Reviews

The Collector (1965)

Kirsten Markson

The claustrophobic dramatization of the troubling encounter between a quiet sociopath and the woman he has confined in his ornate basement.


The Collector

Director: William Wyler
Cast: Terence Stamp, Samantha Eggar
MPAA rating: unrated
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 1965
US DVD Release Date: 2002-10-08

The Collector is the claustrophobic dramatization of the troubling encounter between a quiet sociopath and the woman he has confined in his ornate basement. Set in the 1960s, the film follows the slow unfolding of Miranda Gray's (Samantha Eggar) month of imprisonment in the country house of Frederick Clegg (Terence Stamp). The Collector is a subtle thriller that relies on the psychological tension between captor and captive, and the class differences between them, to build into a taut and uncomfortably realistic exploration of the changing social fabric of England in the Swinging '60s.

Ferdinand is a repressed, silently seething, working class, former bank clerk who has won a fortune in a football pool. His hobby is collecting butterflies, and the film opens with a scene of another ecstatic capture and Stamp's aloof expression as Ferdinand watches the creature flap in his killing jar. On this tour out into the field, he spots a beautiful Tudor country home that he decides to buy after becoming fascinated with the spacious cellar. Ferdinand then hatches a plan to make a more audacious capture and kidnaps Miranda, a London art student who he has been stalking for years, to add to his collection of beautiful things.

The metaphors here are obvious: Miranda is Ferdinand's newest "specimen", but one with a wit and intelligence that continually disarm and upset him, constantly shifting the balance of power between the two. Miranda also has the benefit of an elite education, beauty and a privileged upbringing, all of which Ferdinand takes as something of a personal insult. He is frustrated at his inability to understand the things she holds dear, such as Catcher in the Rye and the works of Picasso, and he is offended by her sexual liberation. The film suggests that Miranda's intellectualism and blasé attitude towards sex are connected to her class status and symbolic of the hordes of young people that flocked the capital from the suburbs to find liberation during the days of Swinging London.

Miranda is also symbolic of a new generation of upwardly mobile young people enjoying the economic boom, flourishing art and cultural changes of the period. She has won a scholarship to a prestigious art school and has moved from Reading, where both she and Ferdinand grew up. It is revealed midway through the film that Ferdinand has quietly watched her life develop from their shared days in Reading. But while her world has expanded, his has contracted and he is limited by his own provincial and prudish attitudes. Even though he has attained wealth, Ferdinand still lacks the carefree joie de vivre that the film suggests is Miranda's entitlement due to her class status.

The drama between Miranda and Ferdinand thus plays out as a parable of the cultural clash and generation gap rising between the growing middle class and the working class in England of the 1960s. This immediacy (the film was released in 1965), and the fact that the film is based on the best selling book of the same name by John Fowles, made The Collector a major success in its time. The DVD release may expose a new generation of viewers to this slightly quaint, sometimes tedious thriller, but the potency of the cultural symbolism is probably lost. A love of Picasso, for instance, is no longer a signal of a wildly avant-garde taste in a time when his prints can be bought en masse at Ikea.

The love of collecting is one issue that the film questions that is still relevant. Ferdinand's strength, developed through his butterfly collecting, is the ability to patiently lie in wait and to blend into his surroundings due to his simple ordinariness. He takes great pleasure in capturing and then skillfully arranging his butterfly corpses in macabre spiraling patterns. In order to complete his species series, he breeds his own specimens specifically to kill them once they reach maturity. Ferdinand treats Miranda's capture exactly as he would the capture of one of his butterflies. He sees her as a specimen and works to set a suitable trap after preparing a perfect setting in which display her. While he does not understand Miranda's bohemian lifestyle, he uses his new wealth to artfully mimic her "habitat" by outfitting the basement room with art books, paints and clothes in the right colors.

The film suggests that there is something deeply pathological in this need to amass objects. Ferdinand seems to be motivated to collect simply because it gives him power to dominate, and kill, something he finds beautiful. He views his kidnapping of Miranda as a simple, logical extension of his love of collecting and his newly bourgeois status, stating wryly, "there'd be a lot more of this kind of thing if people had the time and the money." In the 1960s, during a period of rising incomes and a mass of new consumer goods easily accessible to a wider selection of the public, this questioning of the materialism behind building collections would have resonated as a timely issue.

The recent release of The Collector on DVD is therefore a slightly ironic choice, since building DVD collections is one of the newest popular expressions of the desire to accumulate. The DVD is bare bones, offering the original trailer and little else. The inclusion of trailers for Panic Room and Enough are a bizarre inclusion, but amusing choices since both feature the triumph of strong women in the face of criminal madmen in contrast to Ferdinand's physical if not emotional mastery over Miranda in The Collector.

It seems unlikely that the public has been clamoring for a DVD of The Collector. A more likely reason is that Columbia Pictures is busy trying to quickly churn out DVD versions of their back catalogue, hoping to capitalize on the public's craze to amass DVD discs to play in their home theaters. It is unclear, however, who the imagined audience might be for this dated thriller: perhaps someone trying to complete a set of the collected works of Terence Stamp? However the decisions were made, The Collector remains an interesting period piece on the particular class tensions that continue to inform public life in England and a satisfyingly understated horror film.

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