A Rage To Live (1965) ***

There was one in every town: a woman, rich (Sanctuary, 1961) or poor (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) or in between (Butterfield 8, 1960), with a predilection for sex. There were several men in every town, queuing up to take advantage. The woman was inevitably a shameful creature, the men the envy of their peers. You don’t have to look further than Frank Sinatra’s tom-catting in Come Blow Your Horn (1963) or Omar Sharif as the romantic star of the decade with two women in tow in Doctor Zhivago (1965) for an idea of the double standards in play. Welcome to hypocritical Hollywood.

Grace (Suzanne Pleshette), father dead and stuck with a domineering mother, finds escape and fulfilment in sex, and just to give hypocrisy a final tug discovers that while boyfriends are keen to help her explore such physical needs, they take the hump when they discover they might not be the first – or the only. Parents, naturally, are appalled, and discovery of Grace’s antics – and she’s not particularly particular, a passing waiter will do – leads her mother to collapse.

Having confessed to potential husband Sidney (Bradford Dillman) that he will not be marrying a virgin and almost bursting with gratitude that he is willing to overlook her behavior, Grace becomes a farmer’s wife and then a happy mother, until construction owner Roger (Ben Gazzara) comes on strong. She might well have been able to have her cake and eat it but Roger, having fallen in love,  reacts badly to being dumped and it’s only a matter of time before her world implodes.

Made a couple of years later, when the independent woman was being exalted, this would have been a different kettle of fish. Here, the boot on the other foot, the woman who picks and chooses her lovers seemed a step too far for that generation.

Before the big trouble begins, the movie does explore, though somewhat discreetly, the almost taboo notion that a woman might just enjoy sex for the sake of it. Sure, Grace likes being wanted and likes being held, but if she was around today, nobody would bat an eyelid if she just came out and expressed her preference.

Less discreetly, the subject of consensual sex comes up, but not as a question of debate, more as a matter of fact, that when Grace says no she actually means yes. There’s a very uncomfortable moment at the beginning when in a Straw Dogs-scene, though nothing like as violent, Grace appears to welcome a rape. Whether this is as bad as it sounds, or is just Hollywood hiding the blush that a woman would not seek out sex but could only discover its pleasures when forced upon her, is hard to say.

Nor is Grace a walking sex machine. She knows enough about men that she only has to put out feelers and any susceptible male will take the bait. And given the restrained times, she’s got no female pal with whom she can discuss her unseemly desires.

Of course, if this was a man, nobody would be batting an eyelid. Sure, once caught, he’d come up with all sorts of excuses, denials, begging for forgiveness, but an audience would give him a free pass. It’s only because this is a woman that it causes ructions. The movie just about gets close to what does make Grace happy and why she needs the thrill of extra marital sex but by that point the melodrama has taken over and there’s little time left for discussion, what with Roger intent on revenge and another lovelorn wife, mistakenly imagining her husband has fallen victim to Grace’s charms, also on the warpath.

Small town constraints play their part, too. Washing your dirty linen in public the worst of all offences. Author John O’Hara, on whose bestseller this is based – and whose other works Butterfield 8, Ten North Frederick (1958) and From the Terrace (1960) explored similar worlds  – knows only too well that while wealth brings freedom and privilege it comes with chains attached.

And there’s some interesting role reversal, an illicit lover falling in love with a married person normally a starting point for a movie to explore happiness and its opposite rather than being the one act Grace will not tolerate in a lover, she wants strings-free sex, not anything with encumbrance. While Grace would like to act like a man, and has the wealth to shield herself from the worst of the fall-out, as a mother she is extremely vulnerable, and in this particular era could risk losing her child if seen as maternally unfit.

While lacking the sexual combustibility of Elizabeth Taylor or Lana Turner or other Hollywood heartbreakers, Suzanne Pleshette (Nevada Smith, 1966) gives a decent enough performance especially when it comes to her straightforward attitude to sex, aware she might be causing upheaval, but finding it impossible to ignore desire, or imagine a life in which that does not play an impulsive part.

Bradford Dillman (Sanctuary) has less room for character maneuver and is mostly called upon to suck it up. He comes into his own in the movie’s latter stages when bewilderment at betrayal and public humiliation clashes with continued love for his wife. Ben Gazzara (The Bridge at Remagen, 1969), trademark leer and smug face kept in check, has a showier role especially when the violent aspects of his character explode.

