Pat Jackson's modest psychological thriller is no masterpiece, but is an excellent example of one of the better things to be found in the supposed quota-quickie wasteland of 50's and 60's UK cinema. It begins ominously with a pick up on a dark street. A young girl enters a car as the titles roll, to be menaced by the driver. An jump cut later and a body is discovered by some children, hidden under some straw. This discovery scene, while providing a suitably dramatic jolt, is in the event rather flat and perfunctory. Jackson's forte lies in manipulating the audience with menace (for instance leaving the assailant faceless throughout). The latest victim, so artlessly uncovered, denies the audience the chance of fabricating its own terror.
How one responds to `Don't Talk..' depends largely on how one views Jean, the romantically gauche heroine (Christine Gregg, who in a short career also appeared in Corman's minor `Young Racers' (1963) as well as the limp `Cover Girl Killer' (1959)). Her accidental interception of the stranger's call, growing fascination with his voice and suave masculinity, and eventual decision to meet him alone in a dark lane, demands willing suspension of disbelief. A similar response attaches itself to Rose in `Brighton Rock' (1948), another timid `victim-to-be'. In that film response to emotional intimidation (by Pinkie) is infuriatingly compliant but gives the film much of its power. Similarly, Jean's emotional vulnerability, no matter how far her naivity stretches reason, gives the present film much of its suspense. Will she or won't she meet "the strangler"?
Jean's life is neatly compartmentalised, away from any real experience of life. We see her either with her dull and doting parents, or at `The Chequers' (the pub where she baby sits), in her shared bedroom with her precocious 14 year old sister Ann, on the bus with Molly the conductor, or in the phone box waiting for or taking her calls. Most important in her life, at least as the events of the film are concerned, is the latter. At first the box seems innocuous enough and it is shot almost incidentally. Then as the film progresses and it assumes greater significance in her life, the camera begins to view it flat on until, as an ominous shape, it hovers in the background of Jean's rendezvous, almost a monolithic suitor in its own right. Finally, as a hand reaches into disconnect Ann's frantic last call, it becomes a claustrophobic chamber of terror.
Ann (Jenina Faye), Jean's confidant and rapt audience for romantic fantasies, plays a crucial part in the film. With a young girl's fickleness she announces to her astonished parents that she has become a Buddhist. This interest in a religion with a strong emphasis on reincarnation, provides a neat parallel to the love-struck Jean's statement a little later. Returning from her second phone conversation, (and having `re christened' herself Samantha) she says that she feels as if she has been `born again'. Earlier Ann's condemnation of blood sports and the ensuing discussion with Mr Painter, her proposed letter of complaint to the gentry, echoes the more immediate `hunt' outside, her sister as prey. Later it is she who rushes to her sister's help, and provides the film's final irony as to do it, it emerges, she had caught a lift from a complete stranger.
Jackson's direction is unobtrusive and low key, being content with some modest dollying. He avoids dramatic close ups and such tricks of the cinematographer's trade to artificially raise suspense. Instead he stages one or two remarkable long takes - partly, one assumes, to lower shooting costs - but which still stand out. One is the extended dialogue that Jean has second time around in the phone box. For long minutes Jackson's camera focuses in unblinkingly in on this innocent girl, who is unmistakeningly falling for that reassuring, civilised voice on the other end. The prolonged nature of our gaze, and the young woman's implied captivity within the barred windows of the kiosk, combine and make the audience uneasy. The conversations that ensue, carrying the implication of sexual abuse and murder, are especially unsettling to a modern audience alert to such moral panics - particularly when the younger sister is abducted at the end.
Jackson's most interesting use of the long take occurs as Jean rushes to leave The Chequers to make her next phone rendezvous. He shoots a long minute or two from a viewpoint just outside of the front door
looking into the hall. Jean, panicking to leave on time, rushes to and fro. Another director might have cut away from Jean's nervous impatience. But by letting Jean dart around the narrow hallway at length, Jackson make a virtue out of visual economy. This extended shot creates suspense more naturally than any editing could do. And through all this nervous bustling Ron, the leisurely landlord, asks for things while remaining out of our sight - in effect, just another demanding, disembodied, voice in Jean's life.
So Jean goes off to her final rendezvous. The climactic scenes are less effective, baring signs of a rushed wrap-up (including a very unimpressive day-for-night match during Ron's struggle with the abductor). In the build up to the denouement, Jackson shows Ann film watching having been sent off to the cinema by Jean to create an alibi for her sister's liaison. Aptly, Ann is watching a suspenseful sequence on the screen, one which she cannot enjoy while thinking of her sister's imminent danger (to which she shortly rushes off to thwart). There's a neat mirror reference here, back to the audience's own contemplation of unfolding events.
All in all, Jackson's work is a pleasant surprise which makes one regret he was not able to work with larger budgets. Rarely seen, `Don't Speak to Strange Men' is nothing to keep quiet about.
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