Friday, July 26, 2019

Of All the "Nerve!"

Today's featured film, Twisted Nerve (1968), has an irresistible title and was made in my favorite time period of the mid-to-late '60s, so it was a no-brainer that I should see it at some point. Thing was, I don't know if I'd ever even heard of it until fairly recently, so I decided to check it out. Turns out that there was a degree of controversy surrounding it at the time of release and it's never really gotten its due as a moody thriller. But I'm telling you now, it's worth a look.

I'll partially address the controversy first since, before the film begins, there is a (sniffy!) disclaimer tacked on, advising the viewer that as "already stated in the film, that there is no established scientific connection between monogolism and psychiatric or criminal behavior." Prior to the film even being released, there was an uproar over the perception that story points in the movie might lead people into thinking that those affected by Down's Syndrome (as it is now called) could be linked to psychopathy and murder. Wow... imagine that. A movie gets lambasted and an outcry grows out of nowhere because someone couldn't pay attention to the script and understand it or they simply declared something "incorrect" before it had ever even seen the light of day. It's startling to find that things like this went on pre-Internet, too, though it has since become a way of life because there is always someone lying in wait to be offended by, well, anything they can find!

Anyway, it's true that the leading character has an older brother with Down's Syndrome in an institution. And it's also true that this fact gave the mother of the boys a sort of panicked neuroses that may have led to mental imbalance in the younger brother. That's it. It's not exploitative of the subject (the brother's face is never even shown.) Is it in poor taste to have the leading character feign mental illness in order to get his way? Probably. But the character isn't concerned with any such thing as taste! And, trust me, in the fifty years since this movie came out, viewers will likely be more put off by the casual sexism, misogyny and racism that some characters display. However, I am capable, and I suspect you are too, of knowing that a movie which features people like that doesn't mean that the movie itself endorses them! They are characters, with warts and all, just like people. But enough about all that.

The film opens at a mental hospital with Hywel Bennett playing catch with his brother on the grounds. Bennett is a regular visitor to the facility and shares a seemingly caring relationship with his sibling.

The doctor on site invites him into his office for a cup of coffee and a chat. It seems that the mother doesn't visit and that the brother likely wouldn't know her now if she did, but that Bennett is a regular part of the routine. It's also established that the brother has already exceeded his life expectancy.

When the doctor asks Bennett how things are at home, he drops his coffee to the floor, creating a mess! This is our first indication that it's unlikely that Bennett enjoys a comfortable existence with his family at home.

Next come the opening credits and they are memorable. A blurred building toy almost resembling DNA or chromo- somes swirls around as we are treated to the almost unforgettable theme by Bernard Hermann, which is whistled. This music has since been pilfered for projects like Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and American Horror Story. Hermann a longtime Alfred Hitchcock collaborator elevated many a movie with his brilliant work and this is no exception.

Next we see Bennett entering a toy store with that building set in the foreground. He comes upon a lovely young lady who is inquiring about this toy and that. The lady is played by one-time Disney child actress Hayley Mills, now grown up and in her early-twenties.
Mills about to enter a "not-apparent trap!"
While Mills is paying for the toy she wanted, Bennett swiftly pockets a toy duck. Unfortunately, he is spotted by two nearby undercover store detectives who stop both Mills and Bennett as they exit!
The store manager believes that the two of them are working as a team, with Mills the distraction for Bennett. Mills rightly exclaims that it would be preposterous to go through that over a cheap plastic duck and she has the receipt for her own item.

Just then, Bennett suddenly goes into a little boy routine. Referring to himself in the third person as "Georgie," he feigns a lack of development in order to excuse his actions. Mills pays for his duck, but the manager still reports the incident to Bennett's parents and takes Mills' address, which Bennett makes note of.
At home, Bennett's mother (Phyllis Calvert) and step-father (Frank Finlay) are having it out over Bennett. It seems he was kicked out of Oxford and has generally been a nuisance for quite a while, pushing himself on girls and lord knows what else.

