Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Night Visitor

The Night Visitor
Directed by: Laslo Benedek
Thriller / Horror, 1971
USA/Sweden, 106 min
Distributed by: VIC Home Entertainment

Laslo Benedek, a Hungarian filmmaker who was brought to Hollywood by MGM studios to make movies in the USA. After a being set in charge of reshoots on Gregory Ratoff’s Song of Russia 1944, uncredited of course, he finally got a chance to direct his first major studio movie; The Kissing Bandit 1948 starring old blue eyes Frank Sinatra in what has been called Sinatra’s worst movie ever. A confusing mash up of western, comedy and musical the movie failed to make an impact and Benedek seemed to have wasted his chance. Three years later, 1951, he’d definitely learned his lesson and directed Death of a Salesman based on Arthur Miller’s play featuring Kevin McCarthy and Cameron Mitchell in leading roles. The movie won Benedek a Golden Globe for best director.

But his best movie was directed in 1953 as the classic biker film The Wild One starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin set the template for those later biker exploitation films of the sixties and seventies, and stayed banned in the UK until 1968.

After almost twelve years of directing TV serials like Perry Mason, The Outer Limits, The Fugitive, Rawhide and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Benedek returned to direct his last movies where the impressive American Swedish co-production The Night Visitor 1971 can be found.

The Night Visitor is a superbly crafted little gem that surprisingly has gone missing for reasons that are quite hard to understand. It’s a fascinating thriller with some of the greatest Swedish and British actors, packs a really suspenseful plot and has some great scenes that deserve to be brought forward in a new light.

Filmed on location in Denmark and Sweden, yes the Mental Institute is Varberg Castle in Sweden, this co-production between Sweden and USA tells the tale of Salem [Max Von Sydow – from all those stunning Ingmar Bergman movies; William Friedkin’s The Exorcist 1973, Dario Argento’s great return to the genre he perfected – Sleepless 2001, and soon to be seen in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood 2010 to name a few of the great movies this iconic actor has been in] who is trying to take revenge for being sent to the mental institution for a murder he did not commit. Through an ingenious use of a self crafted skeleton key, his clothes, bedding and fishing line he crafts a rope that allows him to exit and return to his cell at the institute as he wants. This is why he’s running around in the snow in his underwear every time he’s out of his cell.

And when he’s out of his cell, the innocent man ironically becomes a murderer in his sinister plan to create justice. The plan is complex (although simple in narrative form) as Salem plans to murder and leave threads that lead to his brother in law Dr. Anton Jenks [Per OscarssonArne Mattson’s Vaxdockan 1962 and more recently as Holger Palmgren in the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy – which I have no interest in seeing at all]. The first night sees him entering the Doctor’s house as Jenks discusses with his wife Ester [Liv Ullman – Again a fantastic Bergman actor and star of Jan Troell’s brilliant Utvandrarna 1971 and Nybyggarna 1972. Her portrayal of the fragile and vulnerable Kristina should have given her an Oscar in my opinion] and Emmie [Hanne Bork – who only ever starred in this movie] the ” situation with Salem”. Salem steals morphine, a syringe and one of the Doctors ties before paying a visit to Bitte [Lottie Freddie, who also only ever starred in this one] a young woman that he seduces and leaves dead. Jenks receives a call from Bitte’s parents and he goes out to their house to examine he young woman, and the first of Salem’s set up devices is exposed. A bundle of ties have been shoved into Jenks doctor bag. When the police Inspector [Trevor Howard - Carol Reed’s The Third Man 1949 and Carmilo Vila’s The Unholy 1988] starts investigating, he quickly starts putting the pieces together, a strangled victim and a distressed doctor with ties in his bag, ties that later prove to have the same perfumed chest rub as the first victim was wearing. Back at home, Jenks and Ester discover that Salem has been there too and bludgeoned Emmie to death!

Oscarsson is brilliant in his movie as the terrified Jenks to whom Salem shows himself briefly before going about his vengeance plan. Oscarsson twitches, jerks and screams in fear and panic that Salem has escaped from the asylum - supposedly impossible. He faints and that’s when the darned parrot is introduced. A parrot that will be of great importance for the final twist at the end of the film, and was the title of the Swedish release of the movie: Papegojan.

