Thursday, May 26, 2016

THE FOX 1967

 
This essay is part of the Animals in Film Blogathon hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
Visit the site for more posts from participating blogs!

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay not a review, therefore many crucial plot points are revealed for the purpose of discussion and analysis. 

Films that attempt to dramatize (and in so doing, comment upon) distasteful aspects of the human condition, set a difficult course for themselves. Storyteller directors—desperate not to give the appearance of endorsing that which they seek to condemn, devoted to making the complex unequivocal, and nervous about offending anyone— become, in their oversimplification and moralizing, less filmmakers than politicians, proselytizers, and propagandists. Though well-intentioned and right-headed, these films are the sort that reward viewers for never having their preconceptions challenged and seem to exist solely to reassure audiences of the “rightness” of good, the triumph of order, and confirm life's eventual parity.
By way of contrast, artful directors—those more interested in examining than explaining, committed to emotional honesty rather than easy answers, and respectful of an audience’s intelligence— in refusing to spell everything out, willingly take the risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Even reviled. 
Ellen: "No, I tried. I tried, and I couldn't shoot."
Paul: "Then you didn't want its life."
Ellen: "Yes...yes, I did!"

I can’t vouch for movie audiences around the world, but we Americans have earned the reputation for liking films which tell us how we should think and feel about a topic. Otherwise we seem to get easily confused. Take, for example, when Bryan Forbes’ feminist horror film The Stepford Wives (1975) was thought by many to be sexist chiefly because the women don’t “win” in the end, and the chauvinistic behavior of the men was depicted in a blackly comic, satiric manner. Similarly, Samuel Fuller’s powerful anti-racism film, White Dog (1982) was practically yanked from theaters because many mistook this dramatic parable about hatred being taught (it’s about a dog trained by white supremacists to attack black people), for actually being racist itself.

The depiction of objectionable behavior (especially in the absence of punishment or retribution) is not necessarily an endorsement of it. Often, as in the case of the predatory male character in The Fox, a man whose motives and actions can be read as despicable, it is a means of provocation. A sly method of exposing us to the unpleasant things within ourselves we fail to recognize because it doesn't flatter our self-image.

I’m no fan of morally dubious movies that glorify selfish instincts or try to normalize evil (we have reality TV and our current Presidential election to do that); but I do admire films that aren’t afraid of ambiguity, are open to interpretation, and resist the impulse to explain the complex.
Sandy Dennis as Jill Banford
Anne Heywood as Ellen Marsh
Keir Dullea as Paul Renfield
As relationships go, few are more emotionally and psychologically complicated as the triangular one at the center of The Fox, director Mark Rydell’s (The Rose, On Golden Pond) 1967 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s 1922 novella.

Jill and Ellen are two college friends living a life of isolated independence on a remote farm in Canada (Lawrence’s story took place in WW I England, the film updates to ‘60s Ontario). Jill (Dennis) is the domestic type, forever fretting over her stove and household accounts (“You and your mixing bowl and your muffin tray have conquered the elements”), while Ellen (Heywood) stomps about in work boots handing the entirety of the farm’s manual labor. 
One blonde, one dark, this kind of easy, heavy-handed symbolism is something of a motif in The Fox, one I don't particularly mind since the cues are taken from Lawrence’s heavily-Freudian short novel. Both are younger than portrayed in the novel, and the film presents the pair’s adoption of traditionally feminine/masculine roles as arising as much out of practicality as personality: Jill’s verbose excitability, physical weakness, and pragmatic temperament contrasting with Jill’s athleticism, protectiveness, and taciturn malleability (her standard response to any questions is “It makes no difference to me”). 
But if Jill’s obvious contentment with their domestic arrangement suggests the fulfillment of a desire to cloister herself away from the male (even the animals are mostly female: Edwina the hen, Eurydice the cow- and in a monologue I don’t believe is in the book, she recounts a college date-rape incident); Ellen’s distracted restlessness hints at something suppressed rising to the surface. Her waking hours are dazed by a kind of sensual reawakening, while in her dreams she is simultaneously haunted and hypnotized by the fox that has been raiding their henhouse.

