Paris 1890, and a gentleman walks the foggy streets of the capital on his way home, tipping his hat to a policeman on his beat. But as he wanders into an alleyway where little light reaches, there's a scuffle and he is knocked to the ground by a shadowy figure who proceeds to take a valise he was carrying and retrieve medical instruments from it, whereupon an operation takes place which sees the gentleman relieved of a vital gland. Who could have committed such a heinous act? Could it be anything to do with a local surgeon named Dr Georges Bonner (Anton Diffring) who dabbles in sculpture, and is holding an unveiling of his latest work to a small party of invited guests?
Well, it doesn't take a genius to work out that he's up to something, he's played by Anton for a start, which almost invariably meant his character was the bad guy. And so it was in this Hammer remake of the fantasy thriller The Man in Half Moon Street which in turn had been adapted from the stage play by English writer Barré Lyndon, also the author of such forties Gothics as The Lodger and Hangover Square. In this case, the British studio were regarded as having gone too far, certainly their reputation was one of pushing the envelope as far as sex and violence went in cinema, but the source was well liked and this lurid interpretation (penned by Jimmy Sangster - of course) was seen as a betrayal of the material.
Nowadays it looks tame in comparison to what arrived later, but it did build to a fairly nightmarish finale, complete with a laughing madwoman and the flames of Hell itself (er, almost) engulfing the set. Before we reached that, there was the small matter of bringing Dr Bonner to task as we wonder why he acts so strangely on the night of showing off his latest statue, which is of his ostensible girlfriend Margo (Delphi Lawrence). The assembled are left in admiration by this supposed masterpiece the modest doc insists isn't worthy of such praise, but then there's another statue of an important woman in his life, a certain Janine du Bois, played by apple-cheeked English Rose Hazel Court in one of the roles which gave her the reputation as a vintage scream queen.
She also became the matter of a cause celebre thanks to this film for she appeared topless in it, posing for the mad doctor/crazed artist (what a combination!), except that revealing shot was only used in certain prints, which prompted a wide-ranging search for the missing frames in later years. They were rediscovered, and Hazel included the picture in her autobiography, evidently proud of her achievements, so we could all settle down and be content we had finally seen a cult actress in the buff, something which obviously never went out of style. This left the otherwise rather talky and setbound experience of watching the rest of the movie, which was plain to see had been drawn from the stage where acres of dialogue were less of a problem.
Still, there were compensations, and those rested not on Terence Fisher's verging on the anonymous direction, making you wonder how far he was engaged with the movie, but on the cast, especially Diffring. He was a last minute replacement for Peter Cushing who was making up excuses thanks to his reluctance to star in this, but Anton noted an opportunity when he saw one and delivered an amusingly overripe performance he seemed to spend half of in shuddering intensity. Whether he's necking a bubbling, steaming, mystery green potion which he naturally keeps in a safe in his study, or forcing the other characters' hands to do his bidding, he made this more than passable and arguably more enjoyable than if Cushing had taken the part as intended. Christopher Lee had fewer qualms, showing up as Court's doctor boyfriend Pierre Gerard, who sets up the last act twist which we could see heading this way a mile off, as all the while detective Francis De Wolff attempts to make sense of an apparent 104-year-old murderer. So a shade stuffy, but with the odd highlight. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.