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Between the original Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style and its recent revision Film Noir the Encyclopedia, the entry for 1965's Brainstorm was dropped. One of several Warners releases produced by former radio and film actor William Conrad, the murder thriller wants to be daring but comes off as merely bizarre. Mann Rubin's screenplay jumbles together a number of themes familiar from noirs of the classic period, doing none of them justice. While not as grotesque or tasteless as the Conrad-produced Norman Mailer property An American Dream (also written by Mann), Brainstorm comes off as an overwrought mix of paranoid ideas. Nevertheless, it can be recommended to lovers of strange psychodramas.
Serious, buttoned-down research scientist Jim Grayam (Jeff Hunter) rescues Lorrie Benson (Anne Francis) from a suicide attempt on some railroad tracks. He falls in love seemingly against his will and definitely against his better judgment -- Lorrie's domineering husband Cort Benson (Dana Andrews) is both a powerful, ruthless tycoon and Jim's boss. When Cort discovers the affair, he begins a campaign of harassment. Jim finds himself framed on a charge of making obscene phone calls, while a company guard and a janitor give testimony that makes it looks as if the young scientist is losing his mind. Jim reacts violently to Cort's provocations but stops short when he learns that Cort holds Lorrie as a matrimonial hostage: should she leave him, Cort has vowed to warp their small daughter's mind by showing her detectives' pictures of her mother having other illicit affairs. Jim then hatches a wild murder scheme to free Lorrie for himself. His plan is to feign insanity, plead guilty and then emerge as "sane" in subsequent case evaluations.
Producer-director William Conrad has a clear idea of what will make an audience sit up and take notice, but his films confuse drama with hysteria. Brainstorm wants to dazzle us with narrative twists, yet we can see the ending coming far in advance-- it's the same old Dr. Caligari insanity gag visited just a couple of years earlier in Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor. The concept shows some promise when the brilliant, rational and ethical Jim Grayam begins to betray signs of inner instability. But Conrad's unsubtle direction overemphasizes every plot point and character tic. It seems terribly unfair when Jim's credibility is damaged by an episode of nervous exhaustion in college, as he's such a composed and civil fellow. But then he flies into an irrational rage at the worst possible place -- a psychiatrist's office -- proving beyond a doubt that he's not entirely right upstairs. By the time that Jim decides to pretend to be off his rocker, the movie has lost us. He has already created so many scenes and tantrums that he doesn't need to pretend. All that Cord Benson need do is play some dirty tricks on his rival, and Jim falls apart.
The film's tone is also off-kilter. Lorrie Benson's "carefree" scavenger hunt never looks like anything more than a collection of Hollywood extras pretending to make merry. Lorrie and Jim's blossoming romance is represented by a lazy montage of romantic moments, shorthand scenes suitable for a TV commercial. The woman claiming to be the victim of telephone harassment shows up to accuse Jim in a sexy backless dress. We can't tell if Cord Benson merely chose a stupid call girl to make the complaint, or if the filmmakers just wanted to add some sex appeal to the scene and weren't thinking.
(spoiler) I guess that Jim Grayam is indeed sort of nuts. His well-established derangement will indeed get him off of a public murder rap, but he somehow believes that Lorrie will come forward and acknowledge that his insanity was all an act. That would help him escape a criminal trial, but it would definitely indicate her as an accessory. For that matter, how come Lorrie's suspicious relationship with Jim wasn't brought up at a pre-trial inquest? Benson's butler would surely have had something to say about that.
Brainstorm is never boring. The B&W Panavision cinematography is excellent and the locations are well chosen. Benson's mansion is the impressive Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, once the home of the A.F.I. and a familiar sight in movies. Director Conrad can't resist "clever" transitions cued to matched action or bisecting speeches in mid-sentence -- instead of picking up the pace they make scenes look as if they've been cut off. He's also fond of changing scenes by having characters walk in and out of the lens.
Producer Conrad's pro cast is certainly up to the task given them. Jeffrey Hunter could have used more directorial guidance but he throws everything he has into the role, and winds up in the plus column. Anne Francis does wonders with a very contrived character, quickly establishing the unstable Lorrie Benson's impossible domestic situation. Dana Andrews is somewhat subdued as the unhappy millionaire who tortures his wife because she doesn't love him. Andrews survives the film's worst dialogue, a patch where he tells Lorrie to her face that she's his property and that she can never escape from him.
William Conrad also provides a fine supporting cast. Viveca Lindfors (These Are the Damned) is a lady psychiatrist that Jim foolishly thinks will give him a clean bill of mental health, simply by asking nicely. Michael Pate is another concerned psychiatrist, and fan favorite Strother Martin is a standout as an emotionally needy asylum inmate upset that Jim won't shake his hand. Steve Ihnat has a brief part as an emergency room doctor. Jim establishes his "I'm gonna go nuts" alibi exactly like Arthur Franz in The Sniper, by visiting a clinic to complain about an injured hand.
Brainstorm's asylum scenes display an unexpected restraint. Other inmates include John Mitchum (Robert's brother), a young Richard Kiel and director Conrad. One of the film's final twists relies on a fear of surveillance that probably played as more of a shock in 1965, before such tricks became paranoid thriller clichés.
Brainstorm enjoys a good reputation based on the sincerity of its performances, particularly that of Jeffrey Hunter. The movie's deranged quality guarantees it a cult fan base: it may begin as a murder thriller but it ends up as a borderline horror film. Just as Jim Grayam loses track of his own sanity, we have a hard time telling when he's crazy and when he's faking it -- or if he just thinks he's faking it. To some degree, the movie does express the subjective experience of possible insanity.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Brainstorm will please fans who only know it from old pan-scanned Television broadcasts; Sam Leavitt's handsome B&W cinematography looks very good in enhanced widescreen. Besides a bit of flecking in the first reel, the presentation is clean and clear.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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