Diary of a Madman (1963)
Starring Vincent Price, Nancy Kovack and Ian Wolfe. Directed by Reginald Le Borg. From United Artists.
Mourners gather sombrely at the graveside of French magistrate Simon Cordier (Price). Fine words are said over this man of distinction as he is lowered into the earth. But not all who gather graveside share the priest’s perspective on the greatness of the man. After the funeral, a group gathers to read Cordier’s diary in the hopes that it will shed light on the magistrate’s untimely death. Those gathered join the viewer in hearing Cordier’s story…
Capt. Robert Rennedon (Stephen Roberts) visits Cordier in his chambers to tell him that a convicted murderer wants to talk to him before his execution. The murderer tells Cordier that something possessed him to kill, saying that he had lost control of his senses. The condemned man admits that he felt hatred – and that this thing that possessed him used that hatred to turn him into a killer. The inmate says he’s happy to die saying that, as long as he lives, this “thing” can and will make him kill again. With that, the prisoner attacks Cordier but he fights him off and the convicted killer drops dead in his cell.
Still shaken by these events, Cordier begins to endure the additional torment of the return of the memory of his wife and child who have been dead now for 12 years. Things that are stranger still begin to happen, throwing the magistrate into a state of great agitation. While at this low ebb, Cordier receives a visitor while writing in his study; a disembodied voice. The voice proves its power by taking over Cordier’s will and controlling his movements. Cordier visits an alienist who prescribes changes to his solitary existence and encourages him to get out and enjoy life once more. The magistrate decides to begin sculpting again, a hobby he gave up many years ago.
He meets beautiful Odette Mallotte DuClasse (Kovack) who has been scraping by as a model posing for her husband, Paul (Chris Warfield), an artist who is broke and who has not been able to provide for his wife the things she wants from life. Odette makes it clear to her husband that she wants a new dress and is sick of starving. When Cordier offers Odette 10 francs an hour to pose for a sculpture, Paul is wary but agrees they could use the money. Odette spends weeks posing for the magistrate – and begins plotting to ensnare him. Cordier becomes smitten and learning that Odette is married does not deter him.
The reverie of love that has returned to Simon Cordier is shattered by the ministering of the horla, the invisible presence that controls his will and is bent on destruction. The madness of the magistrate’s final days cause everyone to think he is a monster. But reading his diary proves otherwise – though it reveals a darker horror to those left in Cordier’s wake.
Diary of a Madman I can count as one of the many films I have happily stumbled across on YouTube. That service often enrages me – seems it is no longer built for users wanting to access it for free, as it has always been – but I am more often overjoyed by some of the films available there. A Vincent Price horror film in bright Sixties colour, this movie is a real hidden gem with a few pertinent things that make it stand out. Let’s throw down.
This movie presented me with a name I had never encountered before – Guy de Maupassant. French author de Maupassant (1850-1893) studied under Flaubert and he is considered the father of the modern short story. He spent his final years in isolation tormented by madness caused by syphilis. After a failed suicide attempt, de Maupassant was committed to an asylum in Paris where he eventually died. No doubt the life of any party, the French author had written his own epitaph; “J’ai tout convoité et je n’ai pris plaisir à rien” (“I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing”).
Le Horla (The Horla) was a story that de Maupassant published in 1887. A story hailed by and inspirational to American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, Le Horla is written in the form of a journal and relates the tale of a man who has his sanity assailed by an entity who begins to dominate his thoughts. Interestingly, the main character had seen a ship off the coast and had waved to it; this he realizes later was an invitation to the horla to leave the ship and enter the man’s life and home. The story was adapted for our film by writer Robert E. Kent who was born in the Canal Zone in Panama in 1911. Kent also scripted The Falcon in San Francisco, a clutch of noirs including Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Reckless Moment and rock & roll movies like Rock Around the Clock. Kent combined with this film’s editor Grant Whytlock and producer Edward Small to form Admiral Pictures, a small company that made this film and another horror with Price and a few westerns starring Audie Murphy. Unheralded Austrian director Reginald Le Borg was a career B movie guy. He directed most of the Joe Palooka movies, many of which co-starred vintage dish Elyse Knox.
We all know the legend Vincent Price, prolific star of films noir in the Forties and campy horror flicks in the Seventies. Diary of a Madman was one of five films he appeared in in 1963. He was in the midst of getting his kicks making horror films with Roger Corman and/or American International Pictures. Also in ’63, he appeared in The Haunted Palace for Corman and also Beach Party for AIP. Hard-working Vincent Price made almost 30 films in the Sixties, from the likes of Confessions of an Opium Eater to Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.
The most striking thing about this horror film is something that is decidedly the opposite of horror; Nancy Kovack. I basically grew up with gorgeous Nancy from Flint, Michigan watching her opposite King in 1966’s Frankie and Johnny. It was only much later that I enjoyed her in films like The Silencers and the excellent Strangers When We Meet, in which she made her film debut. While Nancy was not long for Hollywood, she cut a striking swath through the films and television shows she did appear in. Her breathtaking beauty was combined with enough natural ability and screen charisma to make her a welcomed addition to any property.
