Before being imported to America by studio Twentieth Century-Fox, British director John Guillermin had already built up a solid C.V. of feature films, spanning every kind of genre in various studio and exotic locations, including Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan Goes to India (1962). His best-known British film is probably I Was Monty’s Double (1958), plus a long tenure directing episodes of The Adventures of Aggie and Sailor of Fortune (both 1957-1958)
Under his Fox contract, Guillermin made three distinguished pictures in fairly distinct genres, but if there’s one dominant theme running through the trio, it’s of dark, psychological conflicts with less than ideal / commercial resolutions.
Rapture is his middle Fox picture, and it’s a peculiar psychological drama that espouses to be a kind of fable, but still feels grounded in realism due to the strong performance by Patricia Gozzi, who plays the mentally dented Agnes, daughter of overbearing father Frederik (veteran silver screen star Melvyn Douglas), a celebrated Parisian judge who retired under mysterious circumstances to a beat-up estate on the coast of Brittany.
In spite of his determination to maintain some order and discipline, everything is falling apart at Frederik’s coastal home, as though all destructive elements have penetrated the stone and wooden structure of the house, and worn down the souls inside. Rapture begins after Frederik’s eldest daughter Genevieve (Sylvia Kay) is married off and moves away, leaving father and youngest daughter to sort out their new life together. Live-in caretaker Karen (Gunnel Lindblom) reigns in Agnes whenever her moods swing to extremes, but both she and Frederik eventually give in, and let the teenager build a scarecrow using clothes her father kept locked up in an old trunk (presumably his wedding suit, mothballed with the wedding dress of Agnes’ dead mother).
One day a police wagon overturns near the asylum that briefly housed Agnes, and during a scuffle one of the prisoners, Joseph (Dean Stockwell), pushes a gendarme to the ground, where his skull is cracked open – an action witnessed by Frederik, Agnes, and Karen.
That night, during a rainstorm, Joseph re-clothes himself using the suit from Agnes’ scarecrow and hides in the garden shed, and when Agnes discovers the wounded convict, she’s convinced her newly created male companion, custom designed to ward off garden crows, has sprung to life for her exclusive benefit. In a move that indirectly shore's up Agnes' delusion, Frederik willingly shields Joseph from the investigating police because of some crazy belief he can find redemption for his own past deeds, and helper Karen waits for the right moment to make a move on Joseph, given her love life is exclusively restricted to the odd nighttime visitor who pops in and out through the bedroom window.
Once Joseph has recuperated, Rapture shifts into second gear, and all the behavioural warts that afflict Agnes’ insular family blossom, bringing out latent conflicts, desires, and outright delusions, and questioning Frederik’s assumption that Agnes is permanently locked into the mentality of an 11 year old child due to her mother’s mysterious passing.
There are gothic elements in Stanley Mann’s adaptation of Phyllis Hasting’s novel “Rapture My Rags,” but they’re never augmented. Joseph could easily devolve into a sleazy villain who steals money and women’s virtues for control of an old man’s household, but that doesn’t happen; and the story could easily focus on a series of isolated battle between characters whose selfish interests are being compromised by a pure competition to win pretty boy Joseph’s attention, but none of that really occurs.
If the film’s first third sets up the main conflicts, the lengthy mid-section is devoted to the hashing out of exactly who is mad, sane, and cruel, The finale, however, is a strangely abrupt wrap-up where an escape is thwarted, a new life of freedom is overwhelmed by persistent psychological trauma, and the naivete of love destroys the film's Christ-like character (Joseph). Guillermin fills shots and set décor with plenty of religious iconography, and as the film’s sacrificial lamb, Joseph has to pay for his sins, but his fate becomes part of a necessary healing process for the two surviving characters, and while Frederik and Angnes won’t exactly be happy, they’ll live together (for a while) with better understanding and tolerance for each other.
Rapture does share some stylistic and character traits with two equally odd psychological dramas that had little broad audience appeal. Not unlike Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), there’s a mystery between whose truth is correct, and which reality being presented by dominant characters in a corrupted relationship is correct (Both films also share a splendid use of stark black & white cinematography and grungy locations.)
The fragile state of Agnes is also similar to The Beguiled’s tender Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), the most impressionable member of a girls school who sees her prince charming – a wayward, crooked soldier (Clint Eastwood) – create huge rifts among her companions and superiors, resulting in a similarly tragic finale in Don Siegel’s underrated 1971 gem.
Rapture generally works: the premise is eerie and intriguing, and the central conflicts novel and lurid, but the ‘honeymoon’ episode in the big city feels heavily compacted, and while Joseph’s return to Brittany for a reunion with Agnes makes dramatic sense, it’s also a foolish move that guarantees his doom.
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An enormous care went into the film’s casting, locations, set design & décor, and Georges Delerue’s score (isolated in mono on a separate music-only track) provides a type of tenderness that reassures viewers the film will not become a sleazy drama about sexual power. There’s also Guillermin’s rather remarkable direction, incorporating a fluid, majestic visual style and modernist editing which never transforms the film into something arty; the integrity of each character is always respected, as are strong moments where the actors are allowed to perform their best.
The cinematography by Marcel Grignon (La bete / The Beast) is fantastic, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a stunning, crisp transfer that will probably compel viewers to hit Pause now and then to appreciate the artful widescreen composition, either with characters, or solo location shots.
It’s also easy to see why Fox had an interest in Guillermin, and why producer Irwin Allen tapped him to co-direct The Towering Inferno (1974), handing the actors and ably maintaining a continuity for the action scenes. The sad part of Guillermin’s career is being subsequently pegged as a blockbuster director, moving on to the disastrous King Kong (1976) for Dino De Laurentiis, the ornate but rather sterile Death on the Nile (1978), and the two duds that likely convinced him to step away from feature films – the laughable Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1984), and the idiotic King Kong Lives (1986).
Rapture could be seen as his last poke at quiet drama, and the best use of his potent visual style. There are elaborate shots and montages that remain jaw-dropping, particular an opening party scene done in one take, and dangerous camera moves and angles where actress Gozzi was clearly perched at the edge of a cliff, and stood on rocks close to smothering tidal waves. Guillermin’s other Fox films worth examining are Guns at Batasi [M] (1964), and the underrated WWI drama The Blue Max (1966) – the latter screaming for a Blu-ray release (if not a special edition with historical commentary).
Before fully immersing himself in TV, Stockwell had a few flings with prestigious feature films, including Jack Cardiff’s Sons & Lovers (1960) and Richard Fleischer’s taut murder drama Compulsion (1959) – both produced by Fox.
Gozzi, who was clearly poised to break into bigger roles like Beguiled’s Hartman similarly scaled back her acting chores, and appeared in the teleplay A Hostage (1970) and film Le grabuge (1973) before retiring from acting.
Lindblom maintained a steady career, appearing in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), Winter Light (1963), The Silence (1963), and Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and recently acted in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009).
Stanley Mann’s other credits include the solid drama The Mark (1961), abou a convicted pedophile attempting to re-enter society; the stellar film version of John Fowles’ The Collector (1965); A High Wind in Jamaica (1965); and the mordant anti-critic bloodfest Theater of Blood (1973). Mann’s final credits were a trio of stinkers for De Laurentiis: Firestarter (1984), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Tai-Pan (1986), but that's what happens when you sell your soul to the Devil.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan