FEAR NO MORE (1961)
Director: Bernard Wiesen
Cinematographer: Ernest (Ernie) Haller
Screenplay: Robert Bloomfield (based on the novel by Leslie Edgely)
Lead actors: Mala Powers, Jacques Bergerac, John Harding
Supporting actors: Helena Nash, John Baer, Anna Lee Carroll, Robert Karnes, Peter Brocco, Peter Virgo Jr.
Speaking of an "eleven-pack" of films built around some type of theme (or semi-arbitrary aesthetic whim...), there's the prospect of a "Film Chest set" where all the films have the word "fear" in their titles. We'll get back to that at the end; first, a look at one of the latter-day entries in the "fear noir" sweepstakes.
Mala Powers is the acting showcase for FEAR NO MORE (1961), a film that has resurfaced recently in a six-film set called WEIRD NOIR. It is sort of an orphan child in that set because it is not particularly weird and/or shaggy around the edges, as is more certainly the case for its companion films.
FEAR NO MORE succeeds due to the top-flight talents of two individuals--the aforementioned Ms. Powers, who possessed serious acting chops but never found a defining role that crystallized her potential for portrayal of intense psychological states; and cinematographer Ernest (Ernie) Haller, a terrific craftsman with a 40+-year career behind the camera. Despite its tiny budget and nine-day shooting schedule, FEAR NO MORE manages to work despite the rest of the cast and crew being dragged across the finish line by these two stalwarts.
The story is convoluted in the way that many of the post-PSYCHO thrillers would knot themselves up in hopes of creating an analogous sense of dislocation for the audience. Instead of it being an homme fatale that tries to gaslight Ms. Powers' character in FEAR NO MORE, it's the script itself, which keeps chipping away at her credibility until you start to think that Ms. Powers rewrote some dialogue on-set in order to self-engage with what the plot was plotting to do with her character.
There are some wordy exchanges as a result, some of which become quite cumbersome in the hands of Ms. Powers' co-star Jacques Bergerac, who began his career as Ginger Rogers' boy toy and wound up as a cosmetics executive (the handsome hunk slotted into the family business--a storyline that is itself good potential fodder for a noir). Bergerac is actually a fair actor, but his inability to shed his French accent creates a need to chop down his lines into strings of monosyllables, which tends to make him seem a lot dumber than he actually is...which impairs his ability to play the hero. Ms. Powers tends to compensate for this in her scenes with him by ramping up her hysteria.
The basic premise: young woman is sent with a McGuffin (a purchase order in place of those "letters of transit"...) on a train ride, where she discovers a man and a dead body in her compartment. She's conked on the head so to be discovered with the stiff, but even that seems screwy...and it is, because it's all part of an elaborate set-up by her boss to make her the fall girl for his more-than-slightly overwrought murder and money exchange scheme that he and several of his dim-witted relatives are attempting to orchestrate.
Ms. Powers runs, screams, and creates a character arc out of thin air (in various combinations--all of which, if it could be captured visually as a process, would remind one of Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase"...) and manages to keep the action in forward motion despite Bergerac's slow-mo reactions and the pitiable attempts at malevolence put forth by lead baddie John Harding (playing a guy named Milo...let's face it, when your lead bad guy is named Milo, your malevolence quotient might be a little on the anemic side). Ms. Powers manages to create some late-term suspense in the film simply by angrying up her responses and becoming a scold even as she is supposedly being driven to an appointed location to be snuffed. If it weren't for her, the audience wouldn't have a clue as to what is actually going on!
Director Bernard Wiesen spent most of his time in TV and worked almost exclusively in comedy there, so he doesn't seem to be quite the right fit for this type of "serial paranoia" thriller. A more concerted effort to accentuate black humor in the unfolding story could have added the kind of panache that helps the audience roll with the convolutions, but that just doesn't emerge from the script, which is a reluctant souffle that rises only due to visual prowess of Mr. Haller and the thespian insistence of Ms. Powers. (Weisen did work with Hitchcock in the mid-50s, as an assistant on THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, and you can see that some attempt to borrow from that film's template is made, but it remains bereft of the black humor that added a second level to the narrative.)
Now, for that eleven-film set (to be tentatively entitled FEARMONGERS):
JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943)
MINISTRY OF FEAR (1944)
FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1947)
SUDDEN FEAR (1952)
STORM FEAR (1955)
THE PRICE OF FEAR (1956)
HIDDEN FEAR (1957)
FLOODS OF FEAR (1958)
CITY OF FEAR (1959)
FEAR NO MORE (1961)
CAPE FEAR (1962)