Bennett heads upstairs and is seen holding a teddy bear and rocking rhythmically in a rocking chair. Then we see that he is rocking over the top of his step-father's 8x10 glossy!!
Later, Calvert comes in to check on him. He's petulant and rebellious with her while also pretending to be vulnerable and misund- erstood. He's pretty much got her wrapped around his finger. It turns out that she has never even told her husband Finlay that she has an older son in an institution! I guess Bennett and his set of issues was enough.

Bennett is now stalking Mills. He takes a taxi to her address and sees her leaving the house with a male companion.
He follows her and the man (who turns out to be merely a boarder in her home) to the point where they split. He onto a bus and she into the library where she works. While up on a ladder, Mills' legs are admired by a pair of naughty schoolboys.

Mills is surprised to see Bennett, back in his stunted "special" act, at her workplace, but is charmed when he pays her back for the toy duck and throws in a box of chocolate candy for her.

He asks if she would consider going to the movies with him sometime, but she explains that she works at the library during the day and spends most nights studying for her teachers exam. With that, he begins tearing at his shirt, causing her to have to reach up and re-button it.

Next he wants a book about animals, so she takes him over to the racks and selects The Jungle Book for him, placing it on her own library account since he has none of his own.

Later Bennett is shown in his room smoking a cigarette as he peruses the book, referring to it as a load of crap!

He is called downstairs by Finlay who has some jarring news for him. He's about to be shipped off to a sheep farm in Australia where he won't be causing any more issues for him or his mother! Bennett doesn't take the news well at all and declares that he isn't going and that, being twenty-one, Finlay cannot make him go. So Finlay gives him 50 pounds and one day to get out of the house!

Upstairs, Bennett takes a long look in the mirror and begins to undress.
He starts rubbing all over his chest, admiring himself.
Spotted in his room are several issues of various body-building magazines!
Then he drops trou all the way.
"Were you looking at my bum?"
Meanwhile, Calvert is informed by Finlay that her son has to go. His impertinent attitude and raft of problems are just too much to tolerate. Then comes a loud crash which we discover to be Bennett smashing his mirror in just the right (or wrong, depending on one's point of view!) spot.
"I can see your crack!"
The next day, Bennett does leave. He decks himself out in a business suit and flies out of town, then calls his mother to let her know. Pretending remorse for his behavior, he attempts to convince her that he's going to straighten up and fly right, even if it's in Paris and not Australia.

Then we're introduced to the members of Mills' household. There is her mother (Billie Whitelaw) and two borders. Barry Foster is a snarky, swaggering bloke who is rarely without an off-color remark while Salmaan Peer is a respectable doctoral student.
For a busy landlady, Whitelaw sports a rather elaborate 'do!
When Mills baits and puts down Foster for his ways, Whitelaw informs her that he is a paying guest. (He is also apparently the occasional bedmate of Whitelaw when she is feeling lonely and he is feeling horny, which is often!) She also tells Mills that she could be a model like Twiggy or "The Shrimp" instead of studying to be a teacher, resigned to dealing with forty snot-nosed brats.

Next the doorbell rings and we find that it is Bennett! He has shown up with a (forged) letter from his father asking that the boy be boarded in their home while the man is away on business!

Whitelaw is nonplussed and determines that Bennett cannot stay there on such short notice and with no suitable room ready for him. Mills feels terrible about it, but can't help but go along with her mother's decision.

In a striking shot (in a film full of them), Bennett is almost off the premises when they ladies have a change of heart and decide to have him stay for one night.

They decide to put him in the dusty, unused room at the very top of their labyrinthine house. It was once Mills' as a little girl and still has several of her playthings in it.

The next morning, Mills asks Foster to be patient and kind to Bennett before she darts off to the library. Foster does what he says and tries to ingratiate himself to the young man.

Likewise, Bennett is bent on ingratiating himself to Whitelaw. Not only has he cleaned his room up consid- erably, he willingly does the breakfast dishes. But he's not done!

