Crescendo (1970)

UK, USA, 1969
92m, 95m
35mm, Technicolor
mono, English

A British/American psychological horror film directed by Alan Gibson. It was first released in the UK on 15 May in London on a double bill with Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969).

Plot Summary

Music student Susan Roberts travels to the South of France to research her thesis on a little known dead composer. She meets his widow, Danielle, and his strange, wheelchair-bound son, Georges. It soon becomes clear though that things are not that they seem in the dysfunctional household…

Credits

Crew
Directed by: Alan Gibson
© MCMLXIX [1969] Hammer Film Productions Ltd.
Warner Bros-Seven Arts presents a Hammer Film production
Produced by: Michael Carreras
Screenplay by: Jimmy Sangster & Alfred Shaughnessy
From an original screenplay by Alfred Shaughnessy
Director of Photography: Paul Beeson
Editor: Chris Barnes
Music Composed by: Malcolm Williamson
Sound Mixer: Claude Hitchcock
Wardrobe: Jackie Breed
Make Up: Stella Morris
Hairdresser: Ivy Emmerton
Art Director: Scott MacGregor
Locations: A.B.P. Studios, Boreham Wood, England; France

Cast
Stefanie Powers (Susan)
James Olson (Georges/Jacques)
Margaretta Scott (Danielle)
Jane Lapotaire (Lillianne)
Joss Ackland (Carter)
Kirsten Betts (Catherine)

Alternative Titles

Concierto inacabado – Spanish title
Crescendo… con terrore – Italian title
Crescendo – Die Handschrift des Satans – German title

Production Notes

Pre-production
When looking at Hammer Films, most people tend to ignore Crescendo. A suspense thriller made in 1969, it's no classic but it's worthy of investigation. Not only is it a watchable little film with several (indecent) points of interest but, along the winding route which brought it into being, it came very close to pairing Hammer with Michael Reeves, director of the classic Witchfinder General.

The original script for Crescendo was penned by Alfred Shaughnessy, director of the 1957 Barbara Shelley vehicle Cat Girl and writer of numerous British B movies. By the mid '60 he had moved into television, eventually becoming script editor of Upstairs Downstairs, which might indicate that the Crescendo script dates from his prolific late '50s/early '60s output.

By the mid '60s Shaughnessy's script had found its way to Michael Reeves, who already had one directorial and one second unit credit in Italian horror movies. Either alone or in harness with Shaughnessy, Reeves revised the script. He was already linked to a John Burke piece, The Sorcerer, which was under consideration by producer/distributor Compton. Thanks to a split between the two company heads, however, the film's production schedule would be totally changed. An independent company called Curtwel (owned by Raquel Welch, and her husband Patrick Curtis) would pick up on the project instead.

In September 1966, Compton announced Crescendo as part of its new production programme, along with The Meter Man (eventually made as The Penthouse) and another John Burke story, The Devil's Discord. Presumably unknown to Compton, however, Reeves had also offered Crescendo to Hammer, who were considering it as a possible subject for production in 1968. Hammer had decided it would make a good vehicle for Joan Crawford, the Hollywood studio star whose career had recently been revived by the American Gothic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Crawford's co-star in that film, Bette Davis, had already headlined Hammer's The Nanny, which possibly prompted the company's interest in casting Crawford as the scheming matriarch, Danielle Ryman.

Curtwel, meanwhile, had convinced the new Tony Tenser Films – previously one half of Compton – to back Reeves' The Sorcerors (now plural), which began shooting in January 1967. Hammer, for their part, had passed a copy of the Crescendo screenplay to Joan Crawford and received interest from their former American distributor, Columbia. Patrick Curtis then announced, somewhat optimistically, that Crescendo would start shooting in April as a Curtwel/Hammer/Columbia/Reeves alliance. It did not happen.

Instead, Reeves went on to make Witchfinder General in September prior to his tragic death, aged 25, in 1969. Hammer producer Michael Carreras later commented, as Hammer productions became increasingly few and far between, “We had Michael Reeves knocking on our door and we didn't use him. We might have made Witchfinder General.”

By May 1967 another independent company, Puck Films, had hired John Gilling – who had directed the spy spoof Where the Bullets Fly for them as well as several Hammer Horrors – to rewrite the Crescendo script. Puck's domestic output was negligible, however, and this version of Crescendo would also go unmade.

