Tuesday, September 13, 2011

'The Snorkel': Low-key thriller with nice pay-off

The Snorkel (1958)
Starring: Peter Van Eyck, Mandy Miller, Betta St. John, William Franklyn, and Gregoire Aslan
Director: Guy Green
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Paul Decker (Van Eyck) constructs the perfect locked-room murder by drugging his wife and filling the sealed room with gas while he hides under the floor breathing through a snorkel connected to fresh air via tubes in the outside wall. He remains hidden until the body has been discovered and taken away, and with everyone believing he is across the border on business, he seems to have the perfect alibi. Everyone that is, except for his teenage step-daughter Candice (Miller) who is convinced he murdered her. Although no adults believe her, Candice continues to push and investigate on her own, and soon Decker realizes he must eliminate her, too.

"The Snorkel" is a mystery in the vein of the "Columbo" television series, in the sense that the audience is shown how the murderer sets up his "perfect crime" and the subsequent enjoyment comes from watching his said perfection be picked apart and his crimes ultimately coming to light due to something he overlooked or an attempt to stop whoever it is who is investigating him from succeeding.

Like a "Columbo" episode, the murderer here is such a vile individual that viewers can't wait to see him exposed--there's every indication that this is his second murder as part of a long-term plan to gain access to his wife's fortune, and he is so base and arrogant that his wife isn't even buried before he starts putting the moves on Candice's hot young governess (Betta St. John)--but unlike on "Columbo" we're not given insight into the entire method by which Decker commits his crime, but the film lets viewers work it out at the same time Candice does.

And that's the point where the film starts to get really fun, the point where Decker realizes that he needs to get rid of Candice, but also the point where he starts being too smart for his own good.

The film's closing minutes represent a near-perfect ending. Candice turns key parts of Decker's scheme on him, with the help of a little bit of coincidence, and sets him up for a heaping helping of poetic justice... a great pay-off for the hour's time during which we've watched Decker ooze his way across the screen with an ever-growing wish for the ability to reach into the film and beat him to a pulp.

With a script that moves so fast that we can barely notice its populated by two-dimensional characters; great performances by Peter Van Eyck, as a slimy villain you'll love to hate, and Mandy Miller, in one of her 'wounded kitten'-type roles that she so excelled at; and director Guy Green who brings across Candice's pursuit for truth with such conviction that viewers will be with her all the way, but will also wonder if her fanaticism isn't evidence that she's not just a child but also more than just a little crazy, "The Snorkel" is an excellent film from a nearly forgotten chapter in the history of Hammer Studios... from a time when they were more known for their thrillers than their technicolor Gothic horror romps.

Check it out. It's one of six undeservedly obscure films presented in the "Icons of Suspense" DVD collection.

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