Fragment of Fear (1970) | This baffling Blow-Up imitation starring David Hemmings is one helluva delirious ride
Before heading to cult-dom in Dario Argento’s Deep Red, David Hemmings was the hot ticket in Michelangelo Antonioni’s unfathomable but unquestionably hip 1966 arthouse classic Blow-Up. Four years later, 1970’s Fragment of Fear aimed to recapture the same magic, but ended up even more baffling – a delirious puzzle box that sets the nerves on edge, but leaves you screaming for answers.
Murder, mystery and paranoia are the order of the day in this adaptation the 1965 novel by former M15 spy John Bingham (John le Carré’s inspiration for George Smiley). Hemmings plays writer Tim Brett, who believes himself to being cured of his drug addiction.
When his philanthropist aunt (Dame Flora Robson) is found strangled while on holiday in Italy, Brett starts digging into her past, but soon starts receiving menacing threats warning him off the case. Investigating further, he is soon targeted by a shadowy government agency…
Frankly, it’s amazing that this British psychological thriller ever got finished, as it was made under the influence of lots of late-night drinking sessions by both the film’s crew and its star Hemmings. Which might also account for some truly offbeat scenes like one in which a group of bystanders casually watch a junkie shoot up in a London street (really?).
But while it may make for bewildering viewing, it does hold your gaze and interest throughout – thanks to Ossie Morris’ noirish cinematography – that makes atmospheric use of the Pompeii and London locations, and Hemmings’ genuinely convincing performance as the former-junkie battling to hold his own. And Indicator’s HD re-master is so pristine that it brings the excellent cinematography to the fore, while the sweat on Hemmings’ brow is so luminous, it practically drips off the screen.
While it certainly apes Blow-Up and bears a strong resemblance to Basil Dearden’s suited-and-booted dopplegänger cult classic The Man Who Haunted Himself (which came out the same year), there are a few other reasons to check it out. First up is the fantastic moody jazz score from the legendary Johnny Harris. It’s so cool, I’m desperately hunting down its supposed LP re-release.
Next comes the distinguished supporting cast playing the quirky, not-to-be-trusted characters including Mary Wimbush, Roland Culver, Daniel Massey, Wilfred Hyde White and Derek Newark, whose mysterious Sergeant Matthews sets Brett off on his ‘wild goose chase’. Playing Hemming’s love interest is his real-life wife, the gorgeous Gayle Hunnicutt, who apparently got the role as a condition to securing Hemmings’ involvement in the project.
The screenplay was by Paul Dehn, who had a knack for espionage, having penned The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Deadly Affair (both featuring le Carré’s George Smiley character – albeit in different guises); and he also wrote four of the original Planet of the Apes sequels. Check out the extra that accompanies the Indicator release for a very informative profile of Dehn.
Director Richard C Sarafian may not be a name you instantly recognise, but does he have some darn fine credits. Not only did he helm one of the most memorable Twilight Zone stories, 1963’s Living Doll, he also directed episodes of TV’s Batman and Wild Wild West; and followed this film with the bona fide cult classic, 1971’s Vanishing Point (now that’s one that deserves the HD treatment).
It might be a baffling Blow-Up imitation, but Fragment of Fear is still one helluva delirious ride.
The Indicator Limited Editon (3000 copies) Blu-ray (world premiere) features a HD re-master and original mono audio, with the following special features…
• The Writer as Auteur: an analysis of the life and work of screenwriter Paul Dehn
• First Assistant Director William P Cartlidge on Fragment of Fear
• Original radio spots & theatrical trailer
• Image gallery
• New and improved English subtitles
• Collector’s booklet with essay’s from Johnny Mains, composer Johnny Harris, critical responses, and historic articles
When it comes to my favourite Dario Argento films, in my cinematic eye, two stand out as supreme masterpieces: Suspiria, a bewitching blend of the surreal and the fantastique, and Deep Red, which must be THE quintessential giallo. But what makes the thriller so gripping to revisit time and time again – aside from the fact that it keeps getting re-released?
Murder, mayhem and black-gloved killers were central to Argento’s early gialli, and it was with Bird, Cat and Flies, (aka the Animal Trilogy) that he brought stark terror to the genre and introduced the killer’s PoV stylistic device (which Carpenter copied in Halloween). But in Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso), he did so much more. He fused his thriller with an arthouse kink and a surreal theatricality, with the highlight being an inspired homage to film noir in the recreation of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks diner in a neon-lit Rome street where the first murder takes place (actually Turin’s Piazza CLN).
David Hemmings (who got the part because of his role in Antonioni’s Blow-Up) is Marcus Daly, an English jazz pianist based in Rome who witnesses the brutal slaying of a visiting European psychic. After he becomes front-page news thanks to Daria Nicolodi’s over-eager reporter Gianna, Daly starts his own investigation. But when incriminating evidence is left at the scene of another murder, Daly realises the killer is hot on his trail. It’s then a race against time to solve the mystery, which has links to a children’s lullaby and a deserted old mansion, before the killer strikes again…
Deep Red also saw Argento embracing elements horror and the supernatural for the first time, with the film’s most evocative scenes taking place inside a crumbling grand art nouveau mansion (actually the 1902 Villa Scott in Turin), set to the pulsating beats of Goblin’s landmark prog rock soundtrack, which became the benchmark for many of Argento’s subsequent film scores. Topping it all were the imaginatively staged murder set pieces, involving stabbing, scalding and being and bashed to a pulp, all domestic terrors that set the nerves on edge and made your skin crawl.
