Sep 17, 2014

Brainstorm (1965)

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This hip, slick sixties take on film noir didn't excite me the way I'd hoped, but it has a fair share of thrills and a great jazzy score. The strong cast, with Anne Francis, Dana Andrews, Jeffrey Hunter and Viveca Lindfors, keeps things bubbling as long as it can.

It's one of two slightly off-kilter thrillers directed in 1965 by William Conrad (the other My Blood Runs Cold), who is perhaps most famous for his starring roles in the television shows Cannon and Jake and the Fatman, and for being one of the titular gunmen in the 1946 noir The Killers.

Hunter is Jim Grayam, a brilliant systems analyst who comes upon an unconscious woman in the passenger seat of a car stopped across some railroad tracks. He drives her out of danger, infuriating his supposed damsel-in-distress, who had intended to commit suicide. She is Lorrie Benson, wife of Cort Benson, who is also the owner of Benson Industries where Jim works.

Cort views Lorrie as an amusement, a pretty bird in a gilded cage. She only stays with him for the sake of her daughter, who he promises he will make miserable if she leaves him. His cruelty disgusts Jim and he returns Benson's reward check, impressing the missus in the process. She reels him in, delicately, as if she is too innocent to understand the danger she is courting. But this is not her first affair.

When Cort learns of his wife's newest conquest, he begins a campaign of stealth harassment, making Jim look crazy to his co-workers. He uses Grayam's past experiences in a sanitarium to further trash his image. Soon Jim and Lorrie are plotting Benson's murder.

Of course, murdering a spouse to eliminate the competition never works. After all, how could things work out with a partner who's cool with killing unwanted lovers? If only these people would go to the movies. They'd learn so much.

Jim is determined to win Lorrie though, and he plots the murder in such a way that afterwards he will make the jury think he's insane, and then gradually prove sanity again and win his freedom. Lorrie goes along with his plan, though she is careful not to get explicitly involved.

While the murder and trial go as expected, Jim begins to actually go crazy in the mental hospital. He realizes that he has trapped himself. Or has he simply discovered his true nature?

Up to this point, Brainstorm has brisk appeal. Ann Francis is kittenish and sweet and it is easy to see how the overworked and deeply serious Jim could be drawn to her. They make eyes at each other during a swinging party and the montage of their love affair is cute, if awfully familiar.

When Cort begins his assault, the tension increases as you wonder how far Benson will go with his smear campaign. Up to that point, the plotting and reprisals keep you on your toes. Then the long scenes of Grayam learning how to be insane begin, and it's as if a pin has been poked into a balloon and the air begins to drain from the movie.

The murder scene is surprisingly bland, almost matter-of-fact, which is interesting in a way, though it just adds to the lack of energy in the second half of the film. Once Jim is captured, there are long scenes with psychiatrist Dr. Larstadt (Vivica Lindfors), in court and finally, in the mental hospital. There's so much detail it gets tedious. Every scene feels like it could have been half as long.

This is a worthy film though, if flawed. Francis rarely had the chance to dig into a role this substantial; though she's no heroine, she is appealing as a femme fatale who is dangerous more for her weaknesses than typical cold calculation. Dana Andrews has a small role, but it's shocking, because he's never been so mean and the change in persona suits him. Swedish actress Lindfors is appropriately enigmatic as a doctor who wants to help Jim, though perhaps not in the way he would prefer.

I wasn't able to decide what I thought of Jeffrey Hunter's performance. It was difficult for me to separate my feelings about his character, which I found totally unappealing, from how he portrayed him. I think I'd need to see Hunter in another role to be able to appreciate what he has accomplished here. He may have done his job too well, or maybe he just doesn't appeal to me at all.

Overall I liked the film well enough to watch it a couple of times, but I'm disappointed that it lost momentum after such a promising start. However, it's still a must-see for fans of late-period noir or any of the actors in the cast.

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