On paper at least, it sounded like a great idea: a modern-day suspense thriller, steeped in the stylish twists and turns of a ’40s film noir plot and replete with classic Hitchcockian flourishes of suspense - all dressed up with jaded post-sixties cynicism and the flowery Carnaby street fashions of the early '70s. This was Pete Walker's idea of "Die Screaming Marianne"; the result of a chance meeting between Walker and TV floor manager-cum-screen writer Murray Smith, it was the pair's second project together, coming hot on the heels of their successful sexploitation flick, "Cool it Carol", and it provided a great chance for Walker to branch out as a film-maker with his own stab at a Cluzot-inspired thriller, similar to the kind of thing Jimmy Sangster often dashed off for Hammer films around this time.
An enjoyable first half, which seems to bear out Walker's hopes of updating the romantic noir plotting of Charles Vidor's "Gilda" - with voluptuously fresh newcomer Susan George taking up the Rita Hayworth mantle - is soon sadly squandered in the second half, when recourse to some tricksy cross-cutting editing techniques still can't disguise the fact that the film's messy production history - its tight budget and over-running schedule - had forced the director to throw out a good sized chunk of the screenplay in the middle of the shoot, just to get the thing finished. The young, hip cast bring a different edge to familiar material but their on-set hi-jinx famously led to the production almost being abandoned mid-shoot, with Walker feeling forced to issue a statement to the press to that effect, simply in order to regain some degree of control and authority over the film. The result is by no means a disaster, with many nice performances and several pleasing set-pieces; but the film losses momentum and slides into near incoherence in the second half, and there is far too much of a languor in the middle act before the downbeat ending leaves one with more questions than answers.
Marianne MacDonald (Susan George) is an exotic dancer known as 'The Hips'. While leading a free-and-easy fun-loving lifestyle, go-go dancing her way around Europe, she hitches up with mop-topped man-about-town Sebastian Smith (Christopher Sandford) after nearly being run down by his Austin Healey in the Portuguese Algarve. They fly back to England and have a two week fling in Brighton after which Sebastian asks her to marry him. Not being entirely convinced of the seriousness of his offer, but not that bothered either, she goes along with the idea - but ends up hitched to Sebastian's best friend and best man, Eli Frome (Barry Evans), instead.
It turns out that Sebastian is working for Marianne's demented, perverted and hopelessly corrupt father: an ex judge (Leo Genn) who wants to get a hold of her and bring her back home, because she has previously obtained the number of a deposit account, given to her by her mother before she died mysteriously - as well as access to incriminating papers which reveal his corrupt activities on behalf of the mob. The Judge is apparently also engaged in an incestuous relationship with his psychotically deranged daughter, Hildegarde (Judy Huxtable): a panda-eyed beat girl stick insect who wants her half-sister Marianne dead simply out of sheer spitefulness, and lives with her father in his plush, modernist cliff-top home in a remote part of Portuguese.
Eli innocently offers Marianne refuge in his Brighton flat, unaware of the complications of her past, and soon finds himself under threat. Narrowly avoiding an attempt on his life by two heavies pretending to be policemen, who corner him in the upper storey of a down-at-heel apartment block, Eli accompanies Marianne and Sebastian (who confesses his original involvement with the Judge), on a trip back to Portugal, where they hope to confront the Judge in his own home. A labyrinthine network of twisted relationships is soon revealed that leads to even more plotting, murder and duplicity.
Shot on the cheap in Brighton but with some Portuguese location filming intended to add some glamour to proceedings, Walker comes very close to successfully bringing off an early idiosyncratic gem of a thriller, with a more mainstream appeal than his previous exploitation-based material possessed. The opening title sequence alone is a classic piece of late-sixties bubblegum razzmatazz, with a gyrating, bikini-clad Susan George shimmying against a lush crimson backdrop as Cyril Ornadel’s Hammond and brass-driven Bond-style theme music pounds out on the soundtrack. An authentic ’70s period feel, familiar to most of Walker’s work, brings a different flavour to the film’s nicely handled Hitchcock-inspired set-pieces, and the cast of up-and-coming bright young things certainly have visual appeal, even if Barry Evans seems slightly miscast - with his leather trousers and mod stripy shirts giving him an unusually fey appearance for a romantic lead. Christopher Sandford makes an interesting antagonist - part trend-setting weasel, part likable chancer; while a twenty-year-old Susan George is delectable as the pouty, tom boyish title character. But still, Walker’s uncertain direction and choppy editing might well have let the film down completely if not for the combined performances of Hollywood veteran Leo Genn and sixties ‘It Girl’ Judy Huxtable, who are genuinely unnerving as the incestuous father and daughter team at the centre of the convoluted story’s somewhat contrived web of intrigue. Murray Smith’s script really comes to life when cooking up over-heated dialogue for this pair which beautifully plays up the lustful melodrama of their perverted relationship. Walker just wasn't able to control the disparate elements of the plot at this early stage in his directing career, though, and the final act fails to hold on to the required level of suspense, coming across as a bit of a deflated muddle.
Odeon Entertainment re-release this minor cult thriller in a slightly faded print (it looks like the same one from the previous Anchor Bay version) and with a Jonathan Rigby moderated commentary track which proves to be an entertaining listen; there’s also a brand new video interview in which Walker now seems much happier with the results of his endeavours than he did when the commentary was originally recorded, admitting that the film isn't one of his best efforts but that it has some nice moments nonetheless. This seems a fair assessment. It’s not up there with his trio of classics, but it continues to illustrate the obsessive themes at the heart of all Walker’s cinema - that of the corrupt older generation feeding off of the carefree young, and the moral degeneracy for which the family structure often provides a respectable veneer, and in that respect it is worth seeking out by newer fans of this intriguing cult director.