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October 7, 2010

Hammer Films Month - Crescendo

I fully admit to knowing next to nothing about music.  In fact, there are few things I remember from my time in the music industry, because "my time in the music industry" is my way of saying I was in the high school band.  I couldn't read music, and thus played the bass drum - which allowed me to create repeated loud thuds and call it music.  One of the few things I remember, learned during a brief and tragic stint with a tympani, is the term crescendo".  A crescendo, in musical terms, is "a passage played with a gradual increase in volume or intensity" - and gradual was never my strong suit.  The Mike likes it loud.

In Hammer Films terms, Crescendo is one of the last in a line of thrillers (commonly called "Mini-Hitchcocks") that were produced by the studio in the '60s.  This one, released in 1970, stars Stefanie Powers as a student of music who moves in with the family of a departed composer to study his work.  She, like me, is not a musician; she simply loves the topic.  Of course, when she gets to the estate in the South of France, with its beautiful scenery and available swimming pool, she gradually becomes less interested in music than she is in the odd family of the composer who lives there, particularly the handicapped son of the late composer, George (James Olson), who promises great massages.
As a fan of all things Hammer, Crescendo is a surprisingly uncommon film.  The production more resembles an American thriller than one of Hammer's films, and the setting and characters show hints of the Italian horror movement that would sweep through cinemas in the decade (the mother, specifically, reminds me strongly of Suspiria).  The plot brings Powers' Susan into a web of intrigue that includes vague recollections of an accident, a nubile young servant with dark desires (Jane Lapotaire, fitting the French Maid role well), and some dark and ominous dreams of sex and murder.  (Most exciting to The Mike? The features a young Joss Ackland, best known as 'Diplomatic Immunity Guy' from Lethal Weapon 2 as one of the servants in the home.)
While the film doesn't look like your average Hammer film, it's worth noting that the striking Ms. Powers belongs in any conversation of the most beautiful Hammer women.  She would later become famous in America as the star of TV's Hart to Hart, but here she fills the role of frightened young lover perfectly.  It's not a great performance by any means - and most of the cast is simply adequate in their roles - but her appearance definitely helped me stick with the film through a slow start.  As the film gradually builds, the imagery becomes darker and more violent, and we get to experience some vivid dreams from George's perspective that lead us to a final reveal.
Though the plot is standard thriller territory, Crescendo pushes the envelope with its focus on drug use and sexuality.  Though there's little blood shown, the female nudity and explicit heroin use (AHHHHH!!!!! Needles!) would give the film a strong R rating even by today's standards.  The film was actually edited down to a PG rating for American theater and video releases, but the current DVD (from the Warner Archive Collection) offers the film in its unedited, international glory.  While Hammer's horror era was always facing challenges from censors, this seems like an extreme case in which they pushed the boundaries of their usual fare.
It's a shame the studio didn't make more films like Crescendo.  Director Alan Gibson would go on to make the final two Hammer Dracula films, both of which disappointed audiences and left the studio dying as it could not compete with the times.  Crescendo, on the other hand, feels like the kind of film you'd expect from the 1970s, and I have to wonder if more films like this one (if they could be released without edits) could have kept Hammer afloat in the decade.  This leaves Crescendo as an intriguing little slice of Hammer history, and it's one I won't soon forget.  This is a fine thriller that deserves to be seen, and has quickly become one of my favorite productions from what used to be Hammer's "final" decade.

I told you Stefanie Powers was freaky....

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