact, I – hey, wait a minute ...