He, without being asked, takes the push mower and begins trimming the lawn. He opts to do this without benefit of a shirt, which rather catches Whitelaw's attention a bit, though she's grateful for all the extra work he's putting in to pay for his keep. In fact, she decides to allow him to stay on indefinitely.
Contemporary viewers often remark on Bennett's "unimpressive" body, but I found it appealing enough, if pale. Today's actors need six-pack abs to get a job, but - regardless- I find most of them far less captivating to watch than Bennett.
Calvert and Finlay are lulled into a sense of security when they receive an encouraging letter from Bennett posted from Paris. (He had arranged to have it mailed from there, even though he's right in town with them.) He wishes Finlay luck with an upcoming speech he is to give.

Things are going along swimmingly for Bennett and he meets Mills at the library around quitting time, intending for them to spend the evening together. Things go awry, however, when a beau of hers suddenly appears in a sports car, whisking her away on an adventure without him!

That night, Bennett feigns a general interest in Paris, with Mills going over details about the city in a book she's brought home from the library. He really just wants to know more about the city since it is his alibi (and, of course, wants to cozy up to Mills more.)

Whitelaw senses the intimacy developing between the young man and her daughter and reminds Bennett that it is his bedtime. Is she doing this to save Mills from being too close to the boy or does she sense something brewing within herself?

Mills offers to make cocoa for Bennett and tea for Peer. Peer, attempting to study, can't help but be distracted by the noise above, which is Bennett ferociously riding a hobby horse as if he's in a race.

All this subterfuge is merely a ruse Bennett is using to fool the housemates. He's even wearing black pants under his pajamas! The moment Mills is out of sight, he decks himself out in all black clothing including coat and gloves and sets out to leave the house.

In the downstairs kitchen, he selects a startling pair of dangerous looking scissors and takes the key to let himself out of the back door.
Bennett provides great crazy face throughout.
Just as he's about to exit the room, he hears someone coming and has to temporarily abandon his exit and take refuge in a nearby pantry (with heart-shaped cut-out holes.) It turns out to be Mills, returning the tray and cups to the kitchen for washing. She notes how odd that the light is on when she likely had turned it off when exiting beforehand.

In a sequence worthy of the Master of Suspense (Alfred Hitchcock) himself, Bennett peers through the vent hole and spies a plate of uneaten biscuits that will need to be put back into the tin, which is directly next to him in the cupboard! He may have to do in the very object of his desire if she comes to the pantry which, thankfully for her, she does not.
"Where's Wacko?"  Look closely...
Finally free to pursue his mission at hand, Bennett heads to his step-father's home and is on site when the man returns from giving his speech. Lying in wait in the garage, he has a nasty surprise for him when he emerges from his vehicle.

Back home now, he is disposing of his bloody gloves and is washing the knife when Foster loudly returns home from a night of boozing at the local pub. He darts upstairs before Foster comes in.

Next, he heads to Whitelaw's bedroom, pretending to have been awakened by a bad dream. (With this, there's no chance that anyone could think he left the house should there be any question.)
She soothes his frightened soul with a big hug and he curls up in her bed in a fetal position. She lights a cigarette and lays next to him for a while until there is a knock at the door.

It's Foster, dropping by for a bit of late-night nookie! He's used to slipping into her room whenever the mood strikes him and is annoyed that her door is locked and that she won't respond to his knocking.

The next morning at breakfast he is truly ticked off. He thinks that Peer has gotten a turn in Whitelaw's bed and crudely accuses him of such. Nothing happened with anyone at all, but when Whitelaw brings in a special breakfast for Bennett to build up his strength, Foster assumes that she and the boy were making time overnight!
After a bit of bickering around, it's determined that Foster ought to leave the place and find somewhere else to live. Whitelaw gives him one week's notice to get out and soon makes plans to put Bennett in another, better room.

