William Wyler’s paean to Incels strike such a contemporary note it’s hard to believe it was made over 60 years ago. An insightful study of male entitlement, female submission and novice serial killer that showcased two emerging British stars, this is as much about the psychological make-up of the victim as the captor.
Following a lottery win (see Note), lonely bank clerk Freddie (Terence Stamp) kidnaps the woman of his dreams, flame-haired art student Miranda (Samantha Eggar) in the hope that once she gets to know him she will fall in love. He has found a large cellar beside the secluded mansion he bought with his winnings. But this is no dank dungeon with a prisoner chained to the walls, but a comfortable abode with lighting, heating, clothing, food, and art materials. However, it is locked.
In turn angry, puzzled and submissive, Miranda tries to work out what she needs to do to achieve her liberty without realising that no matter what she does she will never fulfil his dreams. Despite his shyness, it wouldn’t be hard in other circumstances to fall for a guy as good-looking as this, if only for an affair. She is sexually experienced, but has just been rejected by an older man (Kenneth More), and love on the rebound is hardly uncommon.
Unfortunately, Freddie lives such a soulless, empty, existence, no interests beyond an obsession with butterflies, of which he has amassed a collection large enough to supply a complete museum, that the chances of finding common ground are remote and the circumstances of their meeting pretty much douse the potential for any spark.
At first, once she has expended her anger at her incarceration, she is grateful not to be murdered or raped – even pleads that if he is going to take her by force sexually not to drug her – and soon her mind turns to ways of escape, especially once he invites her into the big house, allows her to bathe, cooks her a meal and shows the world she could enjoy as his willing partner.
With every step, Freddie dares to dream more, that his insane idea will come to fruition, that a beautiful princess will love the lowly commoner. And as much as this focuses on male domination, it is also an examination of female independence, Miranda being in the foreground of that generation to espouse personal freedom, not viewing marriage as an ultimate destination, but seeking a fulfilling career with love almost a perk on the side.
Even without going to extent of kidnapping a woman, males of the period still expected a female to cater to their every whim, wife-beating hardly considered a crime, and, ironically, it would be a rare woman who would not enjoy the worship a more ordinary Freddie planned to bestow on his beloved.
It being set in the England of a particular period, Freddie blames the gulf between them on “class,” that where or to whom you are born creating an unattainable barrier between young men and young women, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. But, of course, to the thwarted, there is always someone to blame.
You will be very familiar with the cinematic tale of the imprisoned female attempting to escape by wiles and ingenuity, but even so, this will take you by surprise, in part because the idea of being forcibly detained was a rare event back then, so Miranda does not spend her time trying to chisel through loose cement using a stolen fork or other ideas along the same lines. That she has even managed to negotiate the length of her prison term makes her initial custody tolerable, especially as, in terms of material things, she wants for nothing.
Unfortunately, although Freddie is immune to normal feelings, he is alert to the slightest nuance, and would feel it an insult to his intelligence should she just play along and pretend to fall in love with as a means of engineering her escape. That the audience is probably more aware of this than Miranda makes the tension virtually unbearable.
This is a duel of the highest caliber between captor and detainee. At several moments it looks as if the tide will turn. A terrific scene with overflowing bath water fails to make a nosy neighbor suspicious. She even at one point manages to whack her assailant over the head with a shovel and attempt a genuine escape. You are left to wonder if making a sexual sacrifice, even taking the initiative with a virgin, will make the necessary difference. But one look into those implacable eyes would have told you exactly where you stood without having to wait until you were dragged by the hair across the lawn in a rainstorm.
Audiences more familiar with the director through late-career roadshows like Ben-Hur (1959) and Funny Girl (1967) or the earlier rom-com Roman Holiday (1953) would be forgiven for forgetting how adept Wyler was at racking up the tension from his early thrillers or dealing with unattainable love (Wuthering Heights, 1939) or entitlement (Jezebel, 1938). He evokes such a claustrophobic atmosphere, ingrained with pure Englishness, and plays with ironies of character beauty – Freddie’s eyes and cheekbones, that should have attracted women by the score, instead lending him devilish menace while Miranda’s sensational looks that would have most men begging for just a minute of her company prove insufficient to enslave this particular creature.
That there is genuine sexual tension, not just whether he will end up raping her, but whether she might see his more attractive version of himself and come to give him what he wants without being repulsed, brings a surprising sexual tension. You wouldn’t say there was chemistry between the characters in the normal sense, but the situation is electrifying.
This was a career high for Terence Stamp (Term of Trial, 1962), minus many of the acting foibles and vocal tics that peppered his later work, and the same went for Samantha Eggar (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966). But the performances are of such a high quality, especially when you think she has breached his defences sufficiently, that at times it is an unbearable watch. John Kohn (Caprice, 1967) and Stanley Mann (The Naked Runner, 1967) based their screenplay on the bestselling – and highly praised – novel by John Fowles, author of later cult work The Magus.
This would have stood the test of time anyway as a pure thriller but since it digs into what has now become a counter-culture it carries even greater significance today.
NOTE: He didn’t win the lottery. That didn’t exist then. Instead he won on the “Football Pools,” but that concept – it began in 1923 – is so hard to explain to non-British people that I took the easy way out. However, the “pools” was a gambling phenomenon of the times, the entry fee so low, at its peak played by 14 million people in the UK every week in the hope of winning a jackpot akin to lottery cash. In essence, you had to guess out of all the soccer games being played on a Saturday (all games in those days kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday) how many would end in draws.