The quality David Lynch most valued in the late Freddie Francis, his cinematographer on The Elephant Man, Dune and The Straight Story, was not so much the technical knowledge accrued through a long apprenticeship in the British studios of the 1940s and 50s, remarkable though that was, but the more elusive ‘sensitivity’, Francis’s ability to respond evocatively to dramatic situations, characters and spaces.
This was not a quality Francis could use to full effect on projects like The Deadly Bees or The Creeping Flesh, his bread and butter when he became a director, although even in patently absurd projects like the Joan Crawford apeman movie Trog, you can see him striving to inject some interest. But occasionally the scripts he dealt with was just about good enough to allow him to shine. Paranoiac (1963), his third credited feature, is such a movie. Since Francis the director was as sure a hand as Francis the cinematographer at creating atmosphere through lighting, composition and movement, this convoluted country house crime story is rich material.
Now available from Masters of Cinema, Paranoiac is an early entry in Hammer studio’s long line of twisty thrillers ‘inspired’ by the success of Les Diaboliques, and to a lesser extent Psycho. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, a driving force behind Hammer horror, could apparently knock these out in his sleep: weave together at least two criminal conspiracies, add some false identities, leapfrog from one shock or suspense sequence to another as rapidly as possible, and strain credibility until it groans but doesn’t quite give way.
Here, we have a confused heiress (Janette Scott, of Day of the Triffids fame) being driven insane by her wicked, drunken brother (Oliver Reed, playing very much to type), until another, long thought dead, brother (Alexander Davion) shows up. Suspicions quickly arise that this interloper is an impostor, part of a Tichborne claimant-style plot to steal the family inheritance, but where does the eerie, masked figure armed with a lethal hook fit into the puzzle, and who is singing at night in the crypt?
The answers probably won’t startle you too much, but this handsome edition shows off Arthur Grant’s widescreen black and white cinematography to terrific effect - Francis had shot The Innocents just a few years before, and he uses many of the same tricks in this less sophisticated country house melodrama, from the elegant mise en scène to the subtle vignette effect that darkens the corners of the frame. His camera glides and arcs almost ceaselessly, explicitly taking over the storytelling at times, a creeping, constant presence; and then jabbing and swinging in rhythm with Reed’s unrestrained, gorilla-like machismo. When Martin Scorsese hired Francis to photograph Cape Fear, Francis said it was because he would know how to shoot a young lady in a night gown wandering around a dark house when she ought to be in bed. He does indeed have a feel for the modern Gothic. Playing it just straight enough (Reed occasionally mugs too vigorously, but he’s electrifying the rest of the time), Francis uses everything he’d learned as a cinematographer to create a genuinely beautiful-looking movie, moody and powerful, combining the gusto of Hammer with some of the eeriness of the classic English ghost story.