Indicator: Fragment of Fear (1970) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures

British actor David Hemmings best known for Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 existential mystery sensation Blowup was at the height of his screen popularity across the United Kingdom and particularly Italy.  After co-founding the Hemdale Film Corporation with John Daly, the actor started appearing in proto-giallo fare like Eye of the Devil and eventually actual gialli ala Dario Argento’s 1975 classic Deep Red.  Between those years, Hemmings crossed paths with frequent television director Richard C. Sarafian and just a year before immortalizing his career with the Barry Newman starring iconic actioner Vanishing Point, the director and actor paired up for one of the more unusual if not off the wall proto-giallo offshoots that’s frankly every bit as nebulously weird and difficult to categorize as Mike Hodges’ Pulp which also posited an Englishman in Italy as a fish out of water.

Based on John Bingham’s 1965 novel of the same name, Fragment of Fear follows former drug addict Tim Brett (David Hemmings) who has written a book about his experience and recovery a year later and is visiting his wealthy aunt at an Italian hotel when the next day her lifeless body shows up at a tour site in Pompeii.  Amid the funeral organized by the hotel owner suspicious of Brett, he forms an unlikely rapport with a woman named Juliet (Gayle Hunnicutt) who initially discovered his aunt’s body and they wind up getting engaged.  Frustrated with the police investigation, he starts hunting down his own clues after meeting up with some of his aunt’s friends and relatives but not before he starts receiving threatening phone calls and comes home to discover someone has left a wicked cackle on his tape recorder while he was away.  From here, Brett finds himself besieged by masked assailants, finds complete strangers conspiring against him and an undercover government agent informs our bewildered hero not all is as it seems.

A bit of an investigative mind-game starting out in the same arena as Blowup before veering more towards a kind of Footprints meets Under the Silver Lake neo-noir as psychodrama, Fragment of Fear penned by Murder on the Orient Express screenwriter Paul Dehn presented a unique challenge for both the studio and for moviegoers expecting a “phantasmagoria of fright” and getting something else entirely.  Partially a whodunit, partially a neurotic exercise in paranoia and a sense of encroaching danger as our hero doing his own work finds himself an unlikely suspect in the process, it introduces the viewer to a wide variety of mostly elderly characters including Arthur Lowe from the especially weird The Ruling Class while featuring a colorful ensemble cast of Italian and English veterans. 

Lushly lensed by renowned cinematographer Oswald Morris of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Carol Reed’s Oliver!, the world of Fragment of Fear despite being awash with lurking danger and paranoia like most gialli before and ahead of it is scenic and picturesque with lots of architecture for David Hemmings to run around in.  The score by Johnny Harris is uncharacteristically jazzy and feels almost ambivalent to the proceedings though it does have a kind of breezy cool to it.  The film while boiled down primarily to David Hemmings with his piercing gaze and sharp eyes that could spell either fear or menace features many character actors including but not limited to the aforementioned Arthur Lowe, A Clockwork Orange star Philip Stone and The Third Man actor Wilfrid Hyde-White.  Mostly though, the Italian architecture, streets and countryside become almost like a rabbit-hole labyrinth for our perplexed hero to tumble down.

Released in September 1970 in the United Kingdom followed by a North American release a year later, the film despite the scenery and screen presence of David Hemmings frustrated audiences and critics who were expecting a straight-laced genre thriller and instead got something a little more offbeat.  In an age now where films like the aforementioned Pulp are being reevaluated and reappraised, however, filmgoers accustomed to just going along with a movie’s strange logic are likely to enjoy the unexpected detours this thing takes you down.  Fans of David Hemmings eager to excavate much of the actor’s lesser known but no less valuable outings will find much to wade over here and even those likely to come up vexed will still get some entertainment value out of it.  Not every movie needs to neatly tie everything up in a bow or deliver on our misguided expectations.

--Andrew Kotwicki