Brainstorm

By the 60s film noir, in its pure form, had become a thing of the past. Still, movies kept coming along that borrowed from its style, wove the imagery and sense of fatalism into their own fabric and produced what I think of as post-noir cinema. I’ve spoken before of the transition which the western was experiencing during this decade but, looking at the movies as a whole, it wasn’t confined to that genre. If society itself was in the throes of major changes, then it’s hardly surprising that the most popular art and entertainment medium should be going through a similar process. Brainstorm (1965) is what might be termed a psychological thriller though it also retains some of the plot devices and photographic style of the classic period of film noir.

When a man finishes work in the evening and sets off home he may have any number of expectations about what lies ahead. Finding a car straddling a level crossing, with the doors locked, a beautiful woman unconscious inside, and a train fast approaching would have to come pretty far down the list though. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what scientist Jim Grayam (Jeffrey Hunter) comes upon after checking out of the research institute where he’s employed. Just managing to get the car clear of the tracks in time, he discovers that the doped up lady in the passenger seat is Lorrie Benson (Anne Francis), wife of his boss. By the time he’s driven her back to the Beverly Hills mansion where she resides the effects of whatever she’s taken are starting to wear off, and it’s clear enough too that he’s just foiled a suicide bid. The husband, Cort Benson (Dana Andrews), is the urbane but stiff type, a man accustomed to possessing and controlling both things and people. Well there’s the setup: a desperate woman trapped in a deeply unsatisfactory marriage, a husband who is aloof and calculating, and a good-looking young man who’s just ridden to the rescue. There are no prizes on offer for guessing the direction this story is going to take, but it’s the intensity with which it’s played out, and the ultimate payoff, that grabs the attention. As Lorrie and Grayam grow ever closer, so the suspicions and ruthlessness of Benson grow ever stronger. With Grayam’s position under threat as a result of an insidious campaign designed to call into question his stability, thoughts turn to murder. The commission of the crime doesn’t appear to pose so many problems though as the efforts to evade the consequences.

William Conrad is best known for his acting roles, especially on TV, yet he also did a fair bit of work as a director. The bulk of his credits behind the camera were in television, and they’re quite extensive. He only took charge of a handful of cinema features – this is the only one I’ve seen so far – and that’s a pity as he clearly had a good eye for composition and pacing. Conrad moved the camera around nicely and created some wonderfully framed shots, the shooting of the interior scenes in the Benson mansion are particularly noteworthy, using the kind of angles and lighting which are unmistakably noir. Still, the film is clearly a product of the 60s, George Duning’s score and the snappy TV-influenced editing are evidence of that. In a way, the whole thing is a reflection of the director’s experience – the strong noir sensibility, obviously gleaned from his early acting roles in the likes of The Killers, and the sharp economy of television. Generally, it all looks good, due in no small part to the decision to film in the always attractive process of black and white scope.

I’ve stuck up for the acting abilities of Jeffrey Hunter before, and I’m more than happy to do so again. He remains an underrated performer, an actor capable of taking on strong, intense roles and carrying it all off successfully. The part of Jim Grayam wasn’t an easy one; it required a steady progression along an arc, which I at least feel (although others may not agree), is foreshadowed or hinted at right from the beginning. Without getting into spoiler territory, let’s simply say that Hunter’s character traces a path of development which demanded a good deal of skill by the actor to ensure it remained believable. The presence of Dana Andrews in a thriller automatically makes me think of his collaborations with Preminger back in the 40s and Lang in the 50s, and provides a strong link to classic noir. His role in this film, while essentially in support, is a vital one. Age and hard living had weathered his features, although there had always been a touch of the implacable about him, making him a good choice as the distant and manipulative tycoon. Frankly, I wasn’t as impressed by Anne Francis – sure she’s attractive and there’s no problem seeing why she should be able to captivate and lead Hunter down a path of destruction, but her character doesn’t seem to fulfill the potential suggested by her early scenes. Viveca Lindfors, on the other hand, is excellent as the enigmatic psychiatrist, leaving both the viewer and Hunter’s lead unsure as to her motivations. There are plenty of familiar faces popping up in bit parts too: Michael Pate, Strother Martin and, in a brief but memorable scene, there’s an appearance by future Bond villain Richard Kiel.

Brainstorm has been issued on DVD in the US by the Warner Archive as part of their MOD program, and it’s also available in Spain on pressed disc via Warner/Impulso. I have the Spanish version, which I’m guessing replicates the US disc, and the movie has been given a nice anamorphic transfer. The print used is in good condition, generally sharp and without any obvious damage or defects. There are no extra features, and although the menu suggests playback of the English soundtrack may force subtitles to be displayed, they can be disabled by simply deselecting them with the subs button on the remote. Brainstorm mightn’t be a very well-known film but it’s a slickly made post-noir thriller with a strong cast, and well worth checking out.

