Saturday, 28 December 2013

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960)

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (released in the US as Never Take Candy from a Stranger) is one of Hammer’s most unusual films. It was also possibly their most controversial movie.

To make a movie about a child molester in 1960 took a certain amount of courage. Such subject matter was going to have to be handled very carefully (although it would probably be even more difficult to make this movie today). Hammer very wisely chose to approach the movie in a deliberately non-sensational manner.

Peter Carter (Patrick Allen) has just arrived in a small Canadian town to take up a position as principal of the local high school. He and his wife Sally (Gwen Watford) and their nine-year-old daughter Jean (Janina Faye) have been settling in fairly well, until Jean tells her parents about a rather disturbing experience she’s had. In fact Jean doesn’t find the experience disturbing until she notices her parents’ shocked reactions. Jean and her friend  Lucille had gone into a house where Lucille assured Jean they were guaranteed to get sweets. All they had to do to get the sweets was to dance naked for an old man.

The old man is Clarence Olderberry Sr (Felix Aylmer). The Olderberrys more or less run the town. Clarence Sr effectively built the town when he established a sawmill there many years earlier and Clarence Jr (Bill Nagy) now runs most of the town’s businesses and dominates the town council.

When the Carters make a complaint to the police they find they have disturbed a hornet’s nest. Clarence Olderberry Jr is outraged that his poor old father should have such an accusation made against him. He knows, and everybody in the town knows, that the old man is rather peculiar and that his fondness for children is a little excessive and possibly even a little unhealthy. But the prevailing view is that despite his peculiarities the old man is basically harmless. As the story unfolds it’s important to remember that Clarence Jr genuinely believes his father is harmless.

In the face of considerable opposition the Carters decide to press charges. The ensuing court case is very unpleasant and the results are not entirely satisfactory but the story is far from over.

This movie lacks the star power of most Hammer movies of its era but it has a strong cast and the performances are subtle and nicely judged. Felix Aylmer’s performance is very disturbing, particularly since this superb character actor usually played sympathetic roles or played pillars of respectability. Patrick Allen avoids the temptation of making his performance too overtly emotional. Bill Nagy is set up as the chief villain by virtue of his obstructiveness although as noted earlier he truly does not believe that his father is dangerous. Young Janina Faye’s role was a formidably challenging one for such a young actress. To a large extent the film’s success or failure hinges on her performance and she does a superb job.

Director Cyril Frankel takes his material very seriously and approaches it with sensitivity. Freddie Francis was responsible for the cinematography. There are some very fine visual set-pieces. The scenes on the lake are ominous and moody and genuinely suspenseful, and scary. The chase through the woods is equally effective. This subject matter could have lent itself to a social problem approach and there are elements of that, but done more subtly than is usual with that approach.

The plot is somewhat predictable but the execution is skillful and the lack of sensationalism gives the film a much greater punch. The story is moving and involving but it also works extremely well as a suspense film.

The movie’s one weakness is that it succumbs to the temptation to become a city vs country film with the country people quite unfairly coming off (as they always do in such cases) as small-minded and bigoted compared to the more sophisticated and intelligent city folk. This is an approach that I always found offensive and it weakens the movie somewhat.

This movie forms part of the Hammer Films: Icons of Suspense DVD boxed set. The anamorphic transfer is excellent. There are no extras.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a tense and effective suspense thriller that deals with uncomfortable subject matter with unexpected finesse. Recommended.

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