Thursday, 11 December 2014
Review: Double Exposure (1977, William Webb)
Double Exposure turns out to be that rare beast, an Anouska Hempel vehicle that is actually worth seeing. James Compton (David Baron) a middle-aged fashion photographer accepts a private commission from shipping tycoon Howard Townsend (Alan Brown) to photograph Townsend’s trophy girlfriend/mistress Simone (Hempel). A series of intimate photo-shoots soon unwisely transforms into a secret affair between photographer and subject. However romance gets nipped in the bud when Simone is kidnapped by three criminal former associates of Townsend, who use their knowledge of the affair to blackmail Compton into the dangerous position of acting as middle man between themselves and the crooked Townsend, whose shipping business is a front for arms dealing.
Double Exposure appears to have been independently produced then jointly distributed by two big American companies (Columbia and Warner Brothers), fittingly then it’s a low-budget film that is initially preoccupied with masquerading as a major studio production. Anything that indicates wealth and success, be it characters travelling by Rolls-Royce, private jet and steam train, or country estates and rows of antique cars is treated as visually holy here, and constantly captures the eye and camera of regular British exploitation director of photography Alan Pudney. It doesn’t really have the budget to stretch to A-List stars though, a factor that isn’t necessary a disadvantage. Since as a result, Double Exposure is filled with solid British character actors, all clearly relishing the opportunity to get their hands on larger-than-usual roles for them. David Baron makes for a laid back but efficient hero. With his lived in face and hangdog expressions, Baron is perfectly cast as the Bailey-esque swinging Sixties photographer disgracefully drifting into middle age and unapologetically still wearing jeans and suede jackets to work. You can just about buy into the idea that Simone would go for him, due to a combination of Compton’s own likeability and the despicability of Townsend, who isn’t above slapping Simone around as a way of relieving his frustrations.
Another standout performance comes courtesy of Robert Russell, a prolific TV and film actor, probably best remembered as John Stearne in Witchfinder General. Cast here as Bradley, the head kidnapper, at the outset it’s the type of sadistic goon role that Russell could have played in his sleep, but the character grows more compelling as the film progresses revealing Bradley to be a man who isn’t entirely without his own moral compass. Bradley acts as Simone’s savour at one point when his brutish underlings try to rape her, and attempts to justify his kidnapping of her by pointing out that Townsend himself has committed far worse acts in the pursuit of money. In the process stirring Simon’s long dormant consciousness over the murderous activities that have been funding her and Townsend’s privileged lifestyles.
Hempel is the cast member who has drawn the short straw when it comes to roles here, while male characters develop during the film, Hempel is stuck with a role that goes from beautiful but shallow fashion model to captured damsel in distress. Inevitably evoking unwanted memories of her role in the dreaded Tiffany Jones, and denying her any of the acting sparks that flew by the casting of her as a villainess in Russ Meyer’s Blacksnake. Maybe I’m being a bit unfair on the filmmakers and The Hemp there though, as there is evidence in the film to suggest we are deliberately deceived into thinking of Simone as weak, defenceless and one-dimensional in order to pull the rug from under us right at the very end (the UK and Canadian VHS covers are unfortunately hugely spoilerish in this respect, both drawing on a key image from the final scene in the film).
As double-dealings and plot twists are the name of the game in Double Exposure, we are definitely talking the type of film here where the less you know about the plot going into it, the better. Not that I had much of a choice myself, little having been written about Double Exposure over the years, and the film having an almost invisible presence on the internet. The only passing mention of it I could find on the net being during an overview of Hempel’s career contained within bloodypitofhorror blog’s review of Blacksnake, but even there the reviewer hadn’t managed to see the film and was uncertain whether Double Exposure should be regarded as a horror film or a crime thriller. Having had the benefit of tracking it down, I can confirm Double Exposure to be in the crime thriller camp, albeit with brief, but vicious moments of violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pete Walker film of the period. An opening face slashing and shooting to death of a minor character makes the preceding ‘AA’ BBFC certificate card seem quite lenient, but the one scene guaranteed to linger in the memory here finds two of Townsend’s heavies dressed up as cleaning ladies in order to sneak up on a “double crossing bastard” associate of his, who is summarily thrown off the top of a building!
A subplot that sees Compton enlist the help of Patterson, an ex-government boffin who has moved on into computer espionage, brings about the surprise casting of a pre-fame Hazel O’Connor, in one of her two film appearances prior to Breaking Glass (the other one being David Hamilton Grant’s Girls Come First). Briefly cast as the Moneypenny character to Patterson’s ‘M’, O’Connor first shows up as an ordinary office secretary before being given the gem of a request to “put on a mini-skirt and heavy make-up, we’ve got a special assignment for you”. Said assignment involving O’Connor strutting her stuff up Greek street and posing as a hooker in order to distract the thugs Townsend has had trailing Compton. For a laugh keep your eyes peeled for the pervy looks O’Connor gets from real life passers-by during this scene, who don’t appear to be aware they were being filmed.
Apart from Hazel O’Connor, Patterson’s other trick up his sleeve is a (then) futuristic device that Patterson has created by hooking up a phone to a computer which allows him to connect to other people’s computers and steal information stored on them. In what could now be seen as an early example of the internet and computer hacking, showcased here a good few decades before either would become commonplace. “Computer espionage is the trend of the future” predicts Patterson with allot more spot on accuracy than the filmmakers could have ever dreamed of.
While Double Exposure doesn’t quite make it into the same league as say, Get Carter, Sitting Target and The Squeeze, it leaves a decent enough impression for you to question why the film isn’t better known. It’s certainly on a par with a better than average episode of The Sweeney or The Professionals, to which it shares a certain kinship, due to the presence of actors associated with TV shows of that nature and a shared passion for the funkier side of the era’s library music. Nobody gets to walk around or drive about in Double Exposure for very long before some lively piece of 70s library music starts to overpower the soundtrack.
By rights the film should have acted as a calling card for its director to go on and helm episodes of TV action series, much in the way that ‘Freelance’ did for Francis Megahy, but as far as I can tell the credited director/writer/producer William Webb doesn’t appear to have made anything else. Should that unfortunately be the case, Webb can at least take solace in the fact that the one film he did make fetches high prices these days. According to the bloodypitofhorror’s Blacksnake review a Canadian VHS release of Double Exposure recently sold for $250 on Ebay, an eye-opening amount given we’re not talking about a well-known or much sought after film here. In light of the rumours about Anouska Hempel having bought the rights to Tiffany Jones in order to suppress further screenings of said film, is it wicked of me to wonder out loud whether a person willing to pay that much for a VHS of Double Exposure might also be a person with a burning desire to perform a disappearing trick on their former acting career?