In "The Film Handbook," Geoff Andrew's valuable primer on influential film directors, the author damns William Wyler with faint praise for his craftsmanship and attention to visual details, while otherwise challenging his artistic credentials. "In retrospect," Andrews declared, "his often academic use of deep-focus, his dependence on rather bloodless versions of respectable theatrical and literary works, and his stodgy liberalism seem the product of an unadventurously middle-brow, if professionally skillful, sensibility."
With his classical style and safely mainstream, multiple Oscar-winning acclaim, Wyler is sort of a natural target for a writer like Andrew, a true believer in "auteurism" – the once hotly debated theory that a single creative personality (usually the director) defines the quality of a film. Even in this most collaborative of art forms, where hundreds of people can play a part in the final product, auteurism says there must be one vision that carries the day.
Auteurism is now commonly accepted by critics and I guess I'm pretty much an aueteurist myself. Still, I am occasionally irked by the way the theory elevates uneven talents with more evident "personality" while not allowing more consistent, sometimes brilliant directors into the hierarchy.
I haven't seen enough of Wyler's work to fully argue against Andrews's assessment, but some of his films (particularly 1946's essential post-war epic "The Best Years of Our Lives") suggest it wasn't mere respectability that sparked his long, successful career. And if tasteful restraint occasionally weighed down his approach, it sometimes paid unexpected dividends, as it certainly does in "The Collector" (1965).
Based on a best seller by John Fowles, "The Collector" might be included in the modern stalker/psycho genre basically launched with Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" (both 1960) and continuing up to the countless imitators of "Silence of the Lambs" (1991).
But while not devoid of excitement, "The Collector" is really neither a thriller nor a horror film. It is a dark character study (essentially a two-person play) about the psychology between captive and captor. Terrence Stamp plays a timid, maladjusted clerk and butterfly collector freed from the oppression of the everyday when he wins a national soccer pool. His windfall gives him just enough free time to contemplate his darkest desires and ultimately to act upon them.
He kidnaps a pretty art student (Samantha Eggar) he has long admired from afar, keeping her in the carefully prepared cellar of his newly purchased, remote country home. A prudish psychopath in the Norman Bates mold, he is as polite and respectful as a kidnapper can be, for his aim is not to collect ransom or sexual deviancy, but to make the girl fall in love with him.
Needless to say, she finds it hard to accommodate his wishes. After failing in her initial attempts to escape, she engages him in an ongoing negotiation. She extracts terms for her eventual release, agreeing to try and relate to him as a host and suitor during her imprisonment.
Stamp plays his part with quiet empathy, not unlike Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates. Though we know mental instability rules his world, there is a part of the viewer that hopes this ghastly scenario will somehow, impossibly work out for both parties. His overt gentleness, however, is not only countered by the kidnapping, but by his occasional outbursts against his captive's lack of understanding or perceived elitism. He carries a long personal history of rejection and insecurity and is bewildered that she can't somehow single-handedly cure him. As the tensions rise between them, a debate about the merits of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" makes it frighteningly clear that loneliness is far from his only motivation.
Eggar's performance shows the emotional range of someone who must fight – more psychologically than physically – for freedom, if not survival. She understands her captor more fully than he would ever admit, but of course that understanding can't overcome her fear or fury at her circumstances. When the confrontation finally becomes fully and irreparably physical, Eggar conveys the shattering of a psyche with more impact than any bloodshed could carry.
Unlike a thriller, the tension does not build constantly, though Wyler shows he could easily have made an efficient thriller with a couple of memorably nerve-jangling moments. Mainly though, he treats the material as foreboding drama, which ultimately makes the resolution of the story far more disturbing. As the film closes, we don't get the usual payoff of movie-made villainy, but an awful, too-calm sense of menace and gloom. In the hands of a less classical, less "bloodless" director, it's doubtful this ending would carry such a disquieting chill.
"The Collector" is available on a no-frills Columbia DVD (only a trailer is included as a bonus feature), with decent image and sound quality. With Stamp, Eggar and Fowles all still active, one hopes the company might make use of them for interviews on a future re-release. Such a compelling movie is sure to have some compelling stories behind it.
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© 2005 Joel Wicklund