Twisted Nerve (1968)
“Cleaver. Cleaver. Chop. Chop. First the mom and then the pop. Then we’ll get the pretty girl. We’ll get her right between the curl.”
Director: Roy Boulting
Cast: Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, Billie Whitelaw
Synopsis: Martin is a troubled young man. With a mother who insists on treating him like a child, a stepfather who can’t wait to see the back of him, and a brother with Down’s Syndrome shut away in an institution.
As far as strategies for pulling dolly birds (as attractive young ladies were called in the 1960s) go, I have to say that the one employed by young Martin Durnley (Hywel Bennett) in Roy Boulting’s psycho-thriller Twisted Nerve, is something of a dubious one. I mean, it’s a sure-fire certainty to appeal to a female’s nurturing instincts, but it’s hardly likely to earn him an amorous invitation to her boudoir. Martin has close knowledge of how the mentally challenged — referred to in the movie as Mongols, but commonly known today by the more user-friendly phrase of Down Syndrome sufferers — behave because his older brother, who lives in an institution and has been virtually abandoned by their mother, is one. Martin is the only one who visits his brother these days, but he reacts rather nervously when the doctor questions him about how he’s feeling…
Martin adopts the persona of a six-year-old child, referring to himself in the third person in a childlike voice, when he’s caught shoplifting a toy duck from a department store. Not only does this tactic see him excused for his crime, but Susan Harper (Hayley Mills), the attractive young girl mistaken for his accomplice who, like the department store manager, is completely fooled by the young man’s pretence, even pays for the duck. Most screen psychopaths operate beneath a veneer of normality, attempting to project a non-threatening image, but Martin’s ‘disguise’ is a stroke of genius. Not only does he put potential victims at ease, he even makes them care for him. The temptation is to describe him as schizophrenic, but he slips too easily in and out of his little boy persona for that; until the movie’s inevitable conclusion, Durnley is fully conscious of everything he’s doing, and fits all the characteristics of a psychopath described by Shashie Kadir (Salmaan Peer), one of the lodgers taken in by Susan’s mother (Billy Whitelaw — Make Mine Mink).
Anyway, before the misunderstanding at the department store was cleared up, Susan had to give the manager her address, and the next day Durnley follows her from her home, where she lives with her mother and the lodgers, to her job at the local library, where he once again makes contact, this time under the pretext of thanking her for the duck. From this meeting it’s only a matter of days before Durnley, using an admittedly transparent ruse, cons his way into becoming the Harper ladies’ third lodger.
The plot of Twisted Nerve and the style in which it is told suggests that the Boulting brothers were attempting to emulate the kind of work for which Alfred Hitchcock was revered. Hitch apparently approved of the movie, and even nabbed a couple of its cast members — Billy Whitelaw and Barry Foster (Sea of Sand), who plays the Harper’s second lodger — for Frenzy a few years after Twisted Nerve was released. The movie starts out as a fairly complex psychological study of Martin Durnley, providing us with a comprehensive insight into the influences that have moulded him into the troubled young man that he has become. Of course, his mother, an annoying but sympathetic woman (Phyllis Calvert), whose fussy nature towards Martin is the legacy of the affliction suffered by her first born, is initially cast as the villain of the piece (shades of Psycho!). She mothers Martin to the extent that he would subconsciously rather remain a child than become an adult, which explains his hatred for the stepfather (Frank Finlay — The Pianist, The Deadly Bees) who repeatedly attempts to get him to face up to his adult responsibilities. But this subconscious desire of Martin’s to stay as a child conflicts with the image of masculinity (as evidenced by the muscle magazines that litter his bedroom) to which he aspires, giving rise to frustrations which result in acts of rage. Given this wealth of background detail with which the movie provides us, it’s not surprising to learn that Twisted Nerve was written by Leo Marks, the man who wrote the similar — and equally controversial — Peeping Tom (1960). Twisted Nerve delves into its antagonist’s psyche in a way that few British movies did in the 1960s.
Sadly, although Martin’s complex psychological problems and their consequences could easily occupy an entire movie, Twisted Nerve moves on from the causes and manifestations of his condition in order to focus on the more straightforward stalker plot. In fact, it even goes so far as to deliver a biological explanation for his condition in the final reel which, in addition to offending many people today, pretty much makes redundant all of the psychological profiling that occupied the movie’s first half. It’s interesting, though, how this explanation is sympathetic toward Durnley, depicting him, like those he murders, as a helpless victim of his condition. This sympathy is also evident in the speech given by Shashie — in which he argues that psychopaths deserve our pity.
Like many British movies from the late 1960s, Twisted Nerve’s ham-fisted attempts to capture the youth culture of its time, make it look incredibly dated at times. The casual racism is also something of an eye-opener, even for those who were alive when the movie was released. Most of it is used by Barry Foster’s character who, although a deeply flawed man, isn’t a bad one (he’s just weak), although it’s noticeable that an eminent doctor (played by Thorley Walters and given the name of Sir John Forrester) also refers to Sashie as the Maharajah on two occasions. Given the diversity of the respective characters’ status (one’s an eminent surgeon, the other ends up semi-alcoholic and jobless) I can’t help wondering whether this was a conscious jibe by Marks at the thoughtless racial attitudes that were rife throughout British society at the time. Certainly, Shashie comes across as a likeable and sympathetic character compared to most (he even looks as though he will become the nominal hero at one point) who rises above the racist insults thrown at him by receiving them with good-natured tolerance.
Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the whole movie, though, is that of Joan Harper (Susan’s mother), a sad, wistful figure, still attractive but undoubtedly conscious that her beauty is fading. Billy Whitelaw’s performance is note-perfect in a part that is as understated as Bennett’s is showy. It’s a credit to him that he keeps it believable — a lesser actor could easily have sounded embarrassingly bad attempting to imitate the speech patterns of a six-year-old.
(Reviewed 28th January 2014)