John Fowles’s debut novel, released in 1963, raised more than a few eyebrows and, for this reviewer, William Wyler’s 1965 film is simply one of the very best movie adaptations ever made, to be spoken of in the same breath as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Schindler’s List (1993), with central performances from Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar that are nothing short of mesmerizing.
Freddie Clegg (Stamp) is the very definition of a misfit – a brow-beaten, ridiculed bank clerk who still lives with his Aunt Annie (Mona Washbourne), and who has a passion for his beautiful, extensive collection of butterflies. That is, until he wins a fortune on the football pools, buys a large, isolated country house and decides to indulge another passion – his desire for attractive London arts student Miranda Grey (Eggar). Of course, as he promises Miranda once he has kidnapped her and transferred her to her velvet-lined cellar prison, complete with all the books, dresses and other comforts a girl could possibly desire, he will have every respect for her privacy. You see, Freddie is not motivated as other men might be – he wants Miranda to get to know him better, to fall in love with him but, unfortunately, he isn’t prepared to take no for an answer:
Freddie: You know what I want…it’s what I’ve always wanted. You could fall in love with me if you tried. I’ve done everything I could to make it easy. You just won’t try!
Miranda, like her namesake in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is being kept and obsessed over by her very own Caliban…and the chances of a happy ending are slim.
Like all the great ‘two-handers’, such as Sleuth (1972), The Collector manages to use an enclosed theatrical setting, namely the cellar, dining room and ocassionally the garden of the house, to achieve a claustrophobic sense of dread and unease. Stamp’s impassive, courteous manner conceals his inner rage against a society that he simply does not understand; to him, all of Miranda’s friends are ‘la-de-da’, and it is for this reason that he wants to capture a ‘live specimen’, to try and understand what he is missing out on. But of course, he can’t, as a discussion on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and a Picasso painting reveals.
It is the sheer banality of Freddie that conceals his terrifying implacability – and Stamp’s performance rates as one of cinema’s most complex, almost sympathetic portrayals of evil.
For that is what he is and, as Miranda’s futile efforts to free herself from her nightmare range from defiance to compliance to sympathy to seduction to violence, she is tragically forced to accept her lot.
Because real horror is what happens when people treat others as objects, and The Collector is a bone-chilling example.