Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Screenplay: Paul Dehn
Based on a Novel by: John Bingham
Starring: David Hemmings, Gayle Hunnicutt, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Mary Wimbush
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Fragment of Fear is based on a novel by John Bingham, a former MI5 agent who worked with David Cornwell – now better known as John Le Carré. Le Carré supposedly based his famous George Smiley character on Bingham in fact. Bingham, who wrote a range of crime thrillers rather than sticking to the spy genre, never quite shared the literary success of his colleague, but Fragment of Fear was one of his most popular novels. It was popular enough to be turned into a film at least, 5 years after its publication. Adapting it for the screen was Paul Dehn, who co-incidentally (or perhaps not) had already adapted two of Le Carré’s novels into films, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and The Deadly Affair (another hidden gem Indicator have released that has been reviewed here).
Fragment of Fear centres around Tim Brett (David Hemmings), a reformed drug addict who has found a modicum of salvation and success in turning his experience into a book. He owes part of his transformation to the support of his aunt, so he’s devastated when she’s found murdered whilst they’re both holidaying in Pompei. The police don’t seem interested in the case, passing it off as a mugging, but when Tim spots an old friend of his aunt tearing up a note of sympathy from ‘The Stepping Stones’, he becomes suspicious. As he makes his own investigations into the mystery however, those behind the murder mess with his head to such a degree that his already troubled sanity becomes tested to breaking point.
This is the type of psychological thriller that plays with your mind and grips with the mystery of its story rather than distract you with action scenes like most modern thrillers. The 70s were ripe with classy thrillers and this got lost in the mix somewhere as I wasn’t aware of it until recently. I’m glad Indicator saw fit to re-release it on Blu-Ray though as it’s a hidden gem that I enjoyed a great deal.
Most impressive is the sense of paranoia built in the film. This was a trait common in 70s thrillers, although more prevalent later on, post-Watergate. The paranoia isn’t politically motivated here of course though, it’s more like The Game or similar, where a hidden enemy is doing their best to drive the film’s protagonist insane. The drug addiction angle adds an interesting element to proceedings too and sets it apart from the political/spy thriller crowd of the time. Because we’re never sure who’s pulling the strings or what is real or what is fabricated to cause confusion, the audience shares Brett’s paranoia. This all builds nicely from a few puzzling turns early on to a full on mental assault in a frightening finale at Brett’s wedding.
On the technical side of things it’s not a film that impresses much in a visual or clear directorial sense. Although it’s a mind-bender of a film, it doesn’t share the trippy visual aesthetic of some similar thrillers of the era. It’s shot classily, but almost grittily. The film did have a giallo feel though, particularly in the opening act, which is largely set in Italy. The superb soundtrack from Johnny Harris helped add to this mood, with a funky, jazz fusion style that played to my tastes and reminded me of some of the better Italian genre scores I know and love.
Hemmings impresses in the lead role, delivering a strong, committed performance. Sweaty, tired-looking and wild-eyed, particularly towards the end, he really sells the growing desperation and eventual insanity of his character. There are some old British character actors making up the rest of the cast as well as Hemmings’ new wife Gayle Hunnicutt playing his fiancée in the film.
All in all, it’s a refreshingly unusual thriller that gets under your skin and stays there by offering few clear answers – setting the audience in the mind of its troubled protagonist. Gripping and effective without resorting to generic scenes of horror or action, it’s another forgotten gem unearthed by Indicator.
Fragment of Fear is being re-released on 30th October by Powerhouse Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. The picture and sound quality are both excellent.
There are a couple of special features included too:
– David Kipen on author John Bingham and screenwriter Paul Dehn
– Interview with assistant director William P. Cartlidge
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
– Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Johnny Mains, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and historic articles on the film
It isn’t a huge selection of extra material, but the two main featurettes are both solid. The interview with Cartlidge provides some frank revelations about Sarafian’s alcoholism and Hemmings’ similar issues and initial lack of interest in the project. The piece on Dehn describes how underrated the writer was. As usual, the booklet is indispensable, with a handful of essays, interviews and period reviews to fill any gaps left by the video extras.