Showing posts with label Terence Stamp. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Terence Stamp. Show all posts

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Movie Review: The Collector

The Collector (1965)
directed by William Wyler, starring Terence Stamp, Samantha Eggar

(Note: This is my entry for the The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made) Blogathon, hosted by Dorian from Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky from ClassicBecky's Brain Food)

This is the tale of Miranda Grey, the art student, (Samantha Eggar) and Freddie Clegg (Terence Stamp), the butterfly collector. She's beautiful, ambitious, and naive. Freddie is shy, poor, and utterly obsessed with her. When Freddie wins a fortune in the football pools, he devises the perfect use for his newfound wealth. He buys a remote house and converts the basement into a comfortable prison for Miranda. He furnishes it with everything she could possibly want: art supplies, books, clothes, and cosmetics. Surely if he brings her here and keeps her for awhile, she will learn to love him. Freddie follows through by chloroforming Miranda and dragging her to the basement. When Miranda wakes she discovers, not a brave new world, but a strange, servile man. He apologizes for the use of force, promises to respect her boundaries, but refuses to let her go. Baffled and angry, Miranda soon realizes that escape won't be easy. She strikes a bargain with Freddie, promising to stay a month. At the end of a month, he must let her go. Freddie agrees, confident that she will soon love him. But Miranda's imprisonment will end up changing them both, in strange and brutal ways.


The Collector, based on John Fowles' novel, came to the screen in 1965, during the last years of the studio era. Standards had started to loosen up though, and this darkly twisted tale, which surely would have given Mayer or Goldwyn heart palpitations, was kept faithful to the book, right up to the diabolical ending. William Wyler turned down The Sound of Music to make this film, intrigued by the subject matter. It was really the first proper suspense thriller he'd ever done.

Comparing this film to Wyler's others give it an interest factor beyond the original story. Wyler had tackled dark obsession and villainy before (The Letter, The Little Foxes) but this was more visceral and explicitly sexual. Now, the distinctive mood in a Wyler film is compassion, but at a distance. He will bring you close to characters and then let the camera stand back, as we helplessly watch them suffer, love, self-destruct, or redeem themselves. Wyler invites sympathy for these people and yet there's a conscious restraint, as if he's allowing us to only see so much. So you take that Wyler quality and then look at The Collector. For example, in a scene where Miranda and Freddie struggle in the rain, Wyler holds the camera back from them, letting us see their fight as if from far away, as if we were witnesses to a crime. Then the camera goes down low and we see the tactile reality of the fight, their bodies slipping on the wet grass, the blood mixing in with the rain. The camera is at that same low angle when they return to the basement, Miranda's body flung brutally on the floor. The two gasp for breath, exhausted from the effort and because we are kept so close to them, we can feel it as if we were part of it. Anyone who wants to accuse Wyler of being staid should take a look at that moment again.


When I think about a word to describe Terence Stamp, the first one that always comes to mind is "presence." The man just has remarkable confidence onscreen and he had it right from the beginning. Billy Budd was his screen debut. Stamp took the role of a young man whose sensual beauty and angelic goodness is enough to drive men to destruction and tragedy. And he portrayed it so completely that I can't imagine any other actor in the part.  

The Collector was his third film and it's almost a photo-negative reversal of Billy Budd. Instead of a pure-hearted Christ figure, he's a cold, kidnapping psychopath. Instead of being the object of desire, he's a prudish, probably-impotent loner who obsesses over a woman he can't have. Where Billy is the innocent center in a chaotic world, Freddie is that chaos unleashed. That Stamp was able to take two such disparate roles at the beginning of his career and inhabit them, with no self-consciousness, is amazing. Try as I might, I never catch the man trying to protect himself. As Billy, the otherworldly ideal, Stamp offers himself up for the camera's gaze in a way that makes the villain's obsession with him clear. But for the role of Freddie, Stamp closes himself up, shutting out any hint of charm, slyness, or campy appeal. It's as deliberately uncharismatic a villain as you can get.


In the annals of cinematic psychopaths, you'd think Freddie Clegg would have a thriving fanbase. I mean, he's lonely, despised, romantic, and kidnaps a woman to make her love him. Surely, the fans who obsess over the Phantom of the Opera and Frollo would adore this guy. But nope, in spite of a few Youtube videos. While that can partly be attributed to the relative obscurity of this film, I think it has a lot to do with Stamp's performance. He's awkward onscreen, in a way that evokes discomfort rather than sympathy. He wears his suits like the coat hanger was still inside. His gaze is flat, even when professing love. We've all met people who gave off that same unnerving dissonance. These are the people we move away from on the subway, the people we look away from even if we don't know why. Stamp's performance gives the film that extra shudder of plausibility.