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45 thoughts on “Brainstorm

  1. Great review Colin – I’ve always been curious about this one but suspect I was put off by sniffy comments by Clive Hirschhorn in THE WARNER BROS STORY, my first proper film book, which i read when I was 10!

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    • Thanks. Personally, I liked it, and I think it’s the kind of stuff might appeal to you too. I didn’t want to go into too much plot detail here although it’s pretty clear where everything’s headed for from the halfway mark, if not before. Pulpy stuff, but well executed in my opinion.

      I have that Hirschhorn book – all the studio “stories” in fact – and I think it’s a lovely looking volume, very comprehensive and full of illustrations, even if I don’t agree with all the assessments of the movies.

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      • I think I got them all (from octopus, via WH Smith as I recall) and loved them – I must have read the Warner book 100 times! Really looking forward to getting this, especially as it is also available in Italy I see – and the fact that it was shot in ‘scope is a bit of a clincher frankly!

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        • Yes, they’re all lovely books – look great lined up on the shelf.

          I hadn’t realized the film was out on disc in Italy actually. And yes, I thought the B&W scope bit might sway you.

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            • No, I wasn’t aware of that. He seems to have been an interesting and multi-talented man though, aside from his acting, narration and directing, he also had 7000+ radio credits to his name. Very impressive.

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              • I love nice round numbers like that – about the same number of women that Errol Flynn was reputed to have slept with I think 🙂 ! Burgess and Conrad were, would you believe, assigned by Warners to work on a musical about Shakespeare – Burgess to call it WILL! while they wanted THE BAWDY BARD … (sigh)

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                • Yes, titles like that are kind of soul destroying. Still, even the idea of Burgess and Conrad working on such a concept is part and parcel of what was so great about Hollywood once upon a time – totally unexpected people collaborating on projects which sound completely outlandish. That kind of thinking produced some turkeys of course, but it also contributed to more than a few gems too.

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                  • And there was that Burgess draft of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME … On the other hand, as you say, back in the day when movies didn’t cost the earth there was room for experimentation in Hollywood. Not hard to see why people gravitate towards HBO and the like …

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                    • Quite. Modestly budgeted fare that still involves quality work, such as this film, is now virtually unknown, certainly as far as the major studios are concerned. HBO and such have taken up some of the slack in this respect, but it’s still not quite the same thing, is it?

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                    • No, it really isn’t. France seems to be one of the few countries that can still produce modestly-budgeted genre films with major stars that are also hits at the local box-office.

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                    • Something they’ve always managed to achieve, probably as a result of the smaller yet still profitable home market there.
                      It’s a shame though as I think there’s still plenty of talent and ability in Hollywood – it’s mainly down to economics, sadly.

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  2. This will be among the titles I go for when I place my next order for discs from Spain. Apart from remembering the title from a list of Warner Archive discs a while back, I must confess that I had never realised before that it was a title of interest. Sounds intriguing. Thanks for the review Colin.
    As for Jeffrey Hunter’s acting abilities, I totally agree. I’ve always considered him to be hugely underrated too. It was a great loss when he died only four years later at the tragically young age of 42.

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    • I think anyone into noir will get something from this movie, Dafydd – so yes, it’s worth seeking out.
      I think there have been a lot of misconceptions about Hunter’s acting bandied around over the years; he nearly always gave good performances as far as I can see.

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  3. The girl from Forbidden Planet and the first Captain of the Enterprise – How have I never heard of this movie!? Throw in one of the greatest actors of Film Noir and it’s even more irresistible. Thanks for alerting us to another lost gem, Colin!
    Best
    Chris B

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    • Actually , all the main players have SF form, Chris – Andrews was in Crack in the World and Lindfors was in Stargate in later life.
      As for being unaware of the film, you’re far from alone there. I knew nothing of it myself until it came out on disc – I really enjoyed it though.

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  4. Hey Colin, I just popped over to Amazon to check out Brainstorm and found another Jeffrey Hunter 60s Noir called Man Trap (1961), directed by Edmond O’Brien (yes, that Edmond O’Brien).

    What are the odds that Hunter appeared in two films directed by Noir icons?

