So at some point in the mid-sixties, right, someone high up calls Hammer stalwart Freddie Francis into their office and tells him to make another movie where cold-hearted fiends conspire to confuse a nice person with a fragile brain. But old Freddie, by all accounts, is not that thrilled with this idea. Probably because the movie, called Hysteria, is based on a murder plot that’s needlessly complicated for its architects - there are so many moving parts to their plan I’m surprised they didn’t spend the whole movie clutching their temples and moaning - and pointlessly straight-forward for an audience - "Who’s he being gaslighted by? Oh, them." The End. Freddie must have asked himself, after a long look in the mirror, is it possible to plant enough great ideas in the compost heap of this premise that they flower into a good movie? Because, the thing is, there’s an awful lot of good things happening in Hysteria for a man whose heart wasn’t in it.
For me, anyway, the good ideas start with a moody saxophone playing at the beginning, which is an opening to a Hammer film I don’t remember experiencing. Crash! Bang! Oh My God! I have heard before, but never sexy jazz. And this terrific, suggestive jazz hangs around for the rest of the movie, following the hero like some louche cat always ambling behind him. One of the reasons it works so well is because of another good idea which is to set most of the film in a deserted, half-finished luxury block of flats where the hero is seemingly the only tenant. He certainly never sees anyone who isn’t there to see him, the car park is always empty, and the lobby looks like the decorators have buggered off halfway through the job leaving all their stuff behind. It’s such a simple way to make his surroundings eerie. But you can’t have him wandering this perpetual emptiness alone in silence, can you? Because that would just be dull. Cool jazz it is then! I mean, why the hell not?
Then there’s the hero. Now, let’s be honest, you always get a bit of a sinking feeling whenever an American you’ve never heard of is the lead role in a British film. You just get used to the fact that you’re going to have to put up with some square-jawed c-lister slumming it on the wrong side of the Atlantic, putting in as much effort as they feel the pitiful paycheck deserves - and Robert Webber is not promising to begin with as the amnesiac searching for answers. But then halfway through the film they make the slightly bonkers decision to just fill in the amnesiac’s past. And so we find out that he’s far from the tortured innocent we’ve seen up to now, but instead was a carefree philanderer with the sort of cheerfully honest selfishness that English people secretly admired about Americans. And all of a sudden, the bland lead is transformed into this rather likeable cad caught in some mysterious web. It’s quite a trick, and Webber pulls it off rather well.
So alright, you’ve got a magnetic bounder with his own personal soundtrack wandering around a creepy luxury building being freaked out by a pretty transparent attempt to gaslight him. So what else can we throw at the movie? How about one of those minor Hammer characters that are so memorable you wish they would get their own film one day? Just like Sid James’ boozy, ace reporter in the Quatermass Experiment, here we get Maurice Denham as a private detective who looks and sounds like a cross between a con man and an accountant. The fact that he is also, it transpires, hard as nails and sharp as a tack make his brilliant appearances all too brief. Frankly, I would have been more than happy with a whole series of movies where Dunham’s shabby detective solves crimes in sixties London.
But all good things must come to an end, and eventually we have to hear about why someone is playing tape-recordings of a murder through the hero’s wall, and why a woman who people say is dead insists on dropping by and being especially sexy and mysterious. It’s a pile of half-baked piffle, for sure, but it is rescued at the end with a twist where the American saves himself by basically being the biggest chancer of all. In fact, it didn’t really matter what the villains were up to, because the man they thought they were duping was actually having a blast the whole time. And as an audience member, it’s difficult not to feel the same way.
So, even though our Freddie might have left that office with a sinking feeling all those years ago, I would say he proved that you can grow a fun movie out of a compost heap of a premise if you have enough good ideas. And there is a certain glory in making the best of a bad do, and proving that one good idea can change everything. Speaking of which…