Sunday, June 30, 2013


More than a month has passed since three young women were rescued after being held captive in a Cleveland man's basement for a decade. The news was harrowing, but not entirely unusual. Just a few years earlier, an Austrian man was arrested and charged with holding his daughter captive in a basement for 24 years. In 2006 a Pennsylvania woman was reunited with her parents after being held captive in a neighbor's home for a decade. In 2011, a husband and wife from California were sentenced to 43 and 36 years respectively for  holding a woman prisoner for 18 years.
William Wyler's The Collector was about this very subject, although Wyler insisted  the tale was "a story about love if not a love story."

 Freddie Clegg (Terence Stamp) is a shy bank clerk, who secretly loves Miranda (Samantha Eggar), an art student from a wealthy family. Freddie  knows he could never have Miranda because she she's constantly surrounded by her rich friends and her snooty art school professors. When Freddie comes into some money after winning a lottery, he buys a mansion in the country with a perfect basement for holding someone captive.  
Freddie's plan is to hold Samantha prisoner so she can get to know him.  He's furnished the basement with books and albums and art supplies; he's even bought clothes she might like.  He feels that in time she will grow to like him, or even love him. He doesn't understand why she keeps screaming to be released. Eventually she barters with him, until they reach an agreement: she will stay four weeks, and then he must let her go. He agrees, but anyone whose tunnel vision is such that he can't understand why a woman wouldn't want to be chained up in a basement is not likely to be rational.  

Before it was a movie, The Collector was a novel by John Fowles, the first part told from Freddie's point of the view, the second from Miranda's. Producer John Kohn and screenwriter Stanley Mann (with an uncredited assist from Terry Southern)  had the task of taking a largely internalized story and giving it dramatic shape.  Somehow, The Collector works beautifully. When the film received its first flush of attention, Wyler's general statement to the press was, "I'm proud that we stayed loyal to the story."
The film was a hit at Cannes.  Stamp and Eggar won the festival's awards for best actor and actress. Eggar became a star overnight, also winning a Golden Globe and receiving an Oscar nomination.  The film's release in America, though, was given mixed reviews.  It was too bleak for some, and Stamp was too odd. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Stamp a "blob." Associated Press critic Bob Thomas dismissed The Collector as "a macabre stunt," and wondered why Wyler would direct such a depressing thing in the first place.

The tale itself is as old as the proverbial hills. Women have been held captive by males probably ever since homes were built with a basement or an attic to hold them in. We've read about it in fairy tales, where princesses are held in castles by ogres, so this is obviously a very old and nasty habit on the part of certain males. As Wyler said upon the film's release,  holding a woman captive was "a common fantasy among adolescents. Even adults occasionally daydream of being alone on a desert island with someone they desire....Many people want to own someone else completely. What is abnormal is trying to achieve it in this way."
A three time Oscar winner as Best Director, Wyler wasn't known  for suspense films. True, he'd directed The Desperate Hours (1955), a conventional 'family held hostage by criminals' feature, but he'd earned his status in Hollywood by directing some of  Bette Davis' best films of the 1930s and '40s, and later epics such as Ben Hur, and The Big Country. Alfred Hitchcock might have seemed like a better bet for The Collector, but even those who found the film too downbeat admitted that Wyler had created  a Hitchcockian atmosphere. Wyler's career is sometimes overlooked because he didn't have a signature style, or belong to an identifiable genre, as if being versatile was a sin. But he was a master craftsman and could tighten the screws as well as any director. He also showed a great understanding of the subject matter.

"When I was about 14 years old," Wyler said in an  interview with the North American Newspaper Alliance, "there was a little girl in the neighborhood I should love to have abducted. Of course I didn't. That's the difference between most people and Freddie Clegg, the character played by Terence Stamp." 

Wyler said of Freddie, "He comes from a background which is not so much poor as terribly petty and ultra respectable, where a child is taught that sex is dirty and grows up repressed and out of touch with reality. He resents her background, her interest in books and art. He knows she would never give him a second thought if she met him under normal conditions."
One of Wyler's strategies during filming was to have Stamp ignore  Eggar unless they were performing a scene together. This created tension on the set, and kept Eggar guessing where she stood with Stamp. Rumors flew that the actors didn't get along, and Eggar even quit the production at one point, only to come back and finish filming. This, of course, added to the atmosphere.

