Fright (1956)

US / 78 minutes / bw / Planet Filmplays, Exploitation Productions, Budd Rogers Releasing Corporation Dir & Pr: W. Lee Wilder Scr: Myles Wilder Cine: J. Burgi Contner Cast: Nancy Malone, Eric Fleming, Dean L. Almquist, Frank Marth, Humphrey Davis, Elizabeth Watts, Walter Klavun, Amelia Conley, Tom Reynolds, Robert Gardett, Norman McKaye, Ned Glass, Don Douglas.

It would be easy enough, if in a snarky mood, to dismiss this borderline noir movie as irredeemably bad, and yet I came away from it ruefully admiring it as being perhaps rather good. A minor reason for liking it is the performance of Nancy Malone as a conflicted individual (although she delivers a quite dreadful, mercifully short piece of hamming toward the end), but more important is a screenplay that—seemingly despite itself—casts an intelligent light on its theme.

Nancy Malone as Ann.

Philandering New York psychiatrist James “Jim” Hamilton (Fleming) makes a sudden name for himself by using the power of hypnotic suggestion, via a bullhorn, to talk escaped serial killer George Morley (Marth) down from the bridge off which he’s threatening to throw himself.

One of the hapless witnesses to this—hapless because stuck in the traffic jam the drama creates—is traveling English dilettante Ann Summers (Malone). She finds herself responding to the commands Jim is issuing to Morley. Next day she importunes him to treat her for a somewhat nebulous condition; he responds by simultaneously hitting on her and jostling his appointments schedule to fit her in.

Eric Fleming as Jim.

Under hypnosis Ann reveals herself to have a secondary personality, an Austrian baroness called Maria who’s having an affair with a married man called Rudy.

Just when we’re assuming this is yet another noirish movie centering on the notion of multiple personality, it becomes clear that the “Baroness Maria” whom Ann’s other self claims to be is Baroness Maria Vetsera, who died in 1889 at the hunting lodge Mayerling in a suicide pact with her lover, the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria—a death that a quarter-century later would be indirectly responsible for the outbreak of World War I.

Frank Marth as Morley.

So it seems—at least according to dogged newspaperman Cullen (Almquist) of the Daily Tribune—that what Jim has uncovered is not a case of multiple personality but proof of reincarnation, oo-er.

Dean Almquist as Cullen (right) and Nancy Malone as Ann.

Ann’s elderly relative Lady Olive FitzMaurice (Watts) pooh-poohs the notion, pointing out that in childhood Ann had a round-heeled Austrian nanny who might well—à la Bridie Murphy—have told her the gist of the tale and given her enough German to account for her use of that language when under hypnosis.

Elizabeth Watts as Lady Olive FitzMaurice.

Jim, reckoning this is a plausible hypothesis while yet recognizing Ann’s subconscious thinks otherwise, has a bright idea: What if he could hypnotize convicted murderer Morley into playing the part of Crown Prince Rudolf in a faked-up reenactment of that suicide pact?

The big question is whether or not Ann’s psyche will survive Jim’s experiment . . .

I had the unusual experience, after watching this movie, of being unable to conjure up a mental image of the face of its leading man, Eric Fleming. I could far more readily bring to mind Dean L. Almquist, who plays the pudgy, smart-aleck journalist, or even Frank Marth, as the murderer. There’s nothing wrong with Fleming’s performance as the promiscuous shrink; I think it’s just that we react automatically to the shallowness of the character by forgetting the actor.

Amelia Conley as Jim’s secretary, Miss Ames.

Besides, there’s a great performance from Malone to focus on. She doesn’t even try to make the role a dual one, which may well be a wise decision. There’s a moment late on in the movie where she briefly shows an aristocratic archness, and it’s all the more effective for the fact that she’s not been trying to do so earlier. Just for that moment I doubted my earlier dismissal of the possibility that Ann could be the Baroness Maria reincarnated. It’s a very clever move.

Malone, incidentally, who went from acting to producing/directing, mainly for TV, in 1979 became the first female vice-president of Twentieth Century–Fox. Possibly of most noirish interest is that, between 1960 and 1963, she featured in over fifty episodes of the TV series Naked City as Libby Kingston, Adam Flint’s girlfriend.

Humphrey Davis as Jim’s history professor chum, Charles Gore (left), with Eric Fleming as Jim.

The cheapness of the production shows through in places. There’s a conversation between Jim and Lady FitzMaurice where it seems patently obvious the two actors filmed their sides of the parlay separately. Talking of parlay, when Jim tries to show off his French he pronounces the relevant phrase “trez bee-en.” Lew Davies’s soundtrack consists almost entirely of extraordinarily dull, clichéd spooooooky muuuuusic played on the theremin or some imitation thereof; after a few minutes of it I was gritting my teeth.

But the screenplay is, as noted, quite nattily done, presumably on the basis that it doesn’t cost any more to film a good script than a bad one, and there are some nice quips:

Jim: “How could you be so moronic?”
Cullen: “I’ve had practice.”

All in all, Fright is a movie that despite its imperfections is eminently worth watching.

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