Thursday 3 July 2014

Mystery and Imagination - Sweeney Todd (1970)

Sweeney Todd was screened on British television in 1970 as part of the final season of the Mystery and Imagination series. 

This feature-length production starts out as a rather promising version of the classic tale (which had been published in 1850 as a  “penny dreadful”). Like most British of this period it’s very studio-bound but that’s more of an asset than a liability - creating a gothic kind of atmosphere tends to be easier in a studio. And given that the budget was obviously much smaller than would be usual for a feature film it’s a reasonably handsome production.

The tale of course involves a barber who murders his customers whose bodies then end up being served to the patrons of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. The barber, Sweeney Todd, steals an extremely valuable string of pearls from one of his unfortunate customers. This will eventually be his undoing. 

Sweeney Todd has a young apprentice named Tobias. Sweeney’s apprentices also tend to meet with unfortunate fates, ending up in a lunatic asylum which is in reality a death factory. Tobias will not last long. He will be succeeded by another apprentice named Charlie, who will play a key role in the plot.

Freddie Jones makes a suitably sinister Sweeney Tood. Russell Hunter (best known to fans of British television of this era as Lonely in the excellent Callan series) steals the picture, playing several very creepy doctors including the villainous director of the previously mentioned asylum. Sweeney Todd is classic melodrama and melodrama requires a larger-than-life villain. Russell Hunter is so good that he actually outshines the star.

The rest of the supporting cast do reasonably well, although Mel Martin isn’t going to fool anybody into thinking she’s a boy, which rather weakens the plot.

Compared to other screen versions of the story this one adds some very blatant sexual perversity. I’m not really sure this element is entirely appropriate to this type of melodrama.

Things go reasonably well until the ending, which I found to be very unsatisfactory indeed. I won’t give any hints as to what happens but it is the kind of ending that I always find to be irritating to an extreme.

On the plus side this production does deliver some real chills, although these are mostly provided by Dr Fogg’s lunatic asylum rather than Sweeney Todd himself.

Sweeney Todd is worth seeing for the performances of Freddie Jones and Russell Hunter, but apart from that it’s difficult to recommend this one.

The definitive screen version of the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber remains the 1936 British movie with Tod Slaughter in the title role.

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