This is a low-budget gem, an exploration of the psychological consequences of grooming. You can probably guess from the outset where it is headed but simmering tension has rarely been handled so stylistically.
With the exception of Patricia Neal, an unexpected Best Actress Oscar-winner for her previous film Hud (1963), there were no stars in the cast. Curd Jurgens was only beginning to play characters for whom a German accent was not essential, Samantha Eggar one movie shy of her breakout picture The Collector (1965), Ian Bannen, essentially a character actor, building on his success in Station Six Sahara (1963).
Blinded after an unexplained psychological trauma, Allison (Patricia Neal) welcomes back, over the objections of husband Eric (Curd Jurgens), her much younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) to the family home. Family friend Paul (Ian Bannen) cares (possibly overmuch) for Allison while hankering after Robin. The screenplay by veteran Julian Zimet (Saigon, 1947, with Alan Ladd) is taut as a drum, every line a threat, suppressed emotion or piece of exposition that could bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.
The blindness is exceptionally well handled, Allison’s need for physical contact with her husband sensual in its expression. Though she can a ride a horse, her vulnerability is implicit; as she is led across a beach you wonder what would happen were she to be abandoned. What she cannot see becomes central to the movie. That Robin – vivacious but damaged – clearly has some hold over Eric is demonstrated in a tete-a-tete between them but as tensions mount such scenes cannot be kept secret. When Eric grabs Robin’s hair and she retaliates by jabbing him with scissors, neither party emits a sound, leaving Allison oblivious to it all.
Robin takes delight in exposing what has lain on the surface for too long. When Paul begins to fall for Robin, the younger woman astutely remarks to her sister: “Am I taking him away from you?” Allison, however, is self-aware, convinced she could see if she wanted to, if she was prepared to lift the psychological barrier that keeps the past safely hidden. “I’m afraid to see,” says Allison, “there’s something I’m scared to look at.”
Given the period when it was made there was a lot that could not said – or shown – and even so the film was censored prior to release, but it is the direction by Alexander Singer (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) that lifts the picture up. An acolyte of Stanley Kubrick, the movie teems with imagination, close-ups and extreme close-ups are balanced by long two-shots, a conversation in a car between Eric and Paul mostly direct to camera a prime example.
Emotion is captured at every turn and Singer avoids the cardinal sin of treating Allison like an invalid or focusing on her reaction to what she cannot possibly see, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses for much of the time. Levity is provided by Mrs Crawford (Beatrix Lehmann), Eric’s sci-fi-reading horoscope-obsessed mother and by a couple of excitable children.
The grooming is in the past but the after-effects are very real. In a film like this it is tempting to consider that certain attitudes are dated, but it is clear from this film that nothing has changed, that men believe they can take what they want regardless of the impact on their victims.