In spite of their sharing a bed (never even touching or kissing goodnight until a distraught conciliation scene near the end) and evince the relaxed affection of a long-married couple, like the book, the film leaves ambiguous the degree of Jill and Ellen’s intimacy (although the notion of a platonic “Boston Marriage” was easier to accept in 1920 England than in the sexually liberated ‘60s). 
This ambiguity, as maddening as one might find it or as much of a cop-out as it may appear, genuinely serves to make what might otherwise be just another romantic triangle more provocative, in addition to intensifying the film's dramatic conflict considerably. Especially once the women’s peace is invaded by the fox-like Paul (Dullea), the merchant seaman grandson of the farm’s deceased former owner. 
The initial effect of the screenplay’s refusal to define the particulars of Jill & Ellen’s relationship (or the women’s sexuality) is that the audience is placed in the unwanted but self-reflexive position of identifying with the townspeople and Paul. We're forced to ask ourselves, is our desire to KNOW what these women are to one another just part of a need to define them, explain them, and assign roles to their behavior…indeed, to subject the characters to the confining, socially-imposed definitions they seek independence from?  
Secondarily, once Paul makes the shift from welcome guest to predatory intruder, the motives for his actions become less obvious when we don’t really know exactly what it is he has imposed himself into the middle of. Depending on the scene, Paul comes across convincingly as either harmless or sinister.

The Fox, a three-character drama, set, pointedly, in the chilly dead of winter, is something of a war movie. It’s vast battlefield encompassing everything from sexuality, gender roles, masculinity, femininity, love, violence, passion, and independence. The weapons of choice: nature (human and animal), instinct (masculine and feminine), self-preservation, domination, possession.
The catalyst for it all, the fox (the male); an animal functioning out of a natural, violent instinct to dominate, or an animal of cunning?
Ellen: “You know, you do resemble him (the fox), Mr. Renfield. It’s remarkable."

The Fox is one of the few “adult” films from my childhood I was unsuccessful in persuading my mom I was mature enough (at 10-years-old) to see. Though crushed at the time, in retrospect I’m glad she didn’t relent, for not only wouldn’t I have understood it, but I would have been sorely disappointed that the intelligent, psychologically complex film wasn’t the risqué lesbian romp its ad campaign (and I pre-teen imagination) led me to expect.

When I ultimately got around to seeing The Fox in 1979 or so, I remember enjoying it, but somehow feeling afterward that I’d been the victim of a bait-and-switch. Over the years the film had developed a reputation as a LGBT favorite, but when it was all over—with Jill dead by murder/accident, and Ellen whisked away by the domineering Paul—I knew what I’d just watched wasn’t a film depicting lesbianism so much as another Hollywood movie using the sensationalistic lure of homosexuality to merely: (quoting Karen Hollinger’s book Feminist Film Studies) “validate the superiority and desirability of heterosexuality.” A feeling I also got from a similar triangular tug-of-war in the 1984 film adaptation of Henry James’ The Bostonians.
It’s an opinion I still hold about The Fox, but having read the book and lived a good deal more of life since then, it’s now just one of many opinions and impressions I’m left with regarding this fascinating and compelling movie.
Female & Male: Natural Enemies?


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I began this essay citing how difficult it is for films to dramatize distasteful behavior without audiences (me, in this instance) resorting to the knee-jerk response of disapproving of a film because they disapprove of the behavior depicted.

