Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The dangerous bicycles… And Soon the Darkness (1970)

Time Out called this film "nasty" and, having seen the premise, I was a little wary of watching it expecting gratuitous violence and sexual unpleasantness but I was pleasantly surprised both with the subtlety of the narrative and the overall restrain of Robert Fuest’s direction. I think this film got labelled as exploitation when it has more in common with an Agatha Christie whodunnit. There is tension for sure and the vulnerability of both the female protagonists is amply displayed as they cycle along in shorts but Fuest is firmly of the school where less specifics gives more in terms of dramatic tension and atmosphere.

He’s very good at introducing an array of “suspects” after the fact when the viewer has seemingly made their mind up who the guilty party might be, one by one, they keep on coming and everyone manages to act just oddly enough to persuade us that they might be the kidnapper or even killer… Christie usually starts with a group of people anyone of which may be “the one” but Fuest reverses this building momentum and suspicion as the film goes.

Michele Dotrice
And Soon the Darkness is a film with a tremendous sense of place and space as two young nurses, Cathy (Michele Dotrice) and Jane (Pamela Franklin) cycle along the endless flat roads of rural France on holiday. Events take place on a single stretch of road between small villages either side of a small wood and as events travel up and down that road we see the same signs, buildings as well as policemen, farm workers, and other passers by who may or may not be involved.

Cathy is the more outgoing of the two and is starting to get bored of the travelling as they follow a route laid out by Jane which never seems to get to the point. Cathy makes eyes at a handsome Frenchman at a café, Paul (Sandor Elès) who from then on appears to be following the girls on his scooter. A few miles down the road he passes them and then they pass him standing outside a cemetery… he goes inside and looks at the grave of a young woman, Jan Hele who died two years earlier.

Pamela Franklin
Further on, girls start to bicker and Cathy persuades Jane to let them take a rest for some sunbathing at the edge of the wood. After while she refuses to push on leaving Jane to make her own way towards their next stop. Jane cycles on leaving Cathy sleeping under the sun listening to her radio and, frankly, looking a little vulnerable. Jane begins to feel anxious as she gets further away even as she cycles past a group of policemen outside a station. She reaches a village to find the rather rude café owner, Madame Lassal (Hana Maria Pravda) speaking only French and telling her to go away with a strange concern in her eyes. Her husband Lassal (Claude Bertrand) is even more brusque…

Meanwhile, back at the sunbathing spot, Jane is getting spooked and as one misplaced item leads to an unexplained snap of twig, she finds the spokes of her bike smashed and as the camera hovers over her back you know what’s coming… but Fuest cleverly shows us nothing.

Sandor Elès
Jane, unnerved, decides cycles back and finds Jane and her bike gone although her camera is lying discarded on the floor. She hears a motor and looks hopefully for a policeman but finds only the mysterious man on the scooter… he gives her a lift back to the previous village, Landron, and whilst Paul goes back to the woods in search of Cathy, Jane meets an English woman (Clare Kelly) who teaches at a local school, who fills her in on the source of local concern, the murder of the young woman in 1968… The teacher takes a remarkable interest in the younger woman and looks on with concern or, more likely longing, as she drops her off at the police station. Another suspect added to the list… along with the strange farm hand (Jean Carmet -Renier) we keep on seeing in the fields not far from the woods, it’s beginning to seem like it could be anyone.

Finding the Police station closed, Jane cycles back to the woods, where Paul says he has found something, he takes her into the dense undergrowth on his bike and she gets increasingly suspicious of his claims to be an inspector on leave from Paris…  especially when he unspools a roll of film from Cathy’s camera that may incriminate him. Jane runs and gets a break when Paul’s scooter won’t start, she heads straight to the Police Station where she finds another strange old man, the Gendarme’s father (John Franklyn) who spooks her out before his son (John Nettleton) arrives back.

Now, depending on your deductive reasoning your guess is as good as anyone’s as to who, precisely, Jane can trust!

Dusty Verdict: And Soon the Darkness is strange and compelling but doesn’t step over the mark as it could do. Written by Brian Clemens and Terry Nation, both of whom worked with Fuest on The Avengers, not to mention inventing the Daleks in Nation’s case and then the pandemic-precient Survivors. There’s also an atmospheric score from Avengers theme composer Laurie Johnson.

The leads perform well, Michele Dotrice is an actor with solid grounding in theatre and as her recent work shows, she can do pretty much anything whether it’s a good time girl on a bike or Frank Spencer’s wife. Here she nails the mood perfectly and is a great foil for the more serious Franklin to act against. As always, the latter actress is superb at nuanced, conflicted emotional signalling!

And for all those potential suspects, Sandor Elès leads the way in giving just enough away to make him, possibly or just maybe the killer… you’ll have to watch it to find out.

The film has recently been getting play on the magnificent Talking Pictures and is also available on Blu-ray and DVD, well worth catching.

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