When a stranger (Charles Bronson) suffering from amnesia turns up at his hospital, brilliant neurosurgeon and psychologist Laurence Jeffries (Anthony Perkins) takes a highly unorthodox step by bringing him home. It transpires that Jeffries’ wife, Frances (Jill Ireland) is having an affair with French journalist Paul Damien (Henri Garcin), and he has devised an elaborate plan to wreak murderous revenge. With his wife away, Jeffries cloisters the stranger in a spare room and begins a “personality transplant”, slowly feeding him misinformation until he believes Frances is his own cheating spouse. It’s the recipe for a perfect crime, but will everything go according to plan?
An eerie atmosphere surrounds this offbeat Euro-thriller, from its opening close-up on a heart monitor hooked to man being prepped for surgery, to the Jeffries’ desolate beach house where most of the claustrophobic action is centred. Made by a French studio, but set in England, this suffers a few eccentricities like the supporting cast dubbed with awkward, cockney accents and theme music familiar to millions of Brits as the song from the Hovis advert, but remains an intriguing attempt at something a little different. Based on the novel “Quelq’un derriere la porte” by Jacques Robert, the screenplay was co-adapted by the writer along with Hungarian born director Nicolas Gessner, who made the similarly strange Jodie Foster thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), and acclaimed novelist Marc Behm - whose Eye of the Beholder became the basis for Claude Miller’s superb Mortelle Randonée, and a substandard Hollywood remake starring Ewan McGregor.
The oddly dreamlike ambience of Behm’s past work is well evident here, as Gessner makes effective use of the howling winds and screeching seagulls that surround the beach house to underline the twisted emotions residing therein. Despite the far-fetched premise, the bizarre relationship that blossoms between Jeffries and the stranger proves compelling. He plants little clues in the stranger’s pockets (notes, photographs, bullets), constructing a false identity, piece by piece. “I’m not Dr. Frankenstein trying to lure you into my lab”, says Jeffries early on, but that is exactly who he turns out to be - reshaping the stranger for his own murderous needs. Perkins is at the height of his post-Psycho (1960) creepiness, while Bronson is quite brilliant as the childlike and vulnerable madman, offering a unique twist on his regular stone cold killer persona.
Ireland, normally the weak link in her husband Bronson’s movies, is surprisingly good here. Frances’ diffidence towards her husband leaves him semi-sympathetic and she shows a faintly callous streak that makes her a little greyer than your average, victimised heroine. There are nicely played scenes where the stranger reminisces warmly about “his” wife and Jeffries unexpectedly starts to cry, and when Frances arrives to find a man she has never even met railing against her infidelity. Unfortunately, after an intriguing build up, the climax proves messy, abrupt and something of a copout. Yet the closing credits - which cut between Laurence and Frances’ furtive looks - scores points for suggesting the whole twisted episode may have rescued their marriage. Which is weird, but an interesting element.