That’s precisely what happened the first time I saw The Fox. The character of Paul (his being a fox and all) is supposed to be a disruptive force in the relationship of Jill and Ellen. Instinctively, without malice and without even knowing why, his male sense of superiority compels him to seek dominance over these women; in particular, a need to possess the life of Ellen, the woman most threateningly “masculine” and self-possessed.
His marriage proposal (the least romantic on record, and underscored with ominous music) is more an act of hypnosis and submission than a declaration of love. 
Paul, locking his prey in his gaze
Because I so strongly resented the negative subtext (the “weak” women being easily overpowered, the sexual pliancy of Ellen, the nagging femininity of Jill) and was preoccupied with my expectation of the film offering a conclusive, pro-individualism message; it went entirely over my head how Paul’s assumptive, force-of-will-dominance in the narrative (and seeming victory in the end) is depicted as an ultimately negative destructive force that tragically results in none of the characters getting what they want.

The Fox turned out to be exactly the anti-machismo declaration I wanted it to be - an intelligent look of the predatory nature of man in the face of the vulnerable; but because it took the subtle, roundabout route, it took me several years and many viewings to catch it.

Of course, this is just my personal take on a film among whose many virtues lies its ability to be appreciated, interpreted...and even reviled...in many different ways.
Ellen "What is there here for me, Jill?"
Jill: "Yourself. Something I could never take from you."
"And when he holds me, I feel I'm seeping into his flesh...and there's no more me."

PERFORMANCES
No matter how one ultimately feels about The Fox as a film, it’s hard not to credit its three stars with giving vividly realized performances.  Anne Heywood - whose honest-to-god real name of Violet Pretty(!) makes me want to hug her - is sensational. I've never seen a single one of her other films, but I think I'd have a hard time seeing her as anyone but Ellen Marsh. Playing the most complex, yet least communicative character, Heywood somehow manages to make us feel Ellen’s strength as well as her doubtfulness. In the marvelous scene in which she reveals to Jill that she has always felt responsible for taking care of her, Heywood says it with such tender weariness it just breaks your heart.

The beautiful Keir Dullea (I'll do it for you now, so you won't have to: "Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow" - Noel Coward) is well-cast as the living embodiment of the fox. Facially, he's not the most expressive actor, but he's been blessed with the most astounding eyes, and it's they that do all the emotional heavy-lifting. 
Shot in a manner to best emphasize his vulpine features,
Dullea gives an appropriately sly performance

Coming as a surprise to no one, Sandy Dennis (long-rumored to be lesbian in real life, I certainly hope she was) is my favorite in the film. She's the warmth the film needs in the early scenes, but when she turns chilly, she's really excellent...the excitable Jill reveals an unexpected sturdiness. Dennis' Jill Banford is one of her least-mannered performances, but given her high annoyance ratio among film lovers, one can't help but feel she serves a purpose in The Fox not dissimilar to what Stanley Kubrick said the casting of Shelley Duvall served in The Shining: "Well, you gotta have somebody in that part that maybe the audience would also like to kill a little bit."

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Lalo Schifrin’s beautiful Oscar and Grammy-nominated musical score.

William Fraker’s (Rosemary’s Baby, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) breathtaking cinematography.
Paul wields his phallic ax
If it is Paul's wish to have Ellen lose herself within him, then it's imperative that he
remove the one person who reminds Ellen she has a self worth preserving 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
For movies to work for me, they don't have to always be about the truth, I can find something to respond to if (as is the case of The Fox) they are just about a truth.
The Fox is not the triumphant feminist/LGBT love story I thought it would be. But what it is I've seen played out countless times in my life.

You see it in the "mansplaining" phenomenon (which is nothing new). You see it in the way men like Trump can only relate to women by trying to exert power over them; either through sexual objectification or, when feeling threatened, trying to belittle or destroy them in some way.
I see it in gyms I've worked in, where men feel the need to exert a subtle superiority over women by being "helpful" and offering unsolicited workout tips.

You see it in the paradox of male fantasy fetishizing of girl-on-girl sex existing side by side with a real-world hatred and fear of lesbians and bisexuals.
The Fox explores how merely the idea of women existing without need for a man
can ignite a primal fear in the male
I've personally listened as scores of bright, accomplished, self-reliant women tell me they're looking for a man who'll boss them around or take control.  I've been around when women with loyal cores of loving girlfriends dropped them all like hot potatoes when a fascinating man came along and consumed all their attentions.
Lost or Found?
When Ellen appears in her pink feminine finery, making like a contented, domesticated female,
has she reclaimed a suppressed part of her nature or surrendered herself to what Paul wants her to be?

