Sunday, July 4, 2010

NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER (1960)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment bills Cyril Frankel's film as the rarity of rarities in its new Icons of Suspense collection of six black-&-white Hammer thrillers. Indeed, there's little evidence, apart from the trailer included on the disc, of the American release of the film under the slightly revised title Never Take Candy From A Stranger. This shouldn't surprise me, since the subject matter -- child molestation -- must have been dynamite 50 years ago. Unusually for a Hammer film, this one is set in Canada, where Peter, Sally and little Jean Carter are settling into their new home town, where Peter is the new school principal. We get a teaser opening with Jean playing with her new friend Lucille, who tells her she knows a place where they can get free candy. At home that night, she complains of a sore toe, and only gradually does it emerge that she stubbed it while dancing barefoot in a stranger's house with Lucille, and not just barefoot, but just plain bare. If anything, you're tempted to think that this sort of story is even more disturbing today than it was back in 1960, but that's probably not the case.

Janina Faye as Jean Carter doesn't even wait until the morning after to regret taking candy from a stranger.


Jean and Lucille got their candy (it wasn't very good, Jean complains later) from the elderly town patriarch, Old Mr. Olderberry (Felix Aylmer). His son, Clarence Jr., seems to have the town, if not the old man, under his thumb. The Carters don't know the score yet and want to prosecute Old Mr. O., but Junior makes it clear that he'll ruin anyone who dares besmirch the family's reputation. Bill Nagy comes on so strong and villainously as Junior that I wondered whether the character had an ulterior motive for keeping his father out of the rest home, but in this period reputation, on which his dominance of the town depends, was probably motive enough to bully people into submission. Lucille's dad, for instance, works at the Olderberry mill. He sends Lucille away to stay with relatives so she can't testify at the trial. The case depends on Jean's testimony, but a sharp lawyer (Niall MacGinniss) damages her credibility under cross-examination, and his establishment of reasonable doubt, along with the Carters' reluctance to subject their daughter to further emotional torture, lead to a hasty acquittal of the harmless-seeming old man.

Junior now wants to be magnanimous, urging Peter Carter not to quit his job, but the family understandably wants to quit this miserable place. Their departure is delayed a bit, however, when Jean's farewell play date with Lucille segues into a genuine horror movie. There's a great shock moment when Lucille pedals a bike up a path only to stop suddenly when Old Mr. Olderberry appears as if out of nowhere, enticing bag of candy in hand. He looked feeble before, and he looks feeble now (though he proves menacingly spry), but his mute offer makes him look extremely creepy. The girls are having none of it now and run away through the woods. They make their way to the edge of a lake and discover a boat they can row to reach safety. They row for their lives as the old man watches, and in a marvelously composed shot, we see his waiting reflection in the water as a rope rises to the surface and goes taut. The boat was tied to the dock, and the old man's not so feeble that he can't reel his prey in....

Frankel's film, adapted from a play, is about innocence and the illusion of innocence lost. The blithe manner in which Jean describes her first visit to Mr. Olderberry is stunning, and it's only after she figures out from her parents' alarmed questions that something bad had happened that she starts having nightmares about the old man lurking in her closet. The people of the town all seem to know about the old man's eccentricities, but under pressure from Junior they tell themselves that Olderberry hasn't really done anything wrong. Junior himself may believe that, but he's in for a terrible disillusionment, just as Lucille's parents face a comeuppance for failing to help stop Olderberry when they had their best chance. This may look like a B-team Hammer project, but it shows how versatile at horror the studio was. Never Take isn't even offered as a horror film, but it may has what may be one of the scariest scenes in the Hammer canon. This is as much a "guilty town" or social problem film as a horror or suspense film, but those sorts of stories can be and sometimes should be scary. Hammer may have been just the right studio to tell this sort of story at that point in cinema history.

The American trailer was uploaded to YouTube by DVDFilmFun

2 comments:

Watching Hammer said...

A very powerful film, and Felix Aylmer makes one of Hammer's most frightening 'monsters'. The film was so controversial it only got a very limited art-house release in the US. I posted a picture of the rare US poster on the Watching Hammer review.

Samuel Wilson said...

I strongly recommend readers to follow the link above for a detailed history of the story's evolution from play to film and an impressive international collection of poster art.