By 1962 the Technicolor horror boom was in full swing – it was 5 years since Hammer Films had flushed new blood through the veins of Frankenstein’s monster et al and the cinema-going public showed clearly that there was to be no letting up on the blood-letting for their sake. Following the old maxim that nothing succeeds like excess, the second feature producers soon cottoned on to this taste for blood and followed suit in a similar fashion. The major problem for the ‘B’ features was that blood in black and white was generally conceived as being bad. Into this arena stepped Producer Albert Fennell, somewhat prior to his main claim to fame as production guru behind the most successful season of ABC TV’s The Avengers. In 1962 Fennell became responsible for what is undoubtedly one of Peter Wyngarde’s finest cinema appearances, Night of the Eagle.
From the onset Eagle is a taut and atmospheric suspense movie. Presumably budgetary influences dictated that it be shot in monochrome and in any production where money is tight, this will invariably mean that not a second of footage can be wasted. Often these cheaper production values are reflected in the finished movie – hence the ‘B’ movie status. This, however, is definitely not the case with Eagle. Time is not wasted with tedious and unnecessary exposition – the film opens with Wyngarde pounding out his views on superstition and the supernatural to his students – “I do not believe” he chalks, and the situation is established. Before us stands Norman Taylor; a teacher. A man in control. Taylor clearly has very strong beliefs – all of which are rooted in the paths of logic. This is demonstrated in his dismissal of lucky charms in the opening scene.
Class is dismissed and the director moves us swiftly out of the building where Taylor is accosted by Harvey (played by Anthony Nicholls) to see if the evening’s bridge session is still on. Only then comes the first piece of exposition as we learn that Taylor and his wife are somewhat unwelcome newcomers to the academic circle in which they move. Pace is maintained from the director by setting this scene in the interior of Evelyn’s car; whilst the dialogue is somewhat static, ensuring movement continues.
The next set up establishes the Taylor’s happy home life as Norman informs his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) that everybody is meeting for bridge. Even the bridge game does not slacken the pace of the film. In a reversal of the earlier car sequence, the players are never stationary, and the dialogue becomes lively as all sorts of hints and innuendoes lead us to wonder what might be happening in this apparently peaceful hamlet. The post-game discussion in the kitchen is particularly interesting as Lindsay (Colin Gordon) enquires as to the secret of Taylor’s success, “Have you sold your soul to the devil?” Taylor’s reply is of equal interest as he calls Tansy, “My lucky charm.” The whole sequences buzzes with intrigue and suspicion of plot and counter-plot.
Shortly after the other players have departed it becomes apparent that Tansy is somewhat distressed. She hurriedly searches the living room for something – when Norman asks what it is she replies, “A shopping list”. Worry fills her face as the search becomes rather more hurried. The plot unfolds when Norman leaves her to searching and in his own quest for his pyjamas, finds the body of a spider in Tansy’s drawer. This, we are informed, is a souvenir of Jamaica and a witch doctor called Carubius. When Norman settles down to sleep, Tansy resumes her search. Here, in one of the film’s best sequences, pace reaches a peak. The score starts to build up a steady, pulsing beat, as Tansy searches a standard lamp. The camera closes in as she whirls the lampshade, emphasising the frenzy and disorientation being caused by this unknown influence. Suddenly the lampshade jars to a halt and all becomes clear – a tiny doll-like effigy is suspended from the lamp. Tansy quickly removes it and burns it. The resultant puff of sulphurous smoke is sign enough that all is not well.
The next morning is quite ordinary until the laundry arrives and Norman finds a curious object pinned to his jacket. A swift search of the house reveals a wealth of charms hidden throughout. Norman is unhappy and confronts his wife as to their purpose. She asks him, “What do you want to believe?” and finally remarks, “I’m a witch! Is that what you want to hear?” Aghast by his wife’s primitive beliefs, Norman oversees an almost ritualistic burning of the said artefacts. Tansy has already delivered a solemn warning that she cannot be held responsible if he forces her to give up her, “protections,” and claims that all his success and goodwill is attributable to their influences. Practically the last object to go is a charm in Tansy’s locket – but Norman’s picture inadvertently follows it into the flames. Tansy is truly distraught and tries as hard as she can to retrieve it. As the last object disappears into the flames the Taylor’s cat hisses loudly, causing Norman to start. Then, whilst he is alone, he receives a cryptic telephone call.
All of a sudden Norman’s luck seems to change. The next day he is almost run down by a truck on his way to work. Things do not improve. On reaching his rooms within the school he is greeted by Bill Jennings (his resident academic lost cause) who accuses him of nocturnal excursions and indulgence with Miss Abbott – his prize pupil. The allegations are pursued further when Taylor is summoned to Flora Carr’s office, where Miss Abbott makes the case. Subsequently Taylor is again threatened by Jennings, who has now obtained a gun.
