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  • Benjamin May

Someone Behind the Door (1971) Review

In the late 60's, having not made the box-office impact he so desired in America, Charles Bronson began acting in European films, where he immediately became a hit, establishing the enigmatic screen persona he is still known for today. Some of the films he made during that time were great, others weren't, but all held entertainment value of one kind or another. One of the more intriguingly off-beat was 'Someone Behind the Door', following a neurosurgeon who takes a strange man suffering from amnesia into his home, seemingly to recover his identity. However, as time marches on, it becomes clear that the doctor has other, far more sinister plans in mind, and his manipulation of the amnesiac's memories are just the beginning.

Directed by Nicolas Gessner, 'Someone Behind the Door' is an occasionally tense psychological thriller that isn't particularly well-written, but features two fine central performances from Bronson as the amnesiac and Anthony Perkins as the neurosurgeon, as well as artistic, stylish cinematography from Pierre Lhomme.

There is an atmosphere of dread and mystery that is palpable from the opening shots, which grows in intensity, ever-building towards an explosive finale. Lhomme's odd use of space and his irregular framing heightens this feeling of intrigue- as well as being visually stimulating to watch. It may not be the work of Sven Nykvist, but it is effective at creating and maintaining the tone of quiet, enigmatic agitation that runs throughout the film.

Perkins and Bronson might seem like an odd combination, but they work together brilliantly (apparently enjoying an off-screen friendship to boot). Bronson powerfully underplays his role, seeming like a cat cornered in a veterinary surgery- his fear, vulnerability and frustration is quite palpable. Bronson shows us the pain someone suffering from amnesia would undergo in a subtle, quiet and very effective manner. Later in the film, when his past is made known to himself and the audience, it is a highly impactful moment solely because of his strong, measured performance (as the writing in the screenplay really is consistently average). There are relatively few times in his career when he would have the opportunity to display his range as an actor- here you can witness one of his more interesting performances.

Perkins was a massively talented, versatile performer and proves that fact once again here. As the duplicitous neurosurgeon, he is seedy, vile and utterly watchable. He brings a natural charm and levity to the role that is most appreciated, as the character is quite contemptible- one could imagine a lesser actor playing him as a one-note, manipulative villain. Perkins was more intelligent than that, making the fellow oddly likable- though still utterly monstrous.

Jill Ireland also has a small role as Perkins' wife, though her performance makes little impact, and the character isn't one of much- if any- depth. However, this is less of a problem with her than it is with the writing. The screenplay is credited to four people- including Gessner and Marc Behm, who wrote the story to 'Charade', among others- and while it has some interesting and tense moments, it is terribly mediocre.

While the central conceit is intriguing- if far-fetched- the story is far too predictable, the dialogue too stilted and the characterization too tenuous to leave a positive lasting impression. Without the depth of Bronson's performance, his character would be incredibly boring and under-written, and without the joy of Perkins' one, his character would be a caricature of an evil doctor- nothing more. How the four writers couldn't come up with some good dialogue or meaningful characterization is confounding, considering they all proved their talent when working on other projects.

All that said, the film is entertaining and suspenseful, due in large part to the stylish camerawork and fine central performances from the lead actors. While 'Someone Behind the Door' suffers from derivative, lifeless screenwriting at times, it's not a bad film, containing some genuinely surprising moments of real tension. For fans of Bronson and Perkins, it's highly recommended- though fans of Gessner's signature brand of cinema might be a little bit disappointed.


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