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The 1958 Hammer Film The Snorkel opens with one of the more memorable pre-credits sequences to be found in a thriller the viewer witnesses a "perfect murder" being committed. In a stylish European style sitting room, we see a calm, debonair sandy-haired man take a needle off a phonograph record, then use thick tape to seal the cracks of a closed window. He rolls up a rug on the floor and sets it against the bottom crack of a closed door. The man then retrieves a coil of hidden rubber hose, and moves another rug to reveal a hidden shallow under the floorboards. He crawls in the cramped space, scaring mice out of the way, and connects two pieces of the rubber hose to pipes which lead outside the upstairs section of the large brick residence. He crawls back out through the cobwebs to the room. As he lets gas escape through the room's lighting fixtures, we notice a woman shifting slightly while lying on the couch. The man sits in a chair in the room as he waits for the gas to slowly kill the prone woman. He won't be affected he has attached the other ends of the rubber hoses to a snorkel, which covers his face and provides outside oxygen. Over a close-up of the man's snorkeled head, the opening credits roll.
The murderer is Paul Decker (Peter van Eyck), who hides under the floor of the room as household servants discover the body of his dead wife, Madge. Since the room has been locked and sealed from the inside, it appears to the local Italian police and British Consulate Mr. Wilson (William Franklyn) to be a suicide. Madge's teenaged daughter Candy (Mandy Miller) has been traveling and arrives on the scene with her dog Toto and traveling companion Jean Edwards (Betta St. John). Candy vocally accuses her stepfather of the murder, although he has an alibi at the time of the murder, he was just across the border in France, seeking peace and quiet at a lodging to work on a book he is writing. Candy is adamant; she is also convinced that Paul killed her father in a boating incident several years before. When Paul can produce a passport proving that he had passed into France, Candy is all the more determined to discover how her stepfather could commit the murder.
The Snorkel was released in 1958, while Hammer was in the midst of their reinvention of the horror genre with such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). In this pre-Psycho (1960) period, the modest black-and-white thriller was unfortunately overshadowed by the Technicolor blood and thunder of the horror films. The Snorkel was written by the prolific Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, adapting a story by Anthony Dawson. Following the success of Psycho, Hammer and Sangster returned to the psycho-thriller genre with a string of films that included Scream of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963), Maniac (1963), Nightmare (1964), and Hysteria (1965).
Guy Green had been a cinematographer before he turned to directing in 1954; he won an Academy Award for his work shooting David Lean's Great Expectations (1946). Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio spoke to the director for their book Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, and Green recalled working on The Snorkel with producer Michael Carreras, whom he called "...very cooperative, as well as a delightful person to be with, and very much responsible for making the film a most pleasant experience. He and I had a great time casting the smaller roles." For the key role of Candy, they cast Mandy Miller; Green called her "...a natural talent and a very professional girl, but a bit too mature for the part, and all our efforts failed to disguise this." Of star Peter van Eyck, Green said that "he had to do a lot of difficult swimming and, one day after spending most of the morning manfully keeping up with a motorboat from which he was being photographed, Peter said, 'You never asked me if I could swim before giving me the part.' It was true. I didn't." Unfortunately, The Snorkel was the only film van Eyck did for Hammer; his cool, detached brand of menace would have been well-suited to other studio projects.
The budget on The Snorkel was about 20 percent above the average Hammer Films shoot, due to the extensive location photography (the Italian villa used in the movie was located in San Remo, near the border with France). It was also produced without a distribution deal in place. According to Johnson and Del Vecchio, an agreement with Warner Bros. had fallen through and James Carreras only later struck a deal with Columbia Pictures for both The Snorkel and its co-feature in a double-bill, The Camp on Blood Island (1958).
The world premiere of The Snorkel took place in an unlikely setting aboard the Queen Elizabeth luxury liner during a crossing of the Atlantic in May of 1958. For its regular run in America, The Snorkel received scant attention as the bottom half of the Columbia double-bill. In The New York Times, critic Richard W. Nason dismissed it, writing, "anyone who wonders how a simple skin-diving snorkel can be used this way will have to see the film... And, once you think about it, it's a very silly way to do away with somebody. Both films are for those who are looking to kill time." The Snorkel could be seen in late show syndication packages on television for a time, but in recent years it has been one of the most elusive of all Hammer titles. While not a classic, this clever and twisted thriller, as well as Peter van Eyck's chilling performance, is overdue for greater exposure.
Producer: Michael Carreras
Director: Guy Green
Screenplay: Anthony Dawson, Peter Myers, Jimmy Sangster
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Art Direction: John Stoll
Music: Francis Chagrin
Film Editing: Bill Lenny, James Needs
Cast: Peter van Eyck (Paul Decker), Betta St. John (Jean Duval), Mandy Miller (Candy Duval), Gregoire Aslan (inspector), William Franklyn (Wilson), Marie Burke (daily woman), Irene Prador (French woman), Henri Vidon (Italian gardener)
by John M. Miller