Home life offers no respite, in a brooding atmosphere of menace, Norman receives what appears to be an innocent recording of one of his lectures. Tansy instantly becomes suspicious as the sender has left the note unsigned, and she begs Norman not to play the tape. Through the use of an overdubbed sound effect we realise that this is where the fun really begins. The tape contains a subliminal signal which drives Tansy to distraction; oblivious to the storm outside, she seeks to shut the noise off. The telephone begins to ring, “Don’t answer it!” she cries, but Norman picks the receiver and the signal intensifies. An eerie, unearthly sound can be heard outside the door. Just as her husband goes to open it, Tansy manages to rip out the ‘phone wire. The strange activities instantly cease; Norman truly believes that the storm blew out the lights.
That night Tansy prepares a drink as Norman slumbers in front of the fire. She breathes a strange incantation, and gets her drowsy husband to share the drink. The next day she is gone, leaving behind a cryptic message which sends Norman racing off to their country cottage. Doubts are beginning to flash across Norman’s mind as we hear a voiceover of Tansy saying that she cannot be responsible if he forces her to give up her protections. When he finally catches up with her coach, driving alongside to try to get her attention, Norman narrowly misses a head-on collision with a truck and is forced off the road.
When he finally arrives at the cottage in a hired car, there is no sign of his wife. As he frantically searches for some clue, he stumbles across some books of spells and incantations. His eye is drawn to the formula for destroying a curse – this leads him to, “the house of the dead in the place of the dead,” the nearest churchyard. Norman finds himself in an open crypt; atop one of the boxes he places a photograph of Tansy, and surrounds it with four candles. He picks up a handful of dirt and sprinkles it over the picture. Suddenly he realises what he has been doing and scatters all of the elements. But it has worked; we see – framed in the doorway of the crypt – his wife.
Taylor takes Tansy back to their cottage and consults the local doctor, who recommends that she spend a spell in hospital. Tansy, who up to this point has appeared to be in a cataleptic trance, suddenly becomes insistent that she wants to go home. Against the doctor’s wishes, Norman takes her back. It is whilst he is resting that one veil of the mystery finally lifts. As Norman sleeps, Tansy takes a knife from the kitchen and lurches towards her husband. From the camera’s third party viewpoint we suddenly notice that Tansy is limping heavily. Fortunately Norman awakens just in time to subdue his would-be assassin, but – like the viewer – his suspicions are now aroused.
Unconcerned for the time of night, Norman makes rapid progress to the school and finds his way to Flora Carr’s office. Searching her desk, he finds a photograph of himself and Tansy, which has been carefully cut out in outline. He then realises that he is not alone. He douses the light and secretes himself behind the door just before the limping figure of Flora arrives. A confrontation ensues, and Norman plays her the tape of his lecture. We hear again the same sound effect that Norman seems oblivious to. It is obvious from Flora’s face that she does not share his disinterest as he asks, “Does it bother you?” The two then square up to each other properly. Flora asks Taylor why he refuses to believe in witchcraft, “After all, it is the oldest religion in the world.” He accuses her of trying to unbalance his wife – she wonders why he is so, “naïve.”
Flora then takes out a set of Tarot cards and begins to lay out a house of cards. When she gets to the roof she has already planted the seeds of fear in Norman’s mind – “And this of course is Tansy.” Outwardly Norman scoffs – but then Flora plays her ace, “How could I know about that accident with the truck?” He replies that, “The papers could have got hold of it.” With chilling confidence she answers, “They didn’t.” The war of nerves is almost at its peak – then Flora sets fire to the house of cards. She echoes his disbelief, “It’s just a silly woman setting fire to some cards.” The tension is almost unbearable – pressure and uncertainty deepen for the terrified Taylor, “Do you really believe that your house is burning? Is Tansy dying?”
Norman escapes the room, sweating and struggling for control. Back in her office Flora incants, “Burn witch, burn!” As Norman dashes for his home, we see Flora resume the tape, only this time she runs it through the school’s public address system. The signal has been given and we hear once more the noise that was outside the cottage. Only this time the source is revealed as a giant stone eagle which gains life and swoops from the entrance towards Taylor. Immediately, forced to contend with unbridled terror, Norman seeks the sanctuary of his own classroom but here he is cornered and the transition is complete. The final irony occurs as the tutor is cowering against his own blackboard, and his jacket rubs out the word ‘NOT’ from his opening assertion in the film’s beginning.
Back in Flora’s office her husband (Lindsay) arrives, attracted by the commotion over the P.A., and turns off the tape. Just as suddenly as the earlier incident in the cottage, normality returns. There is no eagle and both the shattered school door and Norman’s tattered clothing are intact. A dazed and bewildered Taylor makes his way home to discover that his wife is alright. She says, “The fireman said it was an oil stove.” As they embrace and exchange a look that speaks volumes.
