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In the last decade of his film career, director William Wyler surprised many of his peers and fans by moving away from the big budget productions that defined his career in the fifties (Friendly Persuasion , The Big Country , Ben-Hur ) and focusing instead on more modestly scaled character studies such as The Children's Hour (1961) or The Liberation of L.B Jones (1970), his final film. Wyler was still capable of turning out a lavish big screen entertainment like Funny Girl (1968) but one suspects he would have been just as happy to concentrate on smaller films and The Collector (1965), which was essentially a two-character showcase, is often considered one of the finest films of his later career.
Based on John Fowles' popular first novel, the film tells the story of Freddie Clegg, a withdrawn bank clerk with poor social skills, who wins an enormous football pool and purchases a remote country house for a specific purpose. He plans to kidnap Miranda Grey, an art student he has admired from afar for years, in the belief that once she gets to know her captor, she will fall in love with him. Freddie goes about his preparation with the same obsession and diligence that he brings to his favorite hobby - butterfly collecting. Unlike the rare, exotic specimens he has captured and preserved under glass, however, Miranda is a much more daunting prospect and provides a rude awakening to Freddie's delusional fantasies.
Wyler's decision to direct The Collector was actually a matter of timing, luck and coincidence. He was already preparing to direct The Sound of Music (1965) with Julie Andrews when Jud Kinberg and John Kohn, two former television writers turned producers, pitched the idea of turning Fowles' novel into a movie to producer Mike Frankovich, the head of Columbia Pictures' London office. Kinberg and Kohn both wanted Wyler to direct the film and Frankovich set up the introduction while the two men hired Stanley Mann to complete a first draft of the screenplay. Wyler read the novel first, which he couldn't put down, but felt the screenplay could be better. Still, the film's potential excited him and he abandoned The Sound of Music and committed himself fully to The Collector.
The novel was presented in the form of two points of view; one of them was Freddie's thoughts and the other was Miranda's diary. In this way, the reader was given intimate access to both characters as they revealed their private thoughts and feelings. The film version, however, dispenses with that narrative approach and, except for a minimal use of flashbacks, follows this demented young man as he prepares a basement prison for his prey and begins his hunt.
Wyler was open to the idea of using young, up-and-coming actors in the two central roles of Freddie and Miranda and Terence Stamp, who had received an Oscar® nomination for his supporting performance in Billy Budd (1962), quickly became the front runner for the title character. At first, Stamp didn't want to play Freddie because the character was repulsive to him but once he met Wyler he felt an immediate rapport with the director and the two of them began auditioning actresses for the role of Miranda. Frankovich kept pushing Wyler to hire Samantha Eggar who had appeared in a few British films and television shows but Wyler resisted the idea at first. After he relented and she began working with Terence Stamp, however, Wyler became displeased. "I got fired three weeks into rehearsals," the actress says (in Jan Herman's A Talent for Trouble). "Terry Stamp's nasty attitude toward me undermined me so much that I just became a sort of squashed balloon and, rightly, I got fired." But Frankovich told her not to give up and sent her off to Palm Springs for a low profile vacation while Wyler pursued Natalie Wood for Miranda. When Wood was unable to accept the part due to another film commitment, Wyler rehired Eggar.
Film editor Robert Swink recalled in Herman's biography of Wyler that "Willy made a condition with Frankovich that if there was a coach with her at all times through the picture, he'd use her." Ordinarily, the idea of an actor having a coach on the set was anathema to Wyler. But this time, he would pick the coach - Kathleen Freeman, a character actress - and she would work with Eggar according to his instructions. If not for the coach, Eggar might not have made it through the filming."
Even though Eggar was unhappy with Stamp's cold treatment of her during the filming, she couldn't have known that he was simply following Wyler's instructions and staying in character. Stamp later said, "All the guys had crushes on her, she was so beautiful...I had a crush on her, too, and I was friendly with her. But when we started the movie, Willy said, 'I don't want you to have anything to do with her.' He wanted me to withdraw any friendship. He didn't want her to have anywhere to go or anyone to talk to, except her coach. He didn't want her to be able to come to me in the evening and say, 'God, it's so awful.'"