Now, while Argento certainly must be praised for the film’s visual style (and style is certainly the substance of Deep Red, which was the whole point), it’s the film’s script that brings it all together. And that’s down to Bernardino Zapponi, who was hired on the back of his work on Federico Fellini’s phantasmal Toby Dammit segment in Spirits of the Dead. One can only wonder what kind of film Deep Red would have been without Zapponi’s involvement as he is key to Argento’s ‘truly terrifying magnum opus’ (to borrow a quote from Argento expert Alan Jones).
THE ARROW 4K RELEASE
It was only back in 2011 that Arrow brought out a bloody gorgeous 2k restoration on Blu-ray and DVD, which blew my mind with its sharp picture and excellent sound. Now comes the 4k restoration, which totally trumps that release, ironing out much of the grain that I never knew was apparent in the earlier version until I did a comparison.
The 2011 release came with two uncut versions of the film; interviews with Argento, Nicolodi and Goblin composer Claudio Simonetti; and a commentary from Argento expert Thomas Rostock. These have all been replicated here, but with brand-new transfers of the directors cut and the export version. Another bonus is the inclusion of the film’s soundtrack featuring all 28 tracks that originally appeared on the 1996 Cinevox CD. Newly commissioned artwork has also been for the packaging, this time from Belgium artist Gilles Vranckx.
THE DIRECTOR’S CUT AUDIO
There’s a choice of Italian with English subtitles or a hybrid English/Italian audio track on the director’s cut, but my preference is for the hybrid version, as you get to hear David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in English. But the reinserted scenes that were originally left out of the export cut only have Italian audio. While this might make for a disconcerting experience, you do get more battle of the sexes interplay between Marcus and Gianna.
This must be one of Arrow’s fastest-selling releases ever, as it’s already sold out on their website and is currently changing hands for up to £90 online. So, if you are lucky to bag yourself a copy, then turn down the lights, turn up the volume, and let the screaming begin.
Based on a true story, this obscure independent 1973 feature from actor/director David Hemmings is a revelation and is now available in a brand-new transfer from Network Distributing‘s The British Film collection.
Set against the backdrop of a rundown terraced street in London’s East End that’s been earmarked for redevelopment, Hemmings’ gritty urban drama follows 17-year-old Reg (Jack Wild), the eldest of 14 children, as he struggles to keep his family together following the sudden death of their mother (June Brown).
When a team social workers take the youngest children into custody, Reg and his siblings go on the run, with one of their lot taking the family’s story to the newspapers. After a stint at a Catholic reform school, Reg reunites with his girlfriend, single mother Reena (Cheryl Hall), before rounding up the children at returning to their mother’s boarded up home to spend what could be their last Christmas together as a family…
The late Jack Wild is best known for playing the Artful Dodger in Olivier! and having adventures with TV’s HR Pufnstuf in the late-1960s, but in Hemmings’ second film as director he shows what an accomplished and serious actor he could be. It’s such a shame that Wild was plagued by addiction throughout his life (he was smoking and drinking from the age of 12 and died of oral cancer in 2006), and watching him puffing away with a cigarette in each hand while downing bottles of beer on screen here only makes his tragic real-life story all the more sadder.
Apart from Wild, most of the performers playing his young siblings were non-actors, and this only adds to the film’s docu-drama feel. There’s also a very early turn from Alun Armstrong, who plays June Brown’s layabout boyfriend, who abandons her children after her funeral. And speaking of Brown (better known as EastEnders’ Dot Cotton), she may not have much screen time, but when she’s on, you can’t help but watch her every nuanced move.
Hemmings film, which was based on actual events involving a group of Birmingham orphans who were eventually relocated as a family to a farm in Cornwall, won the Silver Bear at the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival, and though it depicts a family on the very edge of society, living in poor, squalid conditions with no future ahead of them except reform school and foster homes, the film’s central theme of ‘keeping the family together’, is superbly handled, avoids melodrama at all costs, and surprisingly ends on an upbeat note.
There’s also an anarchic sensibility running through the film as the youngsters stick two fingers at authority at every turn. And this is best expressed in the quite hilarious scenes in which the children see off a horrible woman hired to take care of them, reduce an inexperienced nun to tears and expertly give the police and social services the runaround. In this respect, Hemmings seems to have created a film with a true punk spirit, but with a neo-realist bent. This is gripping cinema with real soul. Do check it out…
THE DVD RELEASE
The 2013 Network Distributing DVD release features a new transfer from the original film elements, plus the full frame as-filmed version of main feature, original theatrical trailer, image gallery and promotional material PDF.
The 14 also screens on Talking Pictures TV (Sky 343, Freeview 81, YouView 81, Freesat 306) on Monday 16 January 2017 at 8pm, and Friday 20 January at 8pm.