In the morning paper, it is revealed that a noted banker was murdered the night before, though apart from being a grisly bit of news, it doesn't really affect anyone at the house for they don't know that Bennett has anything to do with Finlay. (Interestingly, though this movie came out in 1968, the paper has a March, 1970 date on it!)

Mills is having friends over, including her quasi-boyfriend Christian Roberts (who some of you may recall from The Adventurers, 1970.) They are dancing around the living room to Brown's phonograph while Bennett looks on with increasing disgust.

When Brown begins to get more and more handsy with Mills (to her dismay) and then goes to plant a sloppy kiss on her, Bennett deliberately knocks the record player to the floor, destroying it. Brown is livid, but Mills offers to pay for it. She also tells him that she doesn't want him to go swimming with her the next day as planned.
But she does go swimming with Bennett! They head to a fairly secluded, lovely lake where they frolic in the water together and have something of a race to the edge.

Once out of the water, they're both freezing and Mills suggests that Bennett get out of his suit and into some dry clothes. He heads behind a large tree to do so.

While she is looking off into the distance while chatting with him, he surrep- titiously creeps around to the other side of her, wearing nothing but a heap of clothes and a towel.

She has no clue that he's behind her, naked as the day is long, drying himself off in plain view of anyone who might happen by.

Finally, she spins around and catches sight of him in all his glory. And I do mean all, for he then quite deliberately turns around and shows her "Georgie junior!" (We the viewer do not see this part, naturally.) She isn't exactly horrified, but she's aghast that they might be caught this way and chides him.
He picks some wildflowers for her and brings them over as a peace offering, which she appreciates, but then he goes to far and tries to kiss her, earning a slap.

That afternoon, Mills tells her mother that she thinks it's time that Bennett left along with Foster. She seems to be worried about the course of their friendship. Whitelaw, by now, has strong maternal (or otherwise!) feelings for the boy and doesn't want him to go.

She gets a call from Bennett's father, expressing that Bennett needs to be leaving soon, but it's actually Bennett himself, using the old hankie over the mouthpiece trick at a pay phone!

Meanwhile, cleaning up Bennett's room in preparation for his new one, Mills finds a stack of books in his chest of drawers. One on handwriting, in which his real name of Martin Durnley is scribbled multiple times, tying him to the murdered man, and others on sex & psychiatry!

Mills tracks down the murdered man's widow, Bennett's mother, now in a nursing facility after a breakdown. She is trying to make the connection between Calvert and Finlay and the young man whose been staying in her home and cavorting some with her.

Back at the house, Whitelaw is dressing and doing her hair when she sees Bennett head into the woodshed to prepare some kindling for the fireplace. She contemplates her actions before heading out to the shed to see him (on this, the maid's half day.)
"Face it, luv. You've got an itch that needs scratching..."
Following an enlightening conver- sation with Calvert, Mills has gone to the hospital to find Peer and question him about what might be going on with Bennett. Peer happens to be studying under the same doctor that looks after Bennett's brother (what a coinky-dink!) It seems that Calvert's deep fear of having another child with learning disabilities led to intense coddling and daily inspections of her second child and ultimately may have created a spoiled, rage-filled sociopath. (It's always mother's fault!)

He's all man, though, as Whitelaw has discovered. She enters the shed with her hair down and in a flimsy robe, ready to take advantage of the uninhabited household and grounds.

He's intensely working on his log, though, and gets even more disturbed when she reveals to him that Mills had earlier been mentioning someone named Durnley! In his frenzy to saw the wood, he cuts his own hand.

Whitelaw digs deep for the hankie in his pocket and then it's clear that she's actually after hankie-pankie! As you can probably guess, this does not go over particularly well...
"I'll Saw What You Did?"
Mills returns to the house because she realizes that it's the maid's half-day and she doesn't want her mother home alone with the unbalanced Bennett. Peer calls her to see where she dashed off to and she explains, but... I won't spoil the rest. There is actually about 20 more minutes to go in the story! I thought that Twisted Nerve was wonderful. I loved the look of it, the sound of it, the performances, the subversive, sometimes perverse humor that dotted it along the way... I recommend it very highly.