Now prior to this film, the only Samantha Eggar film I knew was Doctor Dolittle, in which she's about as obligatory a female character as you can get. In the scenes where Eggar has to regard Rex Harrison with romantic yearning, Eggar mostly looks puzzled or irritated by turn (which, knowing what an utter debacle the making of that film was, you can hardly blame her). But in The Collector, Eggar is wonderful, taking the naive but resourceful Miranda and making her someone to root for. She's so innocently pretentious at times that you cringe for her (for example, telling Freddie that his obsession is "the kind of dream young boys have once they hit puberty"), but underneath it, you can see a woman fighting tooth and nail to keep her sense of self. When Eggar crumples to the ground at one point, sobbing, "Let me be free," your heart truly aches for her. Actually, considering all that Eggar has to undergo in this film, from nude shots to violent struggles with Stamp, I did wonder if Cronenberg saw The Collector and thought, "Now how could I torture this woman more?"


The worst flaw in The Collector is Maurice Jarre's harpsichord-driven, aggressively-quirky score. Now, readers of my blog might point out that I just finished trashing the music in Wyler's Friendly Persuasion. But that film's music was just sentimental. The Collector score on the other hand, is downright horrible, knocking the mood askew in nearly every scene. It's tinkly, dischordant, and whimsical. Inviting whimsy into your tale of dark romantic obsession is like inviting Christopher Walken into Ophelia's mad scene. I was happy to find out that the author John Fowles was on my side about the music, saying, "Surely silence would be better."

Now, when I listed The Collector among my "fascination films," I also put Hitchock's Marnie on that list. And when you think of it, these two films are close cinematic cousins. Released with a year of each other, they both tell the story of men who wish to posses women, whatever the cost. When Sean Connery mockingly talks about his interest in taming wildlife to Tippi Hedren, it's hard not to think of Terence Stamp showing his butterfly collection to Samantha Eggar, saying, "What difference does one specimen make to a whole species?" But where Marnie was lurid, messy, and deeply personal, The Collector is polished, cool, and cerebral. While certain scenes in The Collector feel like they could have come straight out of the Hitchcock playbook (for example, a moment where Miranda tries to alert an oblivious neighbor by overflowing the bathtub), the overall mood is entirely different. Wyler's matter-of-fact approach to The Collector is both a strength and a weakness. It makes the film consistently uncomfortable to watch; Wyler refuses to make moral judgments or tell us what to think. But at the same time, while The Collector has ample chills and surprises, it's never obsessive or romantic in the way that Marnie was.

And yet I keep coming back to The Collector. Its characters, its direction, its strange, steady-handed storytelling. And the look in Terence Stamp's eyes when his last vestige of sanity snaps and he tells Miranda, "I can do what I like!"

Favorite Quote:

"Marry me. Please marry me. I don't expect anything. I don't expect you to do anything you don't want. You can do what you like...study art...I won't ask anything. Anything of you. Except you live in the same house and be my wife in name. You can have your own bedroom. You can lock it every night."

Favorite Scene:

For me, the film crystallizes in a single perfect scene where Miranda and Freddie discuss The Catcher in the Rye. Freddie's frustration with Miranda and her "la-dee-da" ways has begun to boil over. Angry at what he considers her class superiority, he insists on reading her favorite book and finding out why she thinks it special. When he returns, he tells her flatly that he didn't see much point in it. Miranda tries haltingly to explain, describing her love for Holden Caulfield's character. "The boy, he's so aware...the way he hates everything that's false." Freddie responds, "He sounds a mess to me." The tension builds unbearably as Freddie grows angrier and the increasingly terrified Miranda blunders on. Finally, frustrated with Freddie's determined incomprehension of the book, she snaps, "You don't understand, you're not trying to see how much like... like all of us he is." Freddie immediately knows the meaning of her stumble and says icily, "Like me? That's what you meant, isn't it?" And he's right. 

