This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The William Wyler Blogathon, now underway at The Movie Projector from June 24-29. For a list of participants with their film reviews and other aspects of this amazing motion picture director’s career, click here.
In the English countryside, amateur entomologist Frederick Clegg (Terence Stamp) is pursuing a specimen for his hobby (butterfly collecting) when he comes across an imposing country manor house for sale. He notices via voiceover narration that the edifice will be perfect for his cunning plan…and for those of you curious as to how a nondescript individual like Freddie is planning to purchase the place, he’s got money—a financial windfall courtesy of his winning the football pools (the UK equivalent of winning the lottery) while he was a struggling bank clerk.
So what exactly is Freddie’s “plan”? He’s admired art student Miranda Grey (Samantha Eggar) from afar for quite some time now…but because his social skills are a little retarded, he’s decided to skip the whole courtship ritual and instead, kidnap and hold her prisoner. Her jail will be a room in a root cellar located just off the main house; he’s put in electricity and sound-proofed the “cell” and has also taken care to provide her with various creature comforts: beautiful clothing, art books, etc. Having accomplished the renovations, he follows her in his van as she finishes her classes for the day…and after a brief interlude in a pub (where she tearfully says goodbye to a man we never meet), he grabs her outside her apartment, presses a chloroform-soaked rag to her face and we’re off to the races.
Freddie has, in essence, become “the Collector” of the film’s title. Like his butterfly collection (which he shows to her later in the film, much to her complete revulsion), his method of obtaining beautiful things has extended to Miranda’s abduction…and Freddie is quite put out by Miranda’s failure to respond favorably to his advances once he’s openly confessed his love for her. Miranda, like all prisoners, makes several attempts to escape but is foiled by Freddie at every turn. Finally, her captor agrees to let her go after one month. Surely a love as strong as theirs will make it that far!
The Collector is a filmic adaptation of John Fowles’ 1963 debut novel, which presents its story in a slightly different fashion than the film: the first third of the book is told from Clegg’s point of view, and the second third from Miranda’s (in the form of a diary she’s been keeping). The final third once again reverts to Freddie’s narration. In Miranda’s diary, we learn of a previous assignation she had with a man who’s identified only as “G.P.”—a plot point originally present in the film (and played by veteran actor Kenneth More) but later snipped when the movie ran overlong.
The idea to adapt Fowles’ work for the big screen originated with a pair of former television writers, Jud Kinberg and John Kohn, who had recently turned to producing and who pitched the deal to the head of Columbia Pictures’
London office, Mike Frankovich. Both Kinberg and Kohn wanted the legendary
Wyler to helm the production, who was already in preparation to direct The Sound of Music (1965). But once Wyler started reading Fowles’ novel
he found he just couldn’t put it down, and so he left Julie Andrews and those oh-so-alive
hills in the capable hands of Robert Wise.
Kinberg and Kohn arranged for screenwriter Stanley Mann to write the
film’s first draft, and after reading it Wyler decided it could be improved on,
so Kohn did some polishing (Terry Southern reportedly turned in a revision as
well, with a “what-the-front-yard?” ending that Wyler despised, choosing to
stick with the way Fowles’ original book called it a wrap—which I will conceal
for the benefit of those who’ve not seen the movie).
Wyler very much wanted up-and-coming British actors in the roles of Freddie and Miranda, and Terence Stamp—who was at that time making a name for himself in features like Term of Trial and Billy Budd, for which he nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination—was chosen for the male lead. Stamp didn’t want to take on the part of Freddie at first (he thought the character repulsive and was astonished that they didn’t go with someone like Anthony Perkins or John Hurt) but he very much wanted to work with the veteran director, with whom he established an immediate connection. The two of them then began auditioning actresses for the role of Miranda…and though Stamp assumed that
top female thesp, Julie Christie, was a shoo-in, Columbia’s
Frankovich began lobbying for newcomer Samantha Eggar. Wyler was not impressed.
Willie then learned that Stamp and Eggar had a past history: the two of them were students at the same dramatic school (the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art) and Stamp had expressed romantic designs on his future co-star, which she torpedoed with all deliberate speed. Wyler thought that their previous rocky relationship would be ideal for the sexual tension and discomfiture experienced by the protagonists in The Collector, and so he okayed Frankovich’s choice. Three weeks into the film’s rehearsals, Willie was dissatisfied with Eggar’s work and he fired her on the spot. Told by Frankovich to lay low in
for a while, Eggar ended up being rehired after would-be replacement Natalie
Wood turned Wyler down due to a previous film commitment.
With Eggar’s rehiring, there were a few conditions. One was that she would have to work with an acting coach for the duration—something that usually went against Willie’s modus operandi, but he broke that rule because he ended up hiring the coach: character great and TDOY fave Kathleen Freeman. Another condition was that Stamp would stay in character throughout the shooting of Collector (just call him Meryl Streep), so his constantly being a miserable bastard was something that upset Eggar considerably. She wasn’t aware that Wyler had instructed Terrence to do so…but it helped immeasurably with the awkward “relationship” that develops between the couple.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a Wyler film without the infinite number of camera takes for which the director had become notorious. Eggar later recalled for Jan Herman’s A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler that the most uncomfortable sequence in her experience working with “Once More” Willie was the shooting and re-shooting and re-shooting of a love scene between her and co-star Stamp: “...we shot that love scene for what seemed like weeks. I kept wondering why I had to stand there with no clothes on when they were only shooting me from the shoulders up. Willy always used to sit, and it was a strange level where his eyes were.” (Um…yeah.)
But Eggar did get a few concessions. The Collector had originally planned to be shot in black-and-white, but Wyler decided that color would best accentuate the actress’ red tresses and creamy complexion. Samantha was also vindicated from the director’s initial reluctance to use her when she was awarded the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival (her co-star wound up winning Best Actor) and a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama as well. She also snagged one of the film’s three Oscar nominations, the others going to Wyler (for his direction) and Mann and co-producer Kohn for their adapted screenplay.
The Collector was the first thriller ever directed by William Wyler…make that his only thriller. With this film, Wyler demonstrated the same versatility for which Howard Hawks received critical plaudits (directing in any number of film genres) and the critical response to Collector was quite favorable, getting thumbs up from the likes of Andrew Sarris and Judith Crist (not everyone was clapping Willie on the back—the notoriously persnickety Bosley Crowther panned it, but that’s nothing new). The only accolade that mattered to Wyler, however, was the one he received from author Fowles—since authors are notorious for cringing when their work is adapted for the big screen. Fowles was most enthusiastic: “I enjoyed it just as much the second time as the first…” (Fowles did suggest to Wyler that some modifications be made to Maurice Jarre’s score for the picture, changes Willie was only too happy to implement before the movie’s release.)
Does the film hold up today? I suppose it depends on how accepting you are with the overall premise, which admittedly is a little cold-blooded (and I personally experience unease when they try to make Freddie a sympathetic sort...because no matter how you slice it—the guy’s a creep) but as a character study it makes for captivating viewing. Towards the end of his career, Wyler had started to drift toward quieter pieces like The Children’s Hour (1961) and his last picture, the underrated The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970)…abandoning bigger budgeted features like The Big Country (1958) and Ben-Hur (1959). (His experience “directing” Barbra Streisand in 1968’s Funny Girl probably soured him on any such further endeavors.) Despite the subject matter, The Collector features Willie in top form, coaxing two remarkable performances from stars Stamp and Eggar. It’s no mystery that many fans of the veteran director consider the film one of the best in the twilight of his astonishing career.