This week’s Cinema Fearité is dedicated to Jimmy Sangster, who passed away on August 19th, 2011 at the age of 83. As one of the driving creative forces behind Hammer Studios, Sangster’s prolific writing has inspired generations of horror and suspense writers all over the world, and he will be sorely missed.
Great Britain’s Hammer Film Productions is famous for its gothic horror movies and its re-imaginings of the classic Universal monster films, but between the 1950’s and 1970’s Hammer also produced several psychological thrillers, films which they lovingly called “mini-Hitchcocks.” Often overshadowed by the monster movies, these suspenseful tales were every bit as well done. One of these lesser-known films from the Hammer canon, 1958’s The Snorkel, is a prime example of how Hammer made a human being more frightening than any monster.
The Snorkel stars Peter Van Eyck (The Wages of Fear) as Paul Decker, a man who has figured out a way to commit the perfect murder. While his wife sleeps, Paul seals himself up in the same room with her and pumps the room full of gas. Peter himself breathes through a snorkel with a hose to the fresh air outside and hides under the floorboards until after the body is discovered. Since the room is sealed from the inside, the police believe that the death is a suicide. Although the police are fooled, Paul’s stepdaughter Candy Brown (Mandy Miller from “Sunday’s Child”) is not. Not only does Candy suspect Paul of murdering her mother, but she also believes him to be responsible for the death of her father years earlier. Her suspicions are confirmed when she stumbles upon Paul’s snorkel and hose setup in his room. Once Paul realizes that Candy knows the truth, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues – but who is the cat and who is the mouse?
The Snorkel was written by Hammer Studios legend Jimmy Sangster (who also wrote The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy and dozens of others), who, along with television writer Peter Myers, has crafted a unique story that is way ahead of its time. Unlike most murder mysteries, The Snorkel begins by showing the viewer exactly how the murder is committed. From the first scene of the movie, the audience knows that Paul is the killer and that Candy is correct to suspect him. The focus of the film then shifts to the questions of “will he get away with it?” and “how?”
Director Guy Green (better known as David Lean’s talented cinematographer on Great Expectations and Oliver Twist) and Director of Photography Jack Asher (another Hammer legend) use what looks like available light and claustrophobic camera angles to drive home both the devilish evil of Paul Decker and the hopeless determinism of Candy Brown. The film is shot fairly brightly, which only serves to make Paul more frightening, emphasizing the fact that he doesn’t wait for darkness to kill. In one scene, set on a beach, Candy asks Paul about how snorkels work. She then sings a song about breathing air to him, all but telling him outright that she knows everything about his method of killing. Candy heads out for a swim in the ocean, and Paul follows her, attempting to drown the girl in broad daylight. Paul Decker is that type of monster – relentless and uncaring.
And Paul Decker really is the most memorable element of The Snorkel. Beneath his handsome, charming facade lurks a devil of a man. The character is unfeeling, unemotional and unremorseful. Peter Van Eyck spent the earlier part of his career playing Nazis onscreen, so it’s no surprise that his portrayal of the suave, psychopathic Paul is spot-on. Paul has an ability to manipulate the other adults in the film to believe that Candy is crazy, thus creating a feeling of helplessness and solitude in Candy that is felt by the viewer. Paul is the type of villain that people love to hate.
The Snorkel doesn’t have any vampires, mummies or werewolves in it. There are no mad scientists or spooky castles. What it does have is a great story, some unforgettable characters and a suspenseful ending. Hitchcock would be proud.