It's a brilliant moment that turns over our expectations as well as Miranda's. Because we might have believed, as Miranda does, that this awkward loner will gravitate to Holden Caulfield, but when Freddie turns the tables on her, it makes perfect sense. Of course this man, with his suits and class consciousness and "proper respect" would think that Caulfield was a spoiled whiner. On top of that, the scene just works perfectly as the moment in which we can see Freddie finally tipping over the edge into murderous rage, as Miranda tries frantically to say or do the right thing. But there is no right thing. She's alone with a madman. And this time, he's got her pegged.

Final Six Words:

Cold and clammy tale of obsession

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Fascination Films


On my list of Indispensable Bloggers, there would be a place of honor for Greg Ferrara, who always manages to stir up the most thought-provoking film discussions. Just a casual glance at his posts for Movie Morlocks and I guarantee you'll find something to jolt your movie-lover's brain. Anyway, Greg's latest topic for Movie Morlocks is "I Half-Heartedly Recommend This Movie," about the films we sorta-kinda-maybe want our friends to see except for the fact that the good is matched with just enough bad to make it a little embarrassing. We all have movies like that.

But Greg's post got me thinking, not so much about mediocre films, but about what I think of as my "fascination films." Have you ever had that moment of walking down a street and suddenly swiveling your head to stare at someone, thinking, "Huh, they're not my type, maybe they're not even that attractive, but there's something there?" Some films I don't consider great, hell maybe I don't even like them all that much, but they fascinate me.

I'm not talking about the feeling of guilty pleasure as in, "Holy shit, guys, I'm starting to find myself actually invested in the love story of Samson and Delilah. Hold me." Nor am I talking about the nostalgia you feel for much-flawed, much-loved films of your childhood (which is where I'd put something like Desiree). I'm talking about the films that I find myself thinking about, weeks, even years afterward, possibly more than I think about genuinely better films. For example, The Ox-Bow Incident is a fantastic film, but I don't think I've given it half the mental space I've given to the muddled, murky Pursued.

What is it about these films that intrigues me? Do they hit some kind of emotional trigger? Am I drawn by their tantalizing possibilities or by their grating flaws? Well, before this post is lost in a sea of rhetorical questions, here's a look at some films I can't help but find...fascinating.

The Collector (1965)


I'll be tackling this one for an upcoming blogathon. The Collector is William Wyler's adaptation of the classic John Fowles novel about an insane, working-class butterfly collector and the beautiful posh girl he captures to make his own. It's got Terence Stamp  in a frightening performance as the creepy collector (the fact that Stamp can look so genuinely repulsive while at the height of his beauty is a feat in and of itself) and Samantha Eggar was never better. And of course it has Wyler, probably one of the greatest "actor's directors" that ever lived. But somehow, The Collector ends up stranded somewhere between a polished but airless film translation and a brilliant, gripping thriller. It's got far more subtlety and nuance than your average thriller yet, watching it, I can't help thinking that the film needed a director with more willingness to be lurid and animalistic and sexual. More like Nicholas Ray or Samuel Fuller. Something in Fowles' harsh, class-conscious novel doesn't translate to Wyler's reasoned, reserved style. And Maurice Jarre's goofy score just tears a gaping hole through the film's mood. And yet, I find this movie so compulsively watchable. If it only took that one step forward into being truly twisted, it would be a genuine classic.

Pursued (1947)


It's not every day you get to watch a Freudian Western noir. Not to mention one with Robert Mitchum as an amnesiac hero, Teresa Wright as his semi-incestuous love interest, and Judith Anderson as the stoic homesteader who adopts Mitchum. Hell, just trying to wrap your head around the idea of Judith Anderson in a Western is hard enough. The film's plot is so bizarre I don't dare summarize it (go watch it yourselves), but it is an oddly enjoyable film. Give credit to director Raoul Walsh and cinematographer James Wong Howe for making such an incredible mishmash of ideas into a coherent film. Howe's cinematography in particular; he manages to make the wide open vistas of New Mexico into a space as dark and cramped as any film noir alleyway. And I have to admit, I'm a sucker for Teresa Wright and watching my favorite cinematic good girl get all vengeful and seductive is a real treat. True, the Niven Busch script stumbles pretty badly at times, as if Busch really, really wanted to make this another Duel in the Sun and had to be forcibly restrained. But man, this film is a trip. If nothing else, it proves my theory that film noir and Westerns have always really been two sides of the same coin.