Sporting an IQ of 152, Nancy never hid the fact that acting was simply about money and she was quoted as saying that as soon as she got a marriage proposal she would quit films. She made the unheard of move in the late 1960’s to travel to Iran to make movies, three of them in total. It was not long after that that she received the proposal that would end her acting career. In 1969, she met Zubin Mehta, the renowned Indian conductor who has in his long career been music director of most of the major symphony orchestras of the world. Nancy says that when the two met they “had a small argument and decided to marry two weeks later”1. The Mehtas continue to travel the world together as Zubin conducts the world’s finest orchestras supported by his wife. Nancy today matter-of-factly laments the life of a famous conductor’s wife and negotiating elite circles; “Everything I do is something I think I must do…the obligatory life is not to be desired. And it is a life sentence; it will never be over. I can’t think of a way this life isn’t sacrifice. It is total sacrifice”1. Hang in there, Nancy.
The rest of the cast? Nothing. Bupkis. I’m always happy to see Ian Wolfe in one of the thousand movies he made. I have talked about the venerable Mr. Wolfe in my piece on The Raven. See it here. Otherwise we’ve got Stephen Roberts who plays Captain Rennedon. Roberts can be seen in many of the finest classic films noir and holds the distinction of having played President Franklin Roosevelt five times, four of the different TV productions occurring in consecutive years. And then there’s Chris Warfield as hapless artist Paul. Add Warfield’s name to the many Vintage Leisure players to be born in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh Paul was the smallest of actors who had played minor roles – “Young Man on Street” in Dino’s Bells Are Ringing (1960) – in minor films and on television. Later, though, he would get interesting. Maybe it was his marriage to the ex-Mrs. Russ Meyer, Eva, from 1968 to 1970 that turned Chris on to the X-Rated movie industry. He would appear in, write and even direct several of them through into the 1980’s; anybody for Teenage Seductress (1975)? Cathouse Fever (1984)? Not-Disney’s Pinocchio (1971)? Chris Warfield died in LA in 1996. He was, of course, 69.
Elaine Devry plays Jeanne D’Arville, the woman who loves Paul. Born in 1930 in Compton, Elaine married her high school boyfriend in 1948 and the union lasted 4 years – the last three of which couldn’t have been very fun. In 1949, her husband had been convicted of multiple robberies in Los Angeles and was sentenced to five years’ probation. As a young 22-year-old divorcee, Elaine moved to Hollywood and worked as a carhop at the Dolores Drive-In on Wilshire. Cool. Perhaps her most notable achievement is having been married to Mickey Rooney from 1952 until 1958. In a 1967 St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press article by celebrity columnist Lloyd Shearer, poor Elaine was already being described as “nameless and anonymous”2 and was being lumped with Rooney’s five other wives (Mickey would marry another two times afterward). In the article, Devry is quoted at length describing life with Mickey and the fact that money was never a motivator as he “has been broke and bankrupt and down on his luck for years”. She goes on to say that she was still in love with her crook-of-a-first husband when she married Mick and she told him this. “He said he didn’t care”. Elaine received such a paltry divorce settlement that she had to continue working and taking bit parts – Bless the Beasts and Children (1971), “starring” Billy Mumy? – to pay her way. “Living with Mickey is no bed of roses. Six wives can’t all be wrong“. She later would marry prolific Toronto-born bit part actor Will J. White and retire to a ranch in Grants Pass, Oregon where she currently remains, as of this writing.
The horla explains to Cordier that it exists only to feed off the evil that already is evident in man. The horla claims that Simon’s wife did not commit suicide of her own volition; Cordier drove her to it and now he will be punished for the evil in his heart. The horla, therefore, sees the evil inherent in people and seeks to eradicate those it has deemed guilty. It also reveals to Cordier that Odette is not as she seems and she herself is evil. The horla – having appointed itself judge, jury and executioner – uses Cordier to exact its “justice”.
An opening on-screen quote from du Maupassant explains that mankind has it coming. The horla is only doing to people what people have been doing to lesser beings for centuries. And the horla is given a pass of sorts. It may ingratiate itself where it’s not wanted but it’s made clear that it only aligns itself with flawed people as if it is intent on teaching them a lesson – by dishing out more evil. Director Le Borg had wanted to horla‘s voice to come out distorted but producer Small shot that down, much to the director’s dismay. And to the viewer’s; if the horla had been given a creepy voice, that would have pushed this film over the top into greatness.
In addition to the stunning Miss Kovack, Diary of a Madman is recommended for its sparkling colour and for its unique concept. The idea – and the very name – of the horla is fascinating and unsettling. Added to all this is a pretty vicious stabbing and a cool and creepy lighting effect when the horla gets its claws into someone. The ending is bold and exciting and Price as always shines as the tormented gentleman. Have I mentioned how gorgeous Nancy is in this film? For something a little under the radar, sedate yet menacing, seek out Diary of a Madman.
- Williams, Michae la. For Nancy Mehta, Wife of the Conductor, Life Is a Gilded Cage. The New York Times. (Nov 7, 1978)
- Shearer, Lloyd. Elaine Devry: What It Means to Be One of Mickey Rooney’s Six Wives. St. Joseph News-Press. (Jan 29, 1967)