Hammer is best known for its decades of hugely successful horror output including the genuine classics Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein, but it wasn’t always like that. The studio had been set up in 1934 and produced a long line of largely unremarkable British movies, before developing a penchant for making film versions of hit television shows.
One such was Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment which proved Hammer’s stepping stone into the horror genre. But in 1958 this direction was far from set in stone, and the company was still producing films in many different genres including crime and psychological thrillers.
One of these was The Snorkel, and the ludicrous title is probably the reason why you will not have heard of it before – I certainly hadn’t. It completely fails to convey the fact that this is a gripping and actually rather dark affair which if you approach in the right spirit and stick with it to the end proves remarkably tense and chilling.
Directed by Guy Green, the film opens with a bravura pre-titles sequence in which we join a murder already underway. The killer (Peter van Eyck) has drugged his wife and is busy filling the sitting room of their Italian villa with gas so that it will appear she committed suicide. To make it the perfect locked room mystery he secretes himself in a hidden space under the floor, and avoids suffocating by wearing a diver’s snorkel connected to an outside air supply. All of this takes place in a wordless seven minute sequence that the audience has to work out for itself.
After the main titles we have the discovery of the body and the involvement of the local police who quickly accept it’s a suicide. But one person who refuses to accept this conclusion is the victim’s 14-year-old daughter Candy (Mandy Miller) who is convinced that her stepfather is responsible even though all the evidence says otherwise.
With its sunlit Italian location shooting, the next half hour unfortunately loses its early film noir atmosphere. It feels more like a bright and breezy children’s film in which Candy plays a gauche Nancy Drew and tries to find clues pointing to her stepfather’s guilt. At one point her dog Toto even comes across the crucial snorkel in a wardrobe, but no one realises the significance of the discovery.
Frankly the film sags at this point and fails to sustain its suspense or momentum. From a short story by actor Anthony Dawson and scripted by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, there simply isn’t enough plot complication to fill out the running time. It would have been better as a 55-minute short in the style of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries which were common supporting features in British cinemas in the 1950s. The film is essentially a tight three-hander with committed performances from van Eyck and Miller together with Betta St John as family friend Jean. There are also brief supporting roles for Grégoire Aslan as the local police inspector and a young William Franklyn as a British consultate official.
Once it gets over its middle-act sag, a genuinely shocking death suddenly bumps things up several gears. Candy throws off her childish demeanour and becomes increasingly cold and calculating as she plays a battle of wills with the initially arrogant killer, both sides now fully aware of the threat the other poses. It’s actually structured like a classic Columbo (which was ten years away from being made at this point) in the cat-and-mouse parrying.
A particular highlight is the back and forth verbal sparring between the pair on the beach in front of a totally oblivious Jean, which leads the killer to make a desperate attempt to silence the child. Eventually he sets up a final confrontation back at the villa where her mother died, leading to one of the most cold-blooded final scenes you’re likely to see in a film of this vintage. Even though the censors forced Sangster to add a feel-good epilogue to mitigate the darkness, you can still see full well how the film was intended to play out – and it’s fantastic in either format.
If you can get past the world’s stupidest title – get your sniggering out of the way before watching – then The Snorkel is well worth seeking out. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated bit of British film making of the 1950s which bears mentioning in the same breath as Hitchcock’s monochrome classics such as Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt. And as far as I’m concerned, commendations don’t get much better than that.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Note: For this entry, I’m especially indebted to the Hammer House of Podcast in which writers Paul Cornell and Lizbeth Myles are discussing all of Hammer’s horror films in order of release. I’d not heard of The Snorkel before they decided to include it in their July podcast on the frankly shaky grounds that the film is enough of a thriller to have horror aspects. I’m very glad that they did or else I wouldn’t have even spotted it on the TV schedules a few days later let alone given it the hour and a half required to view. It’s well worth listening to the podcast after you’ve seen The Snorkel to give the film a whole extra dimension of appreciation. The episodes on Quatermass, X The Unknown, Frankenstein, Dracula and The Abominable Snowman are also recommended downloads.
The Snorkel pops up periodically on the wonderful Freeview channel Talking Pictures. It can also be found on some Hammer DVD film collections, and most recently made its Blu-ray début as part of Indicator’s Hammer Volume 2 – Criminal Intent limited edition boxset where it’s laden with far more special features than any B-list film could possible deserve.