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The Mark

The Mark(1961)

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teaser The Mark (1961)

Guy Green had never met Stuart Whitman when he recruited the young actor to star in The Mark, his 1961 drama about a man just out of prison after serving a sentence for child molestation. Richard Burton was supposed to play the part, but a last-minute switch necessitated a quick replacement, and Green cast Whitman on the basis of a photo he'd seen. Whitman hesitated to sign on, concerned that a discomfiting role in a potentially controversial movie could damage his career. As things turned out, he scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. His performance and the movie still hold up well, although its treatment of the sensitive theme seems pretty tame by today's standards.

When we first meet Whitman's character, Jim Fuller, he's interviewing for a job that his psychiatrist, Dr. Edmund McNally, helped arrange for him. It's a good position, and the head of the business, Andrew Clive, is the only person there who knows what landed him behind bars. Clive's secretary, Ruth Leighton, knows that Jim served time but doesn't know what crime he was convicted of, and to all the others - including Roy Milne, a fellow employee nervous about competition - he's just a new worker hoping to succeed.

Jim settles smoothly into the office routine and finds a nice place to live, renting a room from an old couple nearby. He also makes regular visits to McNally, and we learn about his past through their conversations. We also see flashbacks to prior events, including the narrowly averted catastrophe that brought about his prison term. After failing in a love affair, strangely convinced that the woman's ordinary sexual desires made her a "nymphomaniac," he developed a crush on a little girl, abducting her in his car and driving to the countryside before growing sick with guilt and returning her to the city before anything worse happened. The girl's family and neighbors were in a panic over her disappearance, and Jim was immediately arrested.

Group therapy in the prison and sessions with McNally have now enabled Jim to control his impulses and develop normal relationships. Making a fresh start under a new name - he was Jim Fontaine in his previous life - he thrives in his job and gets romantically involved with Ruth, the secretary. He also becomes acquainted with a reporter named Austin, who recognizes him from when he was sent to jail. Austin seems sympathetic, but he has a hidden agenda. This sparks the story's climax when Jim takes Ruth's young daughter on an innocent excursion to a carnival, leading to awful complications.

Green decided to direct The Mark on the strength of the screenplay, adapted by Sidney Buchman and Stanley Mann from Charles Israel's novel, which Green never got around to reading. He felt the structure of the script was ideally suited to bringing out tension, suspense, and human drama, and he's right that the story follows a crisply ordered schedule. The first hint as to the nature of Jim's illness, when he becomes fixated on watching a girl in a playground, comes about a quarter of the way into the film; his wild ride with the abducted girl happens at the halfway mark; and the fateful carnival excursion takes place around three quarters of the way through. Green thought it was important to hold back the details of Jim's crime until the audience has time to develop sympathy for him as a character, and the strategy works just as he intended.

Commenting on The Mark years later, Green admitted that he shot it in CinemaScope only because it was a Twentieth Century Fox production and the studio loved exploiting its proprietary process. But his enthusiasm grew when he realized how the wide-screen format could enliven the many talk-heavy scenes by allowing multiple actors to share the frame, thus avoiding the need for constant cuts from one character to another. It also let him reserve close-ups for climactic moments when their impact can really hit home. Green also made canny use of McNally's coffee addiction to lend movement to the long dialogue scenes in the psychiatrist's office - every time things threaten to bog down, up pops Steiger to make, pour, or stir another couple of cups.

The performances in The Mark are excellent, especially considering that all three stars were last-minute substitutions in the cast. In addition to Whitman replacing Burton, the Austrian-born actress Maria Schell replaced British star Jean Simmons as Ruth, and Rod Steiger stepped in for Trevor Howard, who would probably have made McNally a proper and starchy physician instead of the spirited, good-humored counselor played by Steiger in the film's most invigorating scenes. Two actors from the Shakespearian stage, Donald Wolfit and Paul Rogers, play Clive and Milne, respectively, and Donald Houston is just smarmy enough as Austin the sneaky reporter. Maurice Denham and Brenda de Banzie (yet another last-minute addition) are exactly right as Jim's landlords.

It's a pleasure to find such first-rate acting in a movie by someone who started out not as a director but as a cinematographer. Green photographed his first picture in 1943 and soon embarked on a four-film collaboration with David Lean that included two classic Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). He made the transition to director slowly, but by the middle 1950s he was turning out modestly budgeted crime dramas on a steady basis. He entered political waters in 1960 with The Angry Silence, a labor-union drama, and followed up with The Mark a year later. In one of his best-known achievements, he guided star Shelley Winters, first-time actress Elizabeth Hartman, and cinematographer Robert Burks to Oscars® for A Patch of Blue, a 1965 drama about the friendship of a young blind woman and an African-American man, which he both wrote and directed.

As cinematographer for some Walt Disney epics in the early 1950s, Green acquired a distaste for storyboards, feeling that rigid preplanning can stifle a director's creativity. Instead he covered his scripts with quick notes and sketches that could then be changed and adapted as ideas arose on the set. He also disliked too much rehearsal, which could take the spontaneity out of a scene; his method was to rehearse a sequence carefully just before the camera rolled, and he rarely needed more than three or four takes to get a shot the way he wanted it. The average for The Mark was about three takes per scene, except for the carnival episode, where Green shot a lot of footage and then worked closely with film editor Peter Taylor to assemble a lively, dynamic montage.

The Mark was made at a time when child-molestation cases were making headlines in England, and the film was criticized by some reviewers for being too bold - one accused it of taking a child abuser's side - and by others for not being bold enough, since Jim abducts but does not abuse a little girl, ultimately returning her to her family. Reviews aside, the picture did only moderate business at the box office in 1961, but its warmth, sincerity, and humanism make a strong impression to this day.

Director: Guy Green
Producer: Raymond Stross
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman and Stanley Mann; based on Charles Israel's novel
Cinematographer: Dudley Lovell
Film Editing: Peter Taylor
Production Designer: Ray Simm
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
With: Maria Schell (Ruth Leighton), Stuart Whitman (Jim Fuller), Rod Steiger (Doctor McNally), Brenda de Banzie (Gertrude Cartwright), Donald Houston (Austin), Paul Rogers (Roy Milne), Donald Wolfit (Andrew Clive), Maurice Denham (Arnold Cartwright), Eddie Byrne (Acker), Amanda Black (Janie), Bandana Das Gupta (Inez), Harry Baird (Cole), Anna Monaghan (Mrs. Fontaine), Bill Foley (Mr. Fontaine), Marie Devereux (Ellen) Josephine Frayne (Patricia)

by David Sterritt

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