After the project had lain dormant for over a year, Hammer would finally get around to making the film for its regular US distributor, Warner Bros./Seven Arts. Jimmy Sangster, the writer of Hammer's hugely successful early horrors of the fifties and producer of its “psycho thrillers” of the early sixties, was brought in to overhaul the script. Making his first feature, Alan Gibson was hired to direct. Gibson's six year career in TV had recently included three episodes of Hammer's Journey to the Unknown series. One of these, Jane Brown's Body, had starred Stefanie Powers, who was cast in the lead role of Susan Roberts. Powers having first worked for Hammer in 1964 in another mother-dominated thriller, Fanatic.

James Olsen – Oscar-nominated the previous year for the film Rachel Rachel – came straight from Hammer's ill-advised ‘space western' Moon Zero Two to play the crippled son, Georges. (This was possibly at Seven Arts' insistence that there be an American in the male lead; reportedly, Christopher Lee was keen to play the role.) Cast as Danielle was theatre actress Margaretta Scott, whose films included Things to Come (1936), while Jane Lapotaire, later a noted stage performer herself, played the saucy French maid, managing a credible French accent rather than the Allo ‘Allo-type diction such parts generally receive. Perhaps to stress her credibility as a French woman, American publicity material amusingly rendered her name as ‘Jane La Potaire'.

Production
Shooting began on 14 July 1969 at ABPC Elstree for six weeks, prior to one week on location in the Camargue in the South of France. The budget was set at £302,000, with Warner Bros./Seven Arts aiming to recoup most of this from TV sales. It came in some £3,000 below that figure, despite production having gone one day over schedule.

Release
The film was released as support to Taste the Blood of Dracula, opening at the usual showcase for Hammer and other British horrors, the New Victoria, on 15 May 1970. The pair did reasonable business in the first week (£3,637), but slackened off badly in the second and final one (£1,520). General release followed on 7 June, with Crescendo receiving reviews that were run-of-the-mill at best. The film's US release was brief and delayed until November 1972. Taste the Blood had already failed there; this, plus a change in the Seven Arts hierarchy, meant that Hammer would in future, have to turn to British sources for finance.

Newsday‘s snide comment that Crescendo played like a “witless […] reject from the ABC Movie of the Week” reflects the fact that the film was cut by 12 minutes for a ‘PG' rating in America. What presumably went were two graphic nude scenes which set the film well apart from the average TV movie of the time. Not only is a topless Stefanie Powers shown at the end of a double-barrelled shotgun blast, but Jane Lapotaire does a striptease prior to a nude swim and a bloody knifing. Alan Gibson, who would go on to helm Hammer's modern-day Dracula films, over-directs with too many shots of people and objects placed in distinct foreground and background to compose a clever picture. The set pieces, however – albeit too few – are very effective indeed, and all the performances are understated when they could so easily have gone over-the-top. Viewed today, it could be a very good episode of the much later Hammer House of Horror. Should it ever turn up on satellite TV, it comes highly recommended.
by David Hanks

(An earlier version of this article first appeared in Shivers no.43 (July 1997) and is reprinted here with the permission of the author)

References

Periodicals
Board of Trade Journal vol.198 no.3817 (13 May 1970) p.1328 – note (Registrations of British and foreign films)
Filmfacts vol.15 no.21 (1972) pp.527-528 – credits, reprinted review
Films and Filming vol.16 no.11 (August 1970) pp.47-48 – credits, review
The Hollywood Reporter vol.207 no.28 (29 August 1969) p.7 – credits
The House That Hammer Built no.7 (February 1998) pp.364-367 – illustrated credits, synopsis, review
Kine Weekly no.3266 (16 May 1970) p.10 – credits, review (by Graham Clarke)
Monthly Film Bulletin vol.37 no.437 (June 1970) p.127 – credits, synopsis, review
Shivers no.43 (July 1997) – illustrated article (by David Hanks)
Today's Cinema no.9697 (14 July 1969) p.6 – credits
Today's Cinema no.9806 (22 May 1970) p.10 – review
Variety 1 November 1972 p.20 – credits, review

Books
The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror by Phil Hardy (ed.) p.204
A Confession in Writing by Alfred Shaughnessy pp.46-47
English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema by Jonathan Rigby p.151
Feature Films, 1960-1969: A Filmography of English-language and Major Foreign-language United States Releases by Harris M. Lentz III p.85
Film Review 1970-71 by F. Maurice Speed (ed) p.217-218
Hammer Complete: The Films, the Personnel, the Company by Howard Maxford p.154 – illustrated credits, synopsis, review
The Hammer Story by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes pp.64, 178 – illustrated review, credits
Hoffman's Guide to SF, Horror and Fantasy Movies 1991-1992 p.82 – credits, review
Horror and Science Fiction Films II by Donald C. Willis p.70
Kine & TV Year Book 1971 p.107
by Walt Lee p.79 – credits
Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956-1976 by Gary A. Smith pp.59-60