With just a few voice overs and a flashback, Freddie's life is made clear to us: he had a domineering mother, and a dull job where co-workers picked on him about his butterfly collection. Miranda, too, is as full-bodied as she is in the novel, a privileged girl who would appear to be spoiled but is actually a fighter. Despite Freddie having the upper hand, she's more than a match for him.
Stamp and Eggar had a third star to work with, and by that I mean the basement lair. Art director John Stoll, set director Frank Tuttle, and interior cinematographer Robert Surtees create an atmosphere that recalls Hannibal Lecter's cell in Silence of the Lambs, all formidable stone and coldness. The walls are like the inside of a cave, but the colors used give the barren room a kind of muted life. The room is a bit like Freddie; cold, but with a hint of warmth.

Stamp was born to play offbeat characters. His wide set eyes and large forehead give him a sad, sinister look.  In his career he has played everything from killers to drag queens, and many of his characters are outsiders, prone to either sadness or violence. Freddie is isn't quite driven by adult desires. When Miranda, out of desperation, tries to seduce him, his reaction is one of disappointment. He's more of a disturbed child who simply wants someone to talk to.

I could see other actors as Freddie - Roddy McDowall, perhaps, or Anthony Perkins, or Malcolm McDowell - but it's impossible to imagine another actor being as quietly strange as Stamp.  Stamp is quoted on the IMDB as saying, "As a boy I believed I could make myself invisible. I'm not sure I ever could, but I certainly had the ability to pass unnoticed." As Freddie, he nearly dissolves into the cracks of his home. That is, except for when he loses his temper. Freddie turns steely when he rails at Miranda, saying that she and her  friends would never understand a fellow like him. This was only Stamp's third film. At  27 he was already a confident, savvy actor.

Like Stamp, Eggar wasn't particularly experienced, but was able to find different shadings for Miranda. Some of the best scenes in the film are not when she's screaming hysterically, but when she barters with Freddie, trying to negotiate her release, or later, when she realizes  the hopelessness of her situation. 

What I remember from the movie are not necessarily Miranda's attempts to escape, although those scenes are quite dramatic, but the way she speaks to Freddie, as if she's trying to talk him down from a ledge. She understands that he's as much a captive as she is; he's captive to her beauty, and captive to his own insecurities.

 Wyler, who received an Oscar nomination for directing The Collector,   said in 1965 that the film couldn't have been made in the 1950s, and that audiences were finally ready for something like it. He'd be surprised that The Collector couldn't be made in 2013, either.  No current director would dare present such a bland character as Freddie. The abductor would be remade into a Batman villain, or a Human Centipede type of psychopath.  Miranda,too, would be different in a contemporary film, karate kicking her way to freedom, maybe stomping Freddie to death, ala Stuntman Mike in Deathproof. At one time movie audiences were challenged to examine a character; now they are simply asked to cheer as he's executed.

But even in 1965, there were those who thought a character like Freddie Clegg shouldn't go unpunished, even in a movie. The film was banned in Egypt for that very reason. "Apparently Colonel Nasser thinks villains should always get their just deserts," Wyler said at the time. "I asked an Egyptian official if all criminals were punished in Egypt and he admitted they weren't. But, he insisted, in the movies they must be punished."
Wyler  creates a film that is suspenseful but isn't about the good guys killing the bad guys. In a way, we want Freddie to get what he wants, to be understood and appreciated. When Miranda takes tentative steps to communicate with him, we feel hopeful that Freddie can step out of his darkness and be rational. But as much as we may want Freddie to get what he wants, we also want Miranda to escape.When she sees Freddie's extensive butterfly collection and realizes she's just another of his prizes, we see the heart go out of her.

It's not revealing too much to say that Miranda's fate is tragic. Freddie's reaction to it shows there's much less to him than we'd imagined. He's every bit as cold-hearted as we'd innitially thought.

Fowles claimed his novel was not written as a potboiler, but actually inspired by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who put forth the idea that society is broken into two sides, the elite and the masses, represented in the book by Miranda and Freddie respectively. The idea Fowles wanted to convey was that the masses had to be educated, rather than be left to their own morbid self-pity and feelings of inferiority. Otherwise, Fowles feared, we'll get more Freddie Cleggs.

I wonder if Fowles knew his book and Wyler's movie were favorites of depraved men not particularly interested in social theories. While watching The Collector recently I recalled Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, a hideous pair in California who wanted to kidnap women and hold them as sex slaves. They called their plot "operation Miranda," in sick tribute to this movie, which was a favorite of Lake's. Together they allegedly killed 25 people. I also recalled a real life character named Gary Heidnick, a Philadelphia man who held six women in his basement and tortured them for years. He used electrodes and other nasty devices.

Compared to some, Freddie Clegg was downright chivalrous.

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