    Also weird, Man Trap was the name of the first produced episode of the regular Star Trek, the unforgettable Salt Vampire episode, which has me thinking those early scripts were written with him in mind.
    Chris B

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    • I have a copy of Man Trap here, but haven’t watched it yet. And there’s another link/tie-in: Man Trap also stars David Janssen, and of course William Conrad would go on to do the voice-over narration for The Fugitive.

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  5. On the topic of previous collaborations, I’ve just realised that Dana Andrews and Anne Francis acted together in John Sturges’s marvellous “The Satan Bug” in the same year. In that one she played his daughter!

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  6. Very interesting piece Colin,especially the points that you make in the opening paragraph.
    Never seen BRAINSTORM which for some odd reason,always thought was a Sci-Fi flick.
    I have seen MAN TRAP which was a film I really wanted to like but could not.
    I much preferred Phil Karlson’s KEY WITNESS also with Hunter,and I hope that film gets an
    official release at some point.
    KEY WITNESS is described on imdb as being the first “neo-Noir,don’t want to get into that at the
    moment but the same themed 13 WEST STREET with Alan Ladd is also of interest.
    At any rate there was a wave of these widescreen black & white thrillers in the early to mid
    Sixties.
    Could not agree more regarding Hunter who I always liked and I too feel he was underrated.
    His career certainly seemed to stall after KING OF KINGS,and some of the “Euro Trash” that
    he appeared in towards the end of his career was somewhat sad.
    He did however make a couple of good Spaghetti Westerns MURIETA which I mentioned
    in the previous thread and FIND A PLACE TO DIE a very dark themed brooding affair which
    I believe the esteemed Hugo Fregonese had some involvement in.
    Certainly BRAINSTORM seems like a good movie to track down,.

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    • Never seen BRAINSTORM which for some odd reason,always thought was a Sci-Fi flick.

      When I saw the title of this post, my first thought was of the Natalie Wood sci-fi movie.

      Colin’s synopsis in the second paragraph, however, reminds me of Robert Mitchum’s Angel Face.

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      • Hi, Ted. This is a very different film to Angel Face, though I can see how my wording – where I was trying to keep it vague enough to avoid spoilers – might lead you to see some similarities.

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    • That’s too bad about Man Trap, John. I’ll have to see how or if it works for me when I get round to it.
      And you know, it makes a change for me to be able to write on a movie you haven’t seen – it may well be a first! 🙂

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    • It’s good to see all this praise for Jeffrey Hunter. No matter what see I him in, he impresses me so. He’s so good in The Searchers and The True Story Of Jesse James, of course. And whenever Jesus is mentioned, in my mind’s eye, he looks like Hunter.

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  7. The confusion arose because around the same time as BRAINSTORM Jeffrey Hunter
    also appeared in DIMENSION 5 a time travelling secret agent flick!

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  8. I’ve never seen DIMENSION 5 either but would like to just for its curio value,if nothing else.
    I was most amused by your comment Colin,but there are a whole stack of vintage films that
    I have never seen. William Conrad directed two other films for Warners in 1965 and like
    BRAINSTORM was shot in black & white Panavision and had running times over 100 minutes.
    The other two are TWO ON A GUILLOTINE and MY BLOOD RUNS COLD.
    I’ve never seen either of those and both sound like they have interesting elements and
    both films are “out there” but you just cannot get to see everything.
    Despite their long running times I believe in the UK at least all of the Conrad “Warner Trilogy”
    played as second features.
    I guess the reason that I missed them at the time was that I did not fancy the main feature,
    whatever that was.
    When GIRL OF THE NIGHT also with Anne Francis, was paired with PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER,
    by Warners they promoted it by stating that this was the first “double bill” to play at the flagship
    Warner Leicester Square in over a decade. GIRL OF THE NIGHT is “out there” but PORTRAIT
    OF A MOBSTER is plagued with “clearance issues” so a Warner Archive release seems unlikely.
    PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER is a darn good gangster film,part of an early Sixties cycle,I don’t
    know if the film qualifies as a “Neo Noir” and I do wish someone out there would enlighten us.
    On the horrible “off air” copy of PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER that I saw there was no producer
    credited which may be a clue to why the film has been denied a DVD release.
    Nowadays I only view “off air” copies if there seems to be little chance of the film getting an
    “official” release. That is why I have held off seeing “off air” copies of THE LOOTERS that I
    have been offered because it’s a film that I really want to see and live in hope that it may be
    a future Universal Vault release or turn up in Europe,considering all the Universal titles that
    are being released over there. Lovely review of THE LOOTERS over at Kristina’s BTW.
    Colin,you may like MAN TRAP a lot more than I did,I guess I had high hopes considering the
    cast and everything. Sometimes,as I am sure you have discovered,films that you have waited
    years to see don’t live up to expectations. One point in case is STORM FEAR which was
    high on my wants list as I admire Cornel Wilde very much as both actor and director.
    To me the film was a let down and when I stated this over at Laura’s one of her regular
    contributors said that he found the film “sensational”. I WILL however give STORM FEAR
    another go and I see that Kino Lorber are giving us a remastered widescreen version
    on Blu Ray later this year.At any rate it’s a decent snowbound thriller,some might even call it
    a “Neo Noir” but at the moment I’m bemused,confused by the term.
    It’s also great that Kino-Lorber are delving into the lesser known films from United Artists
    vaults,and giving us remastered hi-def,often widescreen versions.
    STORM FEAR has never had even a DVD release up until now.
    Another title lined up for Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber is the abrasive BIG HOUSE USA,which
    did debut as an MOD several years ago.Just a look at the cast lets us know what to expect:
    Broderick Crawford,Ralph Meeker,William Talman,Lon Chaney Jr,Charles Bronson.
    This is one tough movie-definitely not for the faint hearted for me the toughest part of the film
    was seeing lovely Felicia Farr (billed as Randy) playing an evil nurse.
    With Kino Lorber releasing some of the less well known titles perhaps we can see other great
    Noirs get released. TIMETABLE is a cracker and some Noir Buffs consider it superior to
    Mark Stevens’ splendid CRY VENGEANCE.
    Again our lovely Felicia Farr is on the wrong side of the law.
    Another long sought after “lost” Noir is Hugo Fregonese’s blistering BLACK TUESDAY,which
    I am pretty sure must be on Kino-Lorber’s radar.
    The future for Noir fans looks pretty dark……and that’s no bad thing!