Stella Dallas (1937)


Ah, Stella Dallas. The film that's essentially required watching for any Barbara Stanwyck fan. I have to admit though, even as a Stanwyck fan, that this movie pisses me off. I don't like how ridiculously manipulative it is. I don't like the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Stanwyck's Stella (who is poised and attractive enough to charm a rich man into marrying her, but suddenly displays the taste and subtlety of a circus clown whenever the film wants her to be embarrassing). I don't like the way the film asks me to believe in the beauty and selflessness of the love between Stella and her daughter Laurel and then tries to tell me that Laurel could be so easily tricked into believing that her mother doesn't love her. Even Laurel's actress, Anne Shirley, said this was a load of crock and she had no sympathy for this ninny she was playing.

However, and I hate to admit it, there is a great deal of truth in Stella Dallas. There's Stella's anguish as she slowly comes to see herself as a burden. There's Laurel's teenage desperation as she practically hurls her long limbs off a stool in an attempt to keep her mother away from the boy she likes. There's the brittle condescension and forced "understanding" of the upper classes, when faced with their raucous inferiors. Unlike many critics, I don't think the film agrees with Stella's decision to abandon her daughter to a better life. I don't think this film even likes rich people that much. The movie looks at the American cultural divide of the time and sees it as a self-perpetuating tragedy. When it focuses on that and Stanwyck's performance, it's a sharp and heartbreaking film. If only the film didn't take such ham-handed methods to get us there.

Peter Ibbetson (1935)


Peter Ibbetson is that rarest of cinematic unicorns, a unique film. Peter Ibbetson (Gary Cooper) fell hopelessly in love with Mary (Ann Harding) when they were children and when they reunite, circumstances force them apart. Yet, through some kind of miracle, they find that they can meet together in each other's dreams, living out their pure, deathless love in their minds even as their bodies age. There was a flood of romantic fantasy film in the 40s (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Portrait of Jennie, A Matter of Life and Death, etc) that handled this kind of material with humor and longing and sophistication. But Peter Ibbetson, especially compared to other 30s films, is like a Victorian aunt that suddenly wandered out into a crowd of wisecracking showgirls. Mary becomes Peter's spiritual guide,  the symbol of absolute purity and devotion, essentially the Beatrice to his Dante. It's the kind of romantic ideal that's been pretty much killed stone-dead for the past century or so; nowadays we like our romances a little more human. And I can't really say I like Peter Ibbetson. Cooper and Harding are stiff as boards, the child actors are dreadful (and they call each other Gogo and Mimsey, no really) and outside of the dream sequences, the film doesn't really convey any kind of otherworldly charm. But it's the kind of film which compels me to ask people, "Have you seen it? What did you think?"

Marnie (1964)


Well, you all knew by my intro picture that this one was coming. A lot of critics like to call Vertigo Hitchcock's most personal film. But for me, this is the one that feels like it sprang fully forth from somebody's Id. All of the Hitchcock obsessions are here: blondes, Tippi Hedren, sadism, rape, traumatic memories, flashing colors, bad matte paintings, and a suspense plot that's more about attraction and repulsion than whether anyone actually commits evil. It's like Hitchcock had so much he wanted to say that he no longer cared whether his audience would follow his lead. The first time I saw Marnie, as a middle-schooler speeding my way through every Hitchcock film, I thought it was okay but a little off. The next time, I saw Marnie, I thought it was dreadful. And then the next time I saw it, I was completely enthralled. It's just that kind of film. Half the time I don't know whether I should be giggling or shuddering.

Robin Wood's famous salvo ("If you don't love Marnie, you don't love cinema") doesn't do the film any favors and my opinion of Hedren's performance sways with every passing breeze. And all that "red is the color of blood" imagery is even worse than the matte paintings. But even so, the film's incoherent passion and darkness and cruelty still give it the power to draw you in. The relationship between Marnie and Mark is one of the most fascinating in all of Hitchcock. And the character of Marnie herself, childish, sarcastic, cold and tormented, is compelling enough to defy any schlock psychology about frigid females. She's more interesting perhaps, than even Hitchcock knew.


While writing this post, I struck up a conversation with one of my co-workers and, hoping to get some inspiration from her, asked her if there were any films she found, not just good, not just bad, but fascinating. With a puzzled smile, she told me, "I don't feel that way about moves." To which I can only respond, like Barbara Stanwyck, "What a life!"