These things are neither admirable nor desirable, and not even indicative of most people's relationships; but here, some 90 years after D.H. Lawrence put pen to paper, the contradictory and cruel power plays between men and women seem to have changed little.
For me, The Fox is an allegory about a particular kind of male/female dynamic, with the suggestion that what is primitive is not necessarily natural.
Bill Gold

Copyright © Ken Anderson

15 comments:

  1. Funny timing! Here in the UK the 1969 Sandy Dennis psychodrama That Cold Day in the Park (directed by pre-MASH Robert Altman) is being issued on deluxe bluray / DVD dual format edition next month. I'm reviewing it for Loverboy magazine. It's a strange, disturbing and fascinating film and Dennis is strange, disturbing and fascinating in it! Have you ever seen it or written about it?

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    1. Hey there, Graham!
      Fantastic news that you're righting about one of my favorites. There was a time I could mention that film and no one knew what I was talking about. Now to hear it's getting a bluray release...I no longer feel so much the individualist.
      It's really one of my favorite Sandy Dennis performances, and along with "# Women" one of my favorite Altman movies. Will you be posting your piece on your website?
      I wrote about back in 2011 (have I really been around that long?) http://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/2011/04/that-cold-day-in-park-1969.html

      Let me know when yours is published!

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    2. Ken: I suspected you must have written about That Cold Day already! I probably read it at the time – I’ve been following you for years – but I must have forgotten it. I’ll definitely re-visit that blog. The UK DVD is being released 20 June, so my online review will definitely appear the week before. I’ll send you the link. This will be my first article for the queer art and culture website Loverboy. I sold it to them on the idea that That Cold Day in the Park was a profound influence on queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce. His debut film No Skin Off My Ass is a loose re-make – with added hardcore sex scenes! He recreates some sequences from That Cold Day with him in the Sandy Dennis role (he plays a gay hairdresser who picks up a silent skinhead in the park and takes him home). It feels good to write about such an unloved / forgotten film. I hope it gets That Cold Day in the Park some attention. I'd love to see The Fox.

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    3. I'll be looking forward to reading your article! And what an excellent connecting thread you found with referencing the Bruce LaBruce film (which I'd heard of, but never new of the "Cold Day" inspiration). It's certain to make readers curious about the influential Altman film, and...perhaps, give that forgotten film a little more (deserved)exposure. "the Fox" is just as hard to find here (I think it had a limited "made to order" DVD release in the US) hope you get a chance to check it out sometime.

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  2. A great film to pick. The film is beautifully shot, slow paced which might turn off some (not me) but way ahead of its time. I saw this back when first released (I am a few years older) and was struck by its lyrical quality. I wrote about it myself a while back on my blog. Excellent review.

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    1. Hi John
      Yes, this film is really beautifully shot, and now, so far removed from the sensationalism used to promote it, I think it can really be enjoyed for what it is.
      The pacing is thoughtful, and the atmosphere is appropriately claustrophobic (and ominous), but if the sexual politics don't get in the way, the plot offers a wonderful springboard for discussion.
      I very much liked the piece you wrote on it, so I hope you don't mind my posting a link: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/the-fox-1967-mark-rydell/
      Thanks very much!

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  3. Hi Ken!

    I have to ask…when you were young did you see the trailer for The Fox at your local theater? It made such an impression on my friends and me. There we were, waiting to watch McHales’s Navy Joins the Air Force, and we catch Anne Heywood completely naked. Six little jaws dropped. It looked so mysterious, so adult. For some reason, it was one of the few movies in which my theater strictly adhered to the R rating and, like you, couldn’t see it for a while. They had no problem letting me in to see The Sergeant, though. They were so random. I did buy the movie tie in just because it used the striking poster art.

