Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Diagnosis: Murder [1975]

Not to be confused with the shonky Dick Van Dyke medical / detective daytime TV series of the same name, DIAGNOSIS: MURDER is a British thriller that was directed by Sidney Hayers and originally released in the UK in 1974.  It stars the late Jon Finch, Christopher Lee, Judy Geeson, Tony Beckley, Dilys Hamlett, Jane Merrow and Colin Jeavons.  It tells the story of an eminent psychiatrist whose wife has disappeared but is himself under suspicion because the police have received anonymous letters claiming he has murdered her.  It's a genuine rarity this one: very rarely screened on British TV and unavailable here on DVD, I was obliged to buy a Region 1 copy in order to see it as part of my recent Jon Finch retrospective.



It starts with an arresting sequence in which a woman out for a walk is menaced by a sniper with a silenced telescopic rifle; but rather than shooting at her, the gunman (wearing a very 70s and not at all camouflaged red kagool) frightens the piss out of her by shooting whatever rock she has scrambled behind for cover.  We then cut rather abruptly to a slovenly but quick-witted detective Alan Lomax (Jon Finch) getting picked up for work by his colleague (Tony Beckley) to get cracking on a missing person case.  It turns out that Julia Hayward (Dilys Hamlett), the wife of toffee-nosed psychiatrist Dr Stephen Hayward (a fabulously supercilious Christopher Lee), has disappeared and soon the police begin to suspect that she has been murdered.  The reason they think that is because they've started receiving old-school, cut-out-of-newspapers anonymous letters telling them exactly that.

A highly-camouflaged sniper

We're very firmly nudged by the director into agreeing with them: partly because it's Christopher Lee, who's always up to no good; partly because he's super wealthy (lovely pile in the country, has a speedboat, drinks a lot of scotch out of cut-glass decanters); and partly because he's got a bit on the side, in the form of his secretary Helen (Judy Geeson).  Not to be outdone, Lomax also gets his own subplot which involves his relationship with an unhappily married woman Mary Dawson (Jane Merrow), whose husband Bob has been recently been rendered a paraplegic.

The very unwell Jon Finch as Lomax

Good, old-fashioned stuff then and as such it reminded me of those EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERY THEATRE episodes I've been watching a lot of lately in that it's very English, very middle-class and very unadventurous visually.  What it does have going for it, however, is a terrific central performance by Jon Finch as the slovenly but quick-witted Lomax.  He's not a totally unreconstructed 70s copper but he is very down-to-earth and completely unfazed by anything his quarry, or indeed his colleagues, can throw at him.  You'd never catch Gene Hunt or Monkfish reading female pornography for instance; Lomax flicks through it wondering if it turns women on before absent-mindedly observing that he must be alright because it doesn't do anything for him.

Christopher Lee trying to look inconspucuous

Were it not for Finch it would be hard to recommend tracking this film down, especially given how difficult that proved to be.  It's one of those films where there is nothing going on except the plot and were it not for the fact that you want to know what the big finish will be you'd turn it off.  Like most British films from the 1970s, it looks utterly ghastly now; why does everything from that period look so damp and uncomfortable? To make matters worse there seems to be some debate about whether the version that is available on DVD (albeit in the US only) is in fact the full version.  The imdb lists it as 95 minutes as does the BBFC submission; however, the version I saw ran for roughly 83 minutes.  It's perfectly comprehensible as it stands but one important subplot does seem to have been truncated.

It has to be said that Jon Finch appears terribly unwell in this movie, looking like a drug-addled and disease-ravaged John Holmes which, despite not being the worst look in the world during the mid-1970s, can't be good for you.  And indeed there was something seriously wrong with Finch's health: apparently he was an undiagnosed diabetic and kept fainting during production.  Finch had come in to this movie off a run of several excellent films but his subsequent health problems meant that he had to take some time out and his career never really recovered; certainly he never top-lined another major British film.  That's not to say he didn't do some interesting and high-profile work - he starred in some of the excellent BBC Shakespeare adaptations and had a supporting role in the big budget DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) - but his chance at major stardom had gone.

Tony Beckley and his wonderful tanktop

Director Hayers and screenwriter Philip Levene are names that will be familiar to fans of delirious British cinema and TV, having had a hand in numerous cinema and TV productions over the years.  I'd say Hayers' best film work is NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962), a cracking occult horror movie starring Peter Wyngarde.  Levene wrote the scripts for loads of episodes of THE AVENGERS.  Christopher Lee needs no introduction of course, while Judy Geeson has her fair share of delirious movies on her CV, notably Hammer's FEAR IN THE NIGHT [1972] and Norman J. Warren's shoddy INSEMINOID [1982].  Of the supporting players, Tony Beckley was a fine character actor most memorable for his turns in two Michael Caine movies: THE ITALIAN JOB [1969] and GET CARTER [1971].  Beckley was only 52 when he died of cancer in 1980.  And while we're speaking of Michael Caine, Colin Jeavons, who plays the wheelchair-bound Bob Dawson, features as one of the hideous inbred pirates in Michael Ritchie's THE ISLAND [1980] which is as perfectly delirious a film as you're ever likely to see.


1 comment:

  1. I have a Region 1 DVD of this movie for sale if anyone is interested. You can contact me through this website, or via the Cinema Delirium Facebook page if you prefer.

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