Cult Movie: Fragment Of Fear sees 60s pin-up David Hemmings at peak of his powers

David Hemmings in Fragment Of Fear
Ralph McLean

DAVID Hemmings was a superstar in the 1960s. Iconic roles in the likes of Blow Up, Barbarella and The Charge Of The Light Brigade made him a proper pin-up of the swinging decade.

An unassuming, somewhat understated actor whose good looks diverted attention away from a troubled soul, he went onto star in cult gems like Deep Red in the following decade and continued to both act and direct, with admittedly diminishing returns, until his death in 2003. In 1971 however, while still arguably at the very peak of his movie star powers, he made one of the oddest films in his entire CV.

Fragment Of Fear (reissued on Blu-ray by Indicator) is a full-blown mind melter of a movie, the kind of beautifully paranoid and deeply disturbed thing that appeared regularly in the 1970s.

It's a twisty tale of a recovering drug addict Tim Brett (Hemmings) who's written a book about his troubles. While on holiday in Italy he meets up with his estranged aunt (Flora Robson) but shortly afterwards she is found murdered on the streets by a woman (Gayle Hunnicutt) who Tim subsequently marries.

Convinced there is more to the murder than meets the eye – the police write it off as a simple mugging – Tim begins to investigate the incident himself. Before long he's uncovered a bizarre political cover-up involving a secret society and government collusion. At least we think he does but given his past troubles with narcotics there's always the possibility he's merely losing his mind again.

Directed by Richard C Sarafian from a script by Paul Denn, it's based on a novel by John Bingham, a former MI5 agent who David Cornwell – now better known as author John Le Carre – apparently based his famous George Smiley character on. There's something of the cold hearted spy thriller at play here as the paranoia grows and the sense that Tim can't trust anyone he meets escalates to almost hysterical levels.

It's obtuse at times but for all its frustrating aspects it's a superior psychological thriller that deserves a much better reputation than it currently holds.

It's brave – how many films even in 1971 placed an ex-junkie at the core of their stories? – but pretentious at times. It does play with our perceptions of what a spy thriller should be, though, and you are kept guessing about who's leading who up the garden path right until the fairly crazed final section.

Hemmings is sweaty and bewildered throughout, which works perfectly for slightly trippy material like this. The supporting cast help to push the paranoid agenda along nicely and there's a supremely funky jazz score from Johnny Harris to keep the groovy movie vibe running high.

Indicator's release adds extras ranging from the usual perfunctory trailer to some genuinely enlightening discussions on author John Bingham and screenwriter Paul Denn. There's even an impressive booklet with notes by film historian Johnny Mains that puts the film into its rightful place alongside other conspiracy-obsessed films of the 1970s.

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