    And I share your appreciation for the uncommonly attractive Keir Dullea.

    May I share a funny story about The Fox? For reasons that are too long to go in to, I and a few other friends spent the weekend with Sandy Dennis. She was so sweet, and loved talking about herself and sharing stories about her movies. Someone asked about The Fox and she said that during her kissing scene, when she wraps her arms around Heywood’s neck and they fall to the bed, she was completely lost in the passion of it all. That’s why she was surprised when Rydell not only yelled cut, but started laughing. Apparently Dennis was so “lost” that she didn’t realize she was kissing her own arms and hands.

    “Sandy, give Anne a chance. Remember, she loves you, too,” Rydell said.

    Thanks, Ken!

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    1. Hi Max
      No, I don't recall ever seeing a trailer for "The Fox" when I went to the movies. I laughed at your description of your experience, though! I think I first came to know of it through the poster art and (sneaky kid that I was) peeking in the Playboy magazine my father kept in a drawer in my parent's bedroom. There was a nude pictorial of Anne Heywood that made the film a look a good deal smuttier than it is. I would have been profoundly disappointed had I been allowed to see it (and indeed, those theater admission policies in those days were very random).

      And can I say, that is the BEST Sandy Dennis story I've ever read! I can't thank you enough for sharing it (BOY! getting to spend an entire weekend with Sandy Dennis...man, oh man!just the stories alone.)
      Thanks, Max. Awesome storyteller, you are.

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  4. Hi Ken, I have never seen this one, but I have to remedy that after reading this gorgeous essay...and the promise of foxy Keir Dullea in addition to the incomparable Sandy Dennis!

    Dennis is one of my superstars...I own DVDs of her performances in Virginia Woolf (of course!), The Out-of-Towners and Come Back to the Five and Dime...she was one of the most versatile actresses ever, as adept at comedy as drama. I look forward to seeing her in The Fox.
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      Thank you very much! And as a Dennis fan, I think you'll enjoy her sensitive performance here a great deal. the films you listed really point to her versatility (although detractors usually only see the quirks and mannerisms). Recently saw her in "Nasty Habits" opposite Glenda Jackson (Yay!) ...just hilarious. If you haven't checked out that one you're in for a treat. She's terrific. Thanks so much for commenting!

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  5. Hi Ken! Great essay. Another movie I need to add to my ever-expanding must-see list!

    In a way, it's a brave choice to have Anne Heywood's Ellen end up with the handsome Dullea's Paul, whether or not he may be good for her.

    So many mainstream Hollywood movies treat the attraction/power play between super attractive men and plainer women differently. Usually, the plainer woman loses the man (who is usually not a great guy), settles for the "nicer" less attractive guy, yet ruefully knows in her heart that if the gorgeous guy beckoned, off she'd run. Cue Fanny Brice singing "Oh my man, I love him so..."

    I think of Robert Redford and his leonine blond mane in The Way We Were. He's an average writer, shallow husband, absentee father, and in truth, a jerk. He seems to love Barbra Streisand's Katie's adoration of him more than he actually loves her. When they finally part, on the eve of her giving birth to their child, we as an audience should say good riddance. But we don't. When they see each other years later on a Manhattan street, we swoon. Of course he's got the WASPy blond girlfriend. Of course Katie's married the mensch who's raising his daughter. But that moment when she reaches up to touch his blond mane, we sigh and weep. She's ten times smarter and nicer than he is, but because he's ten times prettier, we think of their separation as a loss.

    In a less dramatic example, Holly Hunter's smart, principled TV producer Jane Craig in Broadcast News completely looses her bearings over the vapid, ambitious but handsome blond anchor, William Hurt. Albert Brooks' Aaron, her coworker, is an attractive, funny, loyal mensch, and she's oblivious that he loves her. Again, we're supposed to root for Jane and the anchor man, until she discovers (through Aaron) of his lack of ethics. Instead of cheering for her waking up and smelling the coffee, we feel bad for her. When they meet again years later, the anchor man has, of course, the WASPy blond wife. Jane doesn't even end up with mensch. She has her career and a bad haircut. And a longing look at Hurt as they walk off in the rain talking about work.