In a final, classic, ‘B’ movie twist Flora, on being taken home by Lindsay is crushed to death by the huge stone eagle falling from its lintel perch…
The major reason for Eagle’s success is that it takes a lesson from its transatlantic cousins and nearly always maintains pace. Every attempt is been made to unveil the plot in a manner which is not unwieldy – no huge chunks of dialogue. The only place I think in which this fails is the sequence after Tansy’s return from the sea. All that conjecture and persuasion from the doctor is totally unnecessary as Taylor is instantly convinced that his wife’s best place is at home.
On seeing the screenwriting credits it is no surprise that pace is sustained. The screenplay is by three parties: Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Baxt. Matheson was already famous in his own right as the creator of many excellent fantasy stories – the most famous of which remains ‘I Am Legend’. Beaumont was also an author of fantastic stories, but it is most interesting to note that at the time of Eagle, both writers were becoming mainstays of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone in the USA. Baxt had previously conspired with Eagle’s director (Sidney Hayers) to create Circus of Horrors, and was also fully familiar with the genre. The source material for adaptation was again a noted fantasy author, Fritz Leiber, who was best known for his science-fiction stories.
Not to be outshone by the above are the contributions of director Sidney Hayers and director of photography, Reginald Wyer. Hayers, who went on to direct several episodes of The Avengers, flies in the face of the traditional Hammer trends prevalent at the time. Instead he falls back on the approach which made the monster movies of the Thirties into classics. Like these, Eagle shuns the concept of overt horror – the viewer is manipulated in such a way that, as for Taylor, the real terror is built up slowly in the imagination. Disorientation is used to put us on our guard – the spinning lampshade, or the car crash. Darkness and shadows are exploited to the full, thanks to the careful lighting set-ups by Reg Wyer. Small incidents build up to form a near-catastrophic chain. Taylor’s fall from grace is as swift as his success. The ‘protections’ are removed and instantly adoration turns into denigration; friendship to hostility.
But what of the actors? Horror/Fantasy films of this nature rely upon one basic principle – the suspension of disbelief. So straight away there are two major requirements placed upon the actor if the film is to succeed. Firstly, conviction; they may be the worst lines ever written, but the actor has to deliver them with a degree of credibility. If he lets the audience know that he thinks they are funny – well, that’s how cult comedy starts. The second necessity is presence; a near magical quality – something which cannot be learned. Thankfully for this film Peter Wyngarde displays all of the necessary qualities in abundance. In his critique of the film Leslie Halliwell stated that the leading performances let it down. On this I must disagree. Wyngarde easily captures the viewer’s attention. After all, the character of Taylor could easily have become unpopular as he is initially set up as a ‘holier-than-thou’ semi-caricature. For the film to fully succeed we have to feel the isolation of this character as his accepted world and all its securities collapse around him. This obviously demands a fair degree of audience sympathy – something that Wyngarde manages to win in his portrayal of that slow disintegration. This in itself is a major triumph, given that the film will not have been shot in continuity.
Second place in the acting stakes goes to Margaret Johnson as Flora Carr. As the villainess of the piece she does not come into force until the final reels – until then she simply adds to the red herrings and innuendo with faintly unsettling air. However, from the office confrontation onwards, she very much takes the remainder of the film to a two-hander between herself and Wyngarde. Carr is the equal and opposite of Taylor in every way. Intellectually she is easily his equal – hence her status within the college. She also mirrors him in another fashion, as she is the flipside of his obsessive nature, feeling exactly the same way about her own ‘religion’. Johnson lends an unnervingly convincing air to Flora’s derangement, loading her lines with heavy, underlying menace – eerily enhanced by Reg Wyer’s under-lighting.
Close third comes Janet Blair as Tansy. Her best scenes occur in the first half of the movie – from the coach trip onwards unfortunately her character simply becomes (literally) an instrument of the revenge plot. However, she does contribute greatly to the film’s atmosphere – most notably in the scenes following the game of bridge. Her frantic search for the counter-charm is one of the better-paced pieces, giving rise to a true feeling of desperation and disorientation. Note also how we share her terror in the ‘blackout’ scene as her fear of what’s outside becomes almost tangible. Sadly, after the drawn out scene with Norman Bird’s doctor (where the film loses much of its earlier pace and tension) the Tansy character slips onto the sidelines and I don’t think much sympathy is engendered for her plight in the culminating house fire; it is more the sense of Wyngarde character’s relief that we feel when the trauma is over.
In the final reckoning I have to side with critic & writer David Quinlan, who says of Hayers: “His first few films were moderate second-features, but almost all of his films from Circus of Horrors to Southern Star were minor A-class entries which were better than one would have expected…mention should also be made of Night of the Eagle, a genuinely frightening witchcraft chiller…”