Monday, January 4, 2016

Reeling Backward: "The Collector" (1965)

"The Collector" is an early iteration on the cinematic trend of serial killer as main character, in which we're nudged to identify with the evildoer as much as his victim. It was controversial in its time, despite three Academy Award nominations, though now this sort of thing is quite common.

Hannibal Lecter is a bona fide franchise unto himself these days, with books and movies/TV shows of diminishing returns, artistically if not financially. According to Thomas Harris' own well-established timeline, Hannibal would be in his 80s by now -- his dining habits more threatened by tooth decay than law enforcement intrusions, perhaps.

In one of his early roles, Terrence Stamp plays Freddie Clegg, a young former bank clerk and amateur entomologist. A timid social outcast among his fellow Brits with an almost childlike grasp on social interaction, Freddie won £71,000 in a football pool -- about $1.5 million in today's dollars -- and spends his days carefree with a butterfly net in his hands, catching and killing them and placing them in elaborate displays.

With more resources, his ambitions grow grander and grimmer.

During his wanderings he stumbles upon a magnificent ancient country home and, finding a stone basement with a large hidden room, decides on the spot to buy it. According to the narration by Freddie, he more or less intended to use it so he could kidnap Miranda Grey, a girl from his hometown of Reading, now an art student in London, upon whom he developed a schoolboy crush. In his delusional thinking, by forcing their proximity she could get to know him better and, thereby, fall in love with him.

Needless to say, Miranda is disinclined to fall into the arms of her abductor.

The film, one of the last directed by William Wyler, was based on the debut novel of John Fowles, who went on to pen "The Magus," "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and other notable works. ("Magus" was actually written first, published third.) 

It is unread by me, but from what I've gathered the book jumps from Freddie's first-person perspective to Miranda's and back again. The screenplay by Stanley Mann, John Kohn and an uncredited Terry Southern follows the novel pretty closely, and went on to earn an Oscar nomination, as did Wyler and Samantha Eggar, who plays Miranda.

It's interesting that Eggar's performance was recognized -- she actually won the Golden Globe -- and Stamp's was not, as he is quite affecting as the naive-yet-chilling Freddie. Through the story we see the evolution from disturbed young man to malevolent force, and how he views himself as a victim even as his proclivities as a victimizer are nourished through this experience.

An interesting side note is that Stamp and Eggar knew each other from acting school, and he actually asked her on a date and was rebuffed. Wyler made a point of ignoring her on set while giving all of his attention to Stamp, in an obvious ploy to heighten her sense of alienation.

After the rote opening of Miranda's abduction, the story sets into a pattern. Freddie opens the door to the basement, which vaguely resembles the interior of a medieval church, dressed to the nines in an expensive suit and bearing food, books, art supplies, etc. The room has been outfitted with nice furniture, chests of clothes and toiletries, with a single heat lamp to fight the chill. He behaves like the concierge of an upscale hotel, asking after her health and inquiring of her wants, and trying to deflect the most obvious question at hand.

After her initial shock, she tries various methods of escape, learns his true motives, and negotiates her way down to 11 days of captivity. Needless to say when the time comes, Freddie decides to extend her visit a little longer. After she makes half-hearted attempts at friendship, he scorns her for trying to fool him. Finally Miranda tries to seduce Freddie -- who's almost certainly a virgin -- and he loses all respect for her. No matter what she does, she loses.

There's one wonderfully tense scene where a neighbor of Freddie's comes by to introduce himself and highlight some of the architectural aspects of his new home, such as a hidey-hole where wayward monks were hidden. (We assume this will become a key plot point, but it never happens.) Meanwhile, Miranda is tied up naked in the upstairs bathroom, and manages to use one foot to turn on the bathtub tab and flood the room. We watch the puddle grow larger, pool in the landing, and wander toward the speaking figures below. Terrific Hitchcock-ian tension.

Miranda finally gets the upper hand and manages to bash Freddie in the head with a shovel, but can't bring herself to deliver the final blow. He recovers and she is recaptured, and things lead to a dark denouement.

The coda is downright chilling: Freddie is tooling around London in his box van again, narrating. He ponders whether things turning out poorly was his fault, but decides all the blame belongs to Miranda, with her fancy friends and la-dee-dah ideas. He resolves to try again with somebody closer to his own social background and station, and we watch a young nurse walk past, unawares.

"The Collector" works as a character study and crime procedural, though it's not necessarily a great piece of filmmaking. Story-wise it exists on the superficial level and never explores deeper and potentially more disturbing topics, such as male/female gender roles or Freddie's upbringing. But it's still a worthwhile precursor to a killer theme that's become much more popular today.

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