Collector, The (Blu-ray Review)14 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Terence Stamp, Samantha Eggar.
I recently saw a beautiful copy of the 1976 AFI Life Achievement Award devoted to William Wyler, and there were all kinds of jokes about how demanding he was as a director — including a reference to Olivia de Havilland (who was not there) heaving a suitcase at him after an incessant number of takes he demanded when guiding her to an eventual Oscar for The Heiress.
The Collector’s female lead Samantha Eggar was at the ceremony — for about a blink’s worth — though she had been pretty vocal about how miserable her experience was shooting the rather amazing arthouse movie Wyler fashioned out of John Fowles’ novel (adapted here by Stanley Mann and John Kohn) about a meek bank clerk who abducts a beautiful art student to the farmhouse he has just purchased with huge football-pool winnings. The proof, though, was in the result because Eggar, whose promising career fizzled pretty fast, shared a Cannes best acting award with co-star Terence Stamp on the way to an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win herself. Some personal factoids here: Eggar was my amorous-fantasy numera una of the mid-to-late ‘60s (and more than one buddy concurred); The Collector was my favorite movie of ’65 that year; and I memorably saw it for the first time on a first date (just before starting college) with a knockout I didn’t quite have to chloroform to get to go with me. Co-feature was the fabulous Black Orpheus by Marcel Camus, and there’s nothing like setting the table by taking someone to a single night of two movies about doomed relationships.
At the time, Wyler was supposed to have been directing The Sound of Music but opted out to let Robert Wise earn all that money, all those Oscars and the wrath of Pauline Kael. So he took on the Fowles novel, which had to have been as impossible a nut as any other predominantly two-character movie — and this one borderline sick-o to boot. It was almost as if the 12-time Oscar nominee for direction (a record, and The Collector would be the twelfth) was saying, “OK, I’ve done Ben-Hur, so let’s go the other way.” As much of an auteurist as I am, I have never been able to knock Wyler’s almost unparalleled consistency of craftsmanship over four decades interrupted by wartime service, and there are aren’t too many of his movies, starting with 1936’s Dodsworth, that I don’t either love or at least like to substantial degree (I’m big on ‘33’s Counsellor at Law as well). I don’t think his direction was ever stronger than here — though the movie is all but unmentioned on the AFI show, as if someone didn’t want to offend CBS’s “Waltons” demographic.
There are a couple knocks on the picture. One is that the more interior novelistic form allowed Fowles to get more into the mind of his protagonist; fair enough, but what Wyler had to do had to have been tougher. And there’s the impression that Stamp (who just three years earlier had had the title role in Billy Budd) was too good-looking to play this creep. Again, fair enough — but this character is too socially stunted even to realize that he’s more than passably handsome, and Stamp puts this aspect across brilliantly. At least in his own mind, he’s been put down at work for his hobby (collecting butterflies), and he’s so dim — some of his reasoning powers here are classics — that he thinks stalking his well-kept dungeon with coffee table art books will provide enough impetus for his victim to return his love (not that he has a clue of what to do when, in desperation, she offers some sexual advances). By the way, am I the only one who thinks Stamp’s speech patterns suggest Stan Laurel’s here?
In some ways, The Collector is more disturbing now than it even was in 1965 because what was then merely the hook for a very unusual movie has since proven to be not that uncommon in real life (either that, or sensationalistic news reporting has gotten better honed). Running just a minute under two hours, it never flags, and cinematographer Robert Surtees, who did the interiors, finds a lot of interesting nooks and crannies that come through in one of the latest examples of a very worthy Blu-ray undertaking (Image Entertainment’s nicely priced distribution of commercially challenging titles from Columbia Pictures). This brings up another point. Wyler had Surtees (Mogambo, Oklahoma!, Ben-Hur and later The Graduate) photographing the predominantly interior studio scenes and Robert Krasker (Olivier’s Henry V, The Third Man and El Cid) the exteriors. Can you imagine?
And it was tough to imagine, after Ben-Hur and The Collector, what Wyler could do for an encore. So he went out and made the resplendent Funny Girl, landing Barbra Streisand an Oscar in her screen debut. And though his follow-up swan song (1970’s The Liberation of L.B. Jones) didn’t, for the most part, come off, its notably tough major-studio treatment of racial disharmony showed that he refused to rest on his laurels right up to the end.