The Inspector pays a visit to Dr. Kemp [Andrew Kier from all those wonderful Hammer movies – Terrence Fisher’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness 1966, Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit 1967, Seth Holt’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb 1971. Not forgetting Gordon Flemying’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150AD 1966 which sees Hammer legend Peter Cushing returning as Dr. Who for the second time]. Dr. Kemp runs the institute - a great use of Varberg Castle, that really looks like a menacing and freezing place to be captive - where the Inspector hopes to further his inquiries into the killings and to see if there is any chance of Salem actually being responsible for the murders as Jenks claims. He sits down with Salem who delivers a splendid reference to that great scene in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal 1957 as he asks The Inspector ”Would you care for a game of chess?” Not only a reference to that iconic scene, but also a great metaphor for the movie plot as Salem taunts the detective and the Jenks family throughout, having planned all his moves to the smallest detail. This eye for details and planning ahead is reflected in a conversation he holds with the warden Pop [Arthur Hewlett] as they play a friendly game of chess though the food hatch in the cell door prior to Salem’s first revealed escape.

Salem acknowledges the crime he is institutionalised for and tauntingly set the game with the detective in motion. But the detective isn’t having it, he knows that there is something fishy going on and even though all the evidence points towards Doctor Jenks, he’s hot quite sure that Salem is telling the whole truth, and is actually locked away as tight as Doctor Kemp and Salem claim that he is.

Needless to say by this time the plot has been established and the suspense wound up to a great high, and the last act will have you biting your nails as you move towards the climax, revealing how all the crimes and Salem’s plot are connected.

Holding an almost Hitchcockian feeling with the unease of Bergmanesque despair to it, the movie plays off traditional ”let the audience in on the plot before the characters” trick so frequently used by Hitchcock, and ”underdog getting away with the perfect revenge” a excellent choice as we almost always by default become empathetic towards underdog characters. And as soon as we know reasons for his incarceration we start to sympathise with him and actually want him to succeed in his plan. Add to that the anguish of the characters that all shift between terrified feeble beings to coldblooded maniacs just like Bergman frequently portrayed his characters, and it gives a fascinating and intriguing blend.

Von Sydow gives an illustrious performance as Salem the crazed man on a mission, and does a great deal of running around in the freezing cold inter in his undies, and a fair amount of climbing to and from high spaces. His second escape from the asylum is very tense and it’s a delight to watch his cunning devices and methods as he once again breaks out of his captivity. But the splendid finale sees him frantically, and painstakingly returning to the prison fighting both the elements and time, as he must return to his cell before the police open the door to his cell.

Benedek brings out the best in his actors that are top notch here; Sydow, Oscarsson, Ullman and Howard are terrific, supporting cast members, Kier, Rupert Davies as Judge Clemens [also seen in Michael Reeves Wichfilnder General 1968, Freddie Francis Dracula has Risen from the Grave 1968 and the leading man of Pete Walker’s Frightmare 1974), and Arthur Hewlett’s gumpy gnome like prison warden Pop are very entertaining.

The movie also has a great soundtrack by the masterful Henry Mancini – composer of such classic tunes as the Pink Panther Theme, the score to Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce 1985 (uncredited of course...), and the beautiful Moonriver from the Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961 soundtrack.

And to top it all off, the movie was produced by Mel Ferrer, and I’m surprised that his notoriety within the European genre pieces of the seventies and eighties (Alberto De Martino’s The Antichrist 1974, Sergio Martino’s excellent Giallo The Suspicious Death of a Minor 1975, Flavio Mogherini’s The Girl in the Yellow Pyjamas 1977, René Cardona’s Guyana: Crime of the Damned 1979, Sergio Martino’s Big Alligator River 1979 Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive, and Nightmare City both 1980) would have attracted the attention of genre fans, and it by far the most interesting piece he would produce.

It still puzzles me why this movie became a lost gem, it’s well written, splendidly acted and has a very captivating narrative and an excellent overall atmosphere to it. The cinematography by award winning Henning Kristiansen is fine, there’s a splendid little twist at the end, a very Hichcockian twist if you like, and the movie is really very entertaining. It’s my highest recommendation that you seek out this movie and enjoy the magic of this lost gem as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed.

1.33:1 - Full frame 4x3

Dolby Digital Mono 2.0. English Dialogue, that is spoken by the actors in their broken English, which is fascinating to hear.

Previews for other titles released by VCI Home Video, among them; Ugo Liberatore’s semi sleazy Oxford decadence flick May Morning from 1970 starring Jane Birkin and John Steiner and Bill L. Norton’s cult TV movie Gargoyles 1972 with it’s special effects and scary monsters crafted by the late Stan Winston. There's a little photo gallery and short biographies for several of the cast and crew and finally the Theatrical Trailer.

Here's a glimpse at the first part of the movie that should lure you into the charm of this fascinating piece of film.

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