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    • John, you’ve mentioned some very interesting titles there. I read and enjoyed Kristina’s piece on The Looters and share your hope it gets a proper release somewhere.
      I’ve never seen Storm Fear but have wanted to for a long time – it’s on list of stuff to get when it comes out later in the year. Timetable is indeed first rate and deserves a release, and I’m awful keen to see Black Tuesday too.

      Good point too on expectations after not having seen something for ages – sometimes movies hold up, sometimes they don’t, and I have a hunch one’s mood when watching can play a part in that.

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  9. Brainstorm is currently available on the Warner Instant Archive Online, although only in SD. I just added it to my Watchlist.

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  10. Another intro to a film that’s been beyond the radar — thanks Colin. It’s almost romanticizing in a way to see such great, yeoman casts like this that come together and help create entertaining drama. Hunter has never been one of those who i considered as being able to carry a film, but you have me reconsidering my ideas — obviously a viewing is in order. Andrews is usually very watchable. As for Conrad, he was multi-talented but seemed more than happy to be irascible and grumpily huggable — i’ve seen more than my share of Cannon and Jake and … Here’s another talent that he had: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEoYNmLZzmA

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    • That’s wonderful, and quite unexpected. Conrad does seem to have been able to turn his hand to just about anything.

      As for Hunter, I’d seen so many dismissive comments about his abilities over the years that I found myself looking at his work more carefully to see whether the criticism was at all justified. Personally, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen and feel he gave some fine performances – he’s very good in Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James, for example.

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  11. Is there “film Noir” in a ‘pure form’? I’ve always been averse to labels, outside of broad generalities, in any case, but the title of ‘Noir’ has always felt the worst of the lot. I’ve seen a great many debates on the subject, and it always smacks of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”.

    I like the general style (especially when applied to westerns), and this one looks great! I have to check it out.

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    • Fair point, Clayton. The whole noir business is nebulous stuff and open to endless debate. What does seem to be generally agreed is the period of classic noir (1940-1959, give or take), although there are instances of films from outside those parameters checking most of the other boxes. This is one of those movies – I think you might enjoy it.

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    • Thanks, Kristina. Hunter’s supporters need no convincing I guess, but I do find it hard to understand why he remains so underrated. You should definitely give this one a look.

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  12. Pingback: Cape Fear | Riding the High Country

  13. Great write-up of a film I still have not gotten around to digging out of storage. Had it for a good 7-8 years and always get sidetracked when looking for other titles. I agree with your take of Jeff Hunter. He was a far better actor than most critics give him credit for.

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    • I’m very fond of these late era noir films, they differ from the classic variety of course but they’re still endlessly fascinating and entertaining.
      As for Hunter, I’d be delighted to see his work reassessed, as he turned in some fine performances but continues to be widely dismissed.

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