Tim Brett (David Hemmings) is a reformed drug addict who has just written a bestselling book about his experiences in kicking the habit in the hope that it will encourage other addicts to do the same. He is holidaying in Pompeii, mostly to meet his aunt (Flora Robson) who has helped him through his troubles, and does the same for others in similar positions, very successfully. But one day as they take a trip to the ruins there, she wanders off on her own and soon after is discovered by a party of schoolgirls and their teacher, Juliet (Gayle Hunnicutt) - the old lady has been murdered...
And in broad daylight, without anyone seeing or hearing anything either. This is simply the start of the mysteries in Fragment of Fear, a thriller forgotten today but worth rediscovering for those who like the out of the ordinary in their suspense movies, and that's just the music. It was the film Richard C. Sarafian directed just before his big cult success of Vanishing Point, and featured an equally offbeat sensibility, only in that car chase epic this style was used for excitement, and here it was used to disorient not only the main character, but the audience as well. Which if nothing else, they managed with some flair.
Indeed, there are still those who saw this years ago who find it resurfacing in their memories every once in a blue moon, such was its tantalising ending which could explain what is going on in one way, but also do the same in another, and maybe if you really thought about it didn't explain anything, instead muddying the waters until you were left pondering, what did I just watch? For the most part this could be read as a thriller, as it has intrigue and sequences designed to put you on the edge of your seat, yet in addition, and perhaps more importantly, the design here set out to simulate the feelings of mounting paranoia.
Sort of like a drug addict might have even though he thought he'd kicked his addiction for good, or maybe a schizophrenic in denial that he is suffering the effects of his illness. And yet, there were parts of this which we in the audience see and Tim does not, suggesting either that he is filling in the gaps in his conspiratorial story or that he was right all along. Such is the power of this idea in his mind that if it is really happening, if someone really is out to get him and is persecuting him to make it seem as if he is going insane, then their orchestrations are so adept they will be getting their wish sooner rather than later. Hemmings moved through this as if it were Blowup Part 2, presumably the reason he was cast, but the cast around him were just as worthwhile.
After a stretch of setting up which looked as if Tim couldn't turn a corner without bumping into yet more British character actors, all with familiar faces ranging from the "oh, it's whatsisname - what is his name?" to "look, it's Captain Mainwaring off Dad's Army!" and so forth, Fragment of Fear settled into its groove of weirdness as Tim leaves Italy behind for London, but was still conducting an amateur investigation into who killed his aunt. Then he starts getting anonymous, sinister phone calls, someone seems to have broken into his flat, the police receive an unfounded complaint against him, and the menace increases. Even when he decides to call off the delving for his own sanity, it's too late; what's more intriguing was that this was adapted by screenwriter Paul Dehn (between Planet of the Apes sequels) from a novel by John Bingham, who was the MI5 officer John Le Carré based his George Smiley character on. Was he trying to tell us something? Whatever, this may confound any clarity, but was very well assembled for all its puzzling effects. That groovy music (jazz flute!) was by Johnny Harris.