Director Walter Grauman, while better known for war picture 633 Squadron (1963), had just come off another picture dealing with female trauma (Lady in a Cage, 1964) and does quite a decent job here, the camera intensely focusing on the leading actress and then as the tragic outcome unfolds drawing away from her. There’s one great piece of composition. He had used tree branches and the countryside to frame Grace and Sidney at the height of their love. And he does the same again when Grace is abandoned.

Asks some difficult questions without quite getting to grip with the real subject of female sexuality. There was a sense that Hollywood was just on the cusp of accepting the independence of women, but didn’t want to go the whole hog just yet, because, apart from anything else, where would it leave the guys?

Stark Fear (1962) ***

Unless you were unfortunate enough to get mixed up in an international conspiracy, or your wealth induced a husband into planning your murder – or a la Gaslight your insanity –  or you had taken a shower in strange motel, a wife in American movies was unlikely to live in fear of a sadistic spouse. Wife-beating (a.k.a. wife-battering) had never been high on the Hollywood agenda as an appropriate subject matter so this picture not only stands out for the period but also strikes a contemporary spark. While many marital dramas of the 1960s have quickly become outdated, this has not.

Opening with an audacious cut from a woman’s eyes seen in a car’s rear-view mirror to her face in a photograph being pelted with alcohol, Ellen (Beverly Garland) has committed the grievous sin not just of going out to work but of taking up the post of secretary to oil executive Cliff Kane (Kenneth Tobey), a previous rival of husband Gerry (Skip Homeier). But Gerry’s income had unexpectedly tumbled and the couple, married just three years, need her money. He pours a drink over the terrified woman’s head, demands a divorce and promptly disappears.

Her search for him takes her to Quehada, pop. 976, a rundown town she had never heard of and whose existence her husband made no mention despite the fact it was where he grew up. Her husband’s sleazy friend Harvey takes her to the grave of Gerry’s mother (also called Ellen) where he rapes and beats her while, unbeknownst to her, her husband watches.   

Back at the office, she begins to fall for Cliff, but Gerry, even though he no longer wants her, sets out to destroy the budding romance.

Following the classic pattern of course Ellen blames herself for making Gerry unhappy and for getting raped. Her guilt fuels her husband’s sadistic streak. She is unsure whether the threat of divorce is just the most cruel taunt her husband can imagine or is for real, which would be just as bad, given her low-self-esteem. Once she realizes Gerry had an unhappy childhood and is mother-fixated, it makes it even harder for her to abandon him, regardless of the mental and physical torment he inflicts and despite the entreaties of social worker friend Ruth (Hannah Stone). Ruth, too, however, represents an alternative equally fearful future, the now-single woman who regrets separating too quickly from her husband and has no man  in her life or none who come up to scratch.

This is not a picture where men come out well. Gerry is a fiend in a suit. On Ellen’s way to Quehada she is groped by other men who clearly feel it is their right. Harvey has a history of just taking what he wants. Even the relatively gentle Cliff appears to have an underlying reason for taking an interest in her.

In a world and a time where marriage meant not just financial security, but a safe haven from all the other men who would like as not press themselves upon the opposite sex at any opportunity, and not necessarily with any delicacy, director Ned Hockman presents life as a succession of traps for women. And we know now that not much has changed, and that for many women fear is a constant.

Hockman directs with some singularity. He uses black-and-white not quite in the film noir manner of shadows and shafts of light, but sets the subject of any night scene in a pool of light with darkness all around, which makes for some striking images. A couple of unusual backdrops including Commanche tribal dancing and a chase in a jukebox museum help place this a couple of notches above the usual B-picture..

Beverly Garland was a 1950s B-picture sci-fi and horror scream queen in movies such as  It Conquered the World (1956), Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) and Not of This Earth (1957) so fear was something of a default. Here, she adds something else, desolation at the position she finds herself in, confusion that her marriage is in tatters, hunting for a solution that never emerges, and unable to summon up the anger that might free herself. Hannah Stone has an intriguing role, encouraging her friend to leave her husband, knowing that being single again is not all it is cracked up to be. Unusually for a minor character in this kind of picture, primarily there to shore up the star, she enjoys a spot of lifestyle reversal. Skip Homeier (Commanche Station, 1960) and Kenneth Tobey (X-15, 1961) are outshone by the women. Unusually, and surprisingly, this was the one shot at a movie career afforded both Stone and director Hockman.

This may have been intended as a quick B-picture rip-off to cash in on the expected success of Cape Fear (1962) which appeared eight months prior but it turned out to be a more superior effort than anyone could imagine. And since Cape Fear was far from as successful as most people believe, it possibly had to make its way on its own merits in several markets.

Catch this on Amazon Prime.

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