During the filming of The Collector, Wyler lived up to his infamous reputation for shooting countless takes of a scene and probably the most punishing sequence for Eggar was the love scene between her and Stamp when she had to appear nude before her co-star, the crew and director. The actress recalled, "...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."
Initially Wyler had planned to do The Collector in black and white because the subject matter seemed to dictate that approach but once they saw a color test with Eggar's creamy skin tones and dazzling hair color they decided to shoot in Technicolor but use subdued hues. Another important decision was how to end the movie. If they used the dark, downbeat ending of the novel, it might affect the film's commercial prospects. But, in the end, Wyler decided to stick with the original ending, saying, "If Miranda is trapped in a psycho's basement and the Marines come to the rescue, it would be like any other melodrama. That's not this story."
During the editing stage, Wyler felt that the film's pace seemed too slow due to numerous flashback sequences that involved Miranda's romantic relationship with an older man played by Kenneth More. Eventually Wyler decided to excise this entire subplot from the film and the only shot of More that remains in the final film is a shot of the back of his head as he sits in a booth in a pub opposite Miranda.
When The Collector premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966, William Wyler was nominated for the Golden Palm and Eggar and Stamp won the award for Best Actress and Actor respectively. This boded well for its U.S. release and when it opened here, the film was praised by many major critics. The Variety reporter wrote that "William Wyler undertakes a vastly difficult assignment, and carries it off with rare artistry...As a character study of two persons....the feature is adroitly developed and bears the stamp of class." Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune classified the movie as a "very high-class horror film" and wrote "It is Stamp who raises The Collector to heights of parable, who brings significance to and sustains the suspense. His performance is brilliant in its gauge of the madness of a madman." Even Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice, who had been leading a revisionist attack on the director in recent years, was impressed and called the movie, "the most erotic movie ever to come out past the Production Code." Not everyone was completely bowled over. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, "It's a handsome, though too dignified movie - it doesn't have enough psychological weight to support its rich, classical style. We never really feel our way into the collector's scary obsession." And Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Wyler has turned in a tempting and frequently startling, bewitching film, but he has failed to make it any more than a low-key chiller that melts in a conventional puddle of warm blood towards the end."
Of all the critics who mattered most to Wyler, however, none was more important than the original author himself, John Fowles. Most writers are usually unhappy with film versions of their novels unless they are the screenwriter and have some control over the adaptation but Fowles, who was not involved in the production, said, "I enjoyed it just as much the second time as the first - and was a second time astounded with what you managed to extract from Samantha." Of course, even Fowles had a few reservations about the film version of The Collector, most of which was the music score by Maurice Jarre which he felt was "too loud," "too whimsical," and at one point, he noted, "Surely silence would be better." Wyler actually took his recommendations before the film was released and made several adjustments based on his feedback.
The one person, however, who probably felt the most vindicated and pleased with the final result despite the uncomfortable filming conditions was Samantha Eggar who, besides her Best Actress win at Cannes, also won the Golden Globe Best Actress award for drama, the Best Actress award at the Sant Sordi Awards (Barcelona, Spain) and most importantly, secured an Oscar® nomination for Best Actress; William Wyler and the screenwriters (Stanley Mann & co-producer John Kohn) also received Academy Award nominations.
Producer: Jud Kinberg, John Kohn
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: John Kohn, Stanley Mann (screenplay); John Fowles (novel); Terry Southern (uncredited)
Cinematography: Robert Surtees (studio segments); Robert Krasker (non-studio segments)
Art Direction: John Stoll
Music: Maurice Jarre
Film Editing: David Hawkins, Robert Swink
Cast: Terence Stamp (Freddie Clegg), Samantha Eggar (Miranda Grey), Mona Washbourne (Aunt Annie), Maurice Dallimore (The Neighbor).
by Jeff Stafford
A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director William Wyler by Jan Herman (G.P. Putnam's Sons).