    Ironically, both Redford's character and Hurt's character both sleep with women played by the icily beautiful actress Lois Chiles!

    With Redford and Hurt we know their characters aren't worthy of Streisand and Hunter, yet their break ups are treated as losses to the women. The men in both movie move up career wise and mate wise with classic beauties.

    I like reading that Ellen's ultimate pairing with Dullea at the end of The Fox is treated with ambiguity. Has he captured her? Or she him? Either way, it sounds like she is a strong, smart woman, and that their relationship is not a who won/who lost equation. (Except, sadly, for Dennis's Jill.)

    Thanks as always, Ken, for a thought provoking choice of film! Off to update my Netflix queue!

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    1. Hi Roberta
      Talk about thought-provoking! That's a very interesting observation you make about the similarities in the more or less traditional conclusions of "The Way We Were" & "Broadcast News" and how, in comparison, the inconclusive ending of "The Fox" has a kind of strike-out-on-its-own bravery to it.

      Your comments remind me of how often I give lip service to my belief that art isn't supposed to reassure, but challenge, but when a film REALLY does challenge me in unexpected ways (like the ending to "The Fox" does) how quick I leap to wanting my strongly-held attitudes reinforced.
      I think the film is structured to be a thoughtful rumination on male/female relations, and I think you, without even having seen it, touch upon a perspective very in tune with what is ultimately intended (that there are no distinct winners or losers).
      It's one of those burn-to-order DVDs (or whatever they call them) I do hope you seek it out. I'd be fascinated to hear what you make of it all.
      If your insightful take on those two near-classic conclusions to two very different romantic films is any indication, I genuinely look forward to it.
      Thanks very much for reading and offering such a food for thought comment!

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  6. Hi Ken,
    I wasn't sure where to post this but since you're a Sandy Dennis fan I though you'd like to know --if you don't already--that her extremely rare 1969 movie, Thank You All Very Much, is now available on Amazon Prime streaming, of all places. Co-starring Eleanor Bron and an adorably young and cute Ian McKellan. And directed by Waris (Possession of Joel Delaney) Hussein!

    It's one of those movies in which you really feel the total impact in its last few minutes, and a final line of dialogue that made me want to go back and watch it all over again.

    And considering it's Dennis's personal favorite of all her films, it's a must. And boy, there is next to nothing online about it--under this title or it's terrible UK title, A Touch of Love. It's a shame because when it was over, I thought, "I need to know everything about this movie, now." But alas...

    Take care!

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    1. Hi Max
      How thoughtful of you! I have a very fuzzy copy of that movie and I've only seen it "pristine" the one time it aired on cable. I love that movie and Eleanor Bron is terrific in it (as always). And McKellan is SO young!
      i hadn't realized it was directed by the guys who made "Delaney" though!

      So happy to hear you enjoyed it, and I'm super thrilled I get a chance to check it out again on Amazon prime. They get some interesting films through their streaming service, but how does anyone ever find out about them?
      Can't tell you how much I appreciate your thinking to tell me. Thanks a heap, Max!

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  7. Hi Ken,

    I had read this review back when you wrote it, but had never seen the film until TCM showed it this week; I was excited to see it. Truly a thought-provoking film - I am still thinking about it a day later. Beautifully crafted shots, music and acting. Each of the characters were well casted. There's much ambiguity, but that adds to its fascination. The desolate landscape mirrored Ellen's interior as the cheery, warm home mirrored Jill's.

    Ellen is longing, but for what? She seems to deal with her frustrations through hard physical work, while Jill just merrily keeps house. Enigmatic Paul has secrets, I think, and if I were writing fanfic, he and Ellen would probably not last long. She already wonders if she can be happy; I think not.

    Cheers!
    Bella

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