Thursday, June 28, 2012

The William Wyler Blogathon: The Collector (1965)

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 Britain’s 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 Palm Springs 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. 


John/24Frames said...

One of my truly favorite films by Wyler. I've watched the film many times since 1965 when I saw it for the first time and Stamp's character still creeps me out which I think says something about how good Stamps performance is. In my own review, I mention "there were times that he seemed to be channeling a deranged off kilter version of Stan LaureI." The film was pretty strong material considering the production code was still in effect. I always wondered what Hitchcock would have done with this material.

Grand Old Movies said...

I really enjoyed your terrific post on what's a difficult film to enjoy. I found The Collector to be quite disturbing, though that's inherent in its story and main character. Great background info on its making; and you highlight an excellent point about Wyler's later work exploring quieter and more difficult subjects; he seems to have been an artist who didn't want to repeat himself but to continue exploring.

Caftan Woman said...

A film that works as a thriller and a character piece. I knew nothing at all of the background and it will certainly inform any future viewing. Very nice job on a distinctly not nice movie.

Ken Anderson said...

Made the mistake of watching this when I was far too young and was so disturbed by the downbeat ending it was several years before I gave the film another try. I'm glad I did because it is really a psychological thriller and character film. I enjoyed your post, especially all the behind the scenes bits I had no idea about.

The Lady Eve said...

I've seen "The Collector" once, in a theater, years ago. It gave me the CREEPS. This is no reflection the John Fowles book, Wyler's direction or any of the performances. Terence Stamp's character was simply repellent and the visual depiction of his 'collecting' chilled me to the bone. Now I find it hard to imagine the incredibly handsome Mr. Stamp ever appearing repulsive (or even 'nondescript') - which says something about his acting ability and William Wyler's vision and skill at eliciting remarkable performances. Interesting background (I can see Julie Christie in Samantha Eggar's role, though not Natalie Wood). Great post.

R. D. Finch said...

Ivan, I'm pleased that you agreed to do a post on this film, one that many would have been wary of tackling. It's surely the darkest film Wyler ever made. I think of it as his equivalent of "Psycho" or Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom," a film on a deranged main character doing some seriously unpleasant things.

Like those films, it's a daring work from a conservative director taking a stab at updating his sensibility and also his style (I'm thinking especially of those stream-of-consciousness scenes of Stamp's past). I doubt, however, that many find it has the entertainment value of the Hitchcock and Powell films. Its tone is too serious to temper its inherent creepiness. In its day such things probably seemed so unimaginable that it was more a fanciful allegory than a realistic movie. Today it must seem if anything more sinister than it did in its day, because such things as it describes seem all too possible. Maybe its main flaw is that, unlike "Psycho" and "Peeping Tom," today it seems too believable!

It's hard to say what attracted Wyler to the project, but I think its confined setting and the psychological emphasis on its two characters probably appealed to him as a technical and narrative challenge. It was the kind of thing he was so good at, but in a much more intensive way, sustained for a whole movie.

I found your account of his treatment--or perhaps I should say mistreatment--of Stamp and Eggar especially intriguing. This is a topic that has arisen frequently in the blogathon. I think your post suggests there was a certain method in his meanness. I get the idea that he sensed that an adversarial relationship with his actors often got the best results and that wearing them down was likely to result in more focused and less calculated performances.

All in all, a very informative and readable contribution to the blogathon on a Wyler film that I get the impression divides viewers along like-it-or-loathe-it lines.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

It's surely the darkest film Wyler ever made. I think of it as his equivalent of "Psycho" or Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom," a film on a deranged main character doing some seriously unpleasant things.

It has been a while since I watched The Collector, but what interested me in the re-watch is that I saw a lot of the same things you did, particular the parallels to Peeping Tom. And yet it's clear that Willie picked up a few things from the Master of Suspense--trying to make Freddie sympathetic, of course, but there's one particular shot in the movie where Eggar's character is walking up that incline to the street and Stamp's van is parked on the left...which is precisely how Hitch would have staged it, and it is eerily effective (we want to warn her, but we can't).

Its tone is too serious to temper its inherent creepiness. In its day such things probably seemed so unimaginable that it was more a fanciful allegory than a realistic movie. Today it must seem if anything more sinister than it did in its day, because such things as it describes seem all too possible.

And I think that's the reason why audiences are split on the film. I don't dislike the movie, but it sure makes me uncomfortable as hell when I watch it. Oh, and I wasn't aware that Kathleen Freeman was Eggar's "dramatic coach" until I saw her name in the credits, and then I said: "No wonder she was so damn good in this!"

dfordoom said...

A surprisingly successful effort by Wyler.

Judy said...

I read Fowles' novel years ago and have always remembered it vividly, with its build-up of sheer creepiness, but have never yet got round to seeing the film, something I must do. Great piece, Ivan, and I was very interested in all the background information about how Wyler worked up tensions between the actors to get the result he wanted on screen, something he also did in other films.

FlickChick said...

I totally admired this novel and was not wholly enchanted with the film. However, I would love to revisit and give it a second chance. Your review helps point me that direction. This blogathon has been so interesting, because Wyler's versatility is so apparent. He was an amazing artist.

Page said...

You've certainly given us all a lot to think about here with your very thorough review of The Collector. (I think you must do your best work when you're tired my friend)

I really enjoyed the backstory you've treated us with, like the adaption of the novel, all the creative hands that touched it to get it to completion.

Freddie does sound like a creep but a creep I think I would enjoy getting close to for an hour on screen. And since you and John have spoken so highly I'll give The Collector a try if I ever find it. (I read your article twice looking for the button to enter for The Collector DVD giveaway but couldn't find it! Grrr)

You mentioned that the film was well received by audiences and critics so why do you think it is that Wyler didn't give the genre another go, experiment with it further going forward?

Another interesting review Ivan, and refreshing submission to the Blogathon. We've seen so many of Wyler's 'big' films, classics that it was nice to see a more obscure project get it's due, some recognition.


Classicfilmboy said...

It's a dark film, and the premise itself makes watching it an uneasy experience from beginning to end. With that said, it's a well-made movie with two strong performances. It's unnerving because it's well-done. Great post!

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Really? He gave up The Sound of Music for this? The Collector is an interesting film, but it was no TSOM! Stamp is ultra-creepy here. Interesting post, Ivan.

Rick29 said...

Ivan, this was one of your best reviews! I'm not especially fond of THE COLLECTOR, but your review has me curious to see it again. I don't think it's a thriller at all. In your last paragraph, you describe it as a "character study" and--regardless of what thinks of the character in question--the film is undeniably well-made. Still, it seems a very odd choice for Wyler. Yes, he was versatile, but this is almost (but not) like Michael Powell making PEEPING TOM.

Kevin Deany said...

I've never seen it, alas, but it sounds most intriguing. It scored highly on R.D's post as the favorite Wyler film of the 1960s. I'll be the lookout for it. Great job, Ivan, as always.

Karen said...

I enjoyed reading your post, Ivan -- I only wish you'd given away the ending. I tried watching this film many years ago, and was too creeped out to see the whole thing, so I'd love to know what happened! I was especially interested to read that Samantha Eggar was fired and re-hired -- how often does THAT happen?!