Full disclosure. I hate to admit this, but I have never been a fan of Mills. I know that she's positively beloved by throngs of fans for The Parent Trap (1961), but I was just put off by her for whatever reason. Her troubled character in The Chalk Garden (1964) did nothing to help the situation. However, in Twisted Nerve I absolutely loved her! She's pert, pretty, appealing, kind and caring. She's dressed throughout in all sorts of kicky, trim clothes and truly won me over. At this point, Mills had really caused a stir because in 1966 she'd fallen in love with the married (co)director of The Family Way, a man thirty-three years her senior! That man, Roy Boulting, also directed Nerve. They eventually wed and had a son together before divorcing. Since then, she's had two long-term relationships and another son and still works on TV occasionally. Her early role in Pollyanna (1961) won her a special juvenile Oscar. She's seventy-three at present.
Bennett emerged from British TV starting in 1965 to costarring with Mills in The Family Way (1966) and for a time was a white-hot star of sex comedies and dramas that pushed the boundaries of what was allowable on screen (not to mention the boundaries of the previous levels of taste!) After Nerve, which was not greeted very warmly even though he is excellent in it, he made The Virgin Soldiers (1969), Loot (1970), as a bisexual thief, and Percy (1971), about the first recipient of a penis transplant! He rejoined Mills for a third time in the Agatha Christie thriller Endless Night (1972), but soon receded to the small screen again, scoring a hit with the series Shelley and revisiting it later with The Return of Shelley. Bennett retired in 2007 amid rumors of alcohol abuse and the burden of a heart defect, he passed away ten years later at age seventy-three. If you looked through this post at pictures of him, you may have noticed a certain resemblance to a later cinematic character, though I can't recall ever having seen reference to it elsewhere! inspiration for Mike Myers as Austin Powers?
Few screen performers were capable to providing the same sort of penetrating gaze that Whitelaw could. And when it was threatening (as in The Omen, 1976), it was practically unforgettable. A British television veteran from the early-1950s on, she began appearing in films the following decade. Apart from a slew of various movie and TV roles, she was also the muse of playwright Samuel Beckett, who wrote several works for her. Hitchcock watched Nerve with interest and cast both Whitelaw and Foster in his equally startling thriller Frenzy (1972.) Later films of hers include Maurice (1987), The Krays (1990) and Quills (2000.) She passed away in 2014 at age eighty-two from undisclosed causes.

Calvert was a highly-popular British film actress of the 1940s who wasn't able to gain a significant foothold in Hollywood. Her 1952 film Mandy is likely one of the best-known (and one for which she received a BAFTA nomination, which went to Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire.) Having worked from the late-1920s up until the year 2000 (!), Calvert passed away of leukemia in 2002 at age eighty-seven.

Foster began working in TV and British films in the early-1950s with increasing success. Following this film, he won parts in huge movies such as Battle of Britain (1969) and Ryan's Daughter (1970) with the aforementioned Frenzy (1972) a career highlight despite its then-notoriety. He continued to balance several successful TV roles with the occasional movie until 2002 when a heart attack felled him at age seventy-two.

Finlay, who received special guest star billing here for his smallish but effective role, was at home in both comedy and drama in the 1950s onward. In 1965, he'd played Iago opposite Laurence Olivier in Othello and was put to use in many movies, both wacky and epic in scope. He's revered in Poseidon's Underworld for having been one of The Three Musketeers (1973), but continued acting up until 2009 (a late-career highlight being The Pianist, 2002.) He died in 2016 of heart failure at eighty-nine.

I've already sung the praises of this semi-obscure film, though you'll have to make up your own mind about it. If you like the sort of character-driven, slow-burning suspense that made Hitchcock famous or have an affinity for one or more of the stars, you're likely to enjoy it. You may watch the film here if you choose to.