Mark Rydell’s The Fox was released in Canada in December of 1967. Two months later, in early February, it opened in the U.S. I remember seeing the film back then with a full house of other filmgoers at the Festival theater in New York City. It’s based on an early novella by D.H. Lawrence, best known for the erotic Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover, a book just about every high school boy back in the day secretly read.
In the mid to late sixties, The Motion Picture Production Code was in disarray. Films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Pawnbroker and Blow-Up were chipping away at the code’s hold on filmmakers, opening up a door for more mature stories to reach the screen. British Producer Raymond Stross was one filmmaker who wanted to continue to stretch the boundaries of what was acceptable on the screen. He also wanted to find a project that would star his wife; actress, and former Miss Great Britain (1950), Anne Heywood. Stross and Heywood had previously collaborated in films like The Brain and Ninety Degrees in the Shade. The Fox would be their third collaboration and their most controversial up to that point in time.
With the making of The Fox, Stross did stretch the boundaries, and pushed a lot of buttons in the process. The film included scenes of nudity, lesbianism and masturbation. Watched today, it may film seem mild, but back in ‘67/’68 it was pretty strong stuff. With the new rating system still months away, the film was Suggested for Mature Audiences. After the rating system went into effect, The Fox was given an “R.” Later on, it was changed to PG-13. Two reasons for the change. First, by future standards the scenes were not as graphic as what would come later, and second, the film more importantly was edited to chip away at some of the more suggestive scenes and in the process diluting the power of the film. Subsequently, if you have seen The Fox in recent years, most likely you are seeing the edited version.
The film is basically a three character study. Jill Banford (Sandy Dennis) and Ellen March (Anne Heywood) are two women who wanted to get away from the craziness of city life. They live and work a farm in the rural Canadian countryside. Jill takes care of the household chores whereas Ellen does the tougher farm work, including trying to hunt a fox who has been raiding their chicken coop. There are hints that Jill and Ellen’s relationship may be more than just the two working the farm together. While Jill is happy with their rural life, Ellen has become lonely and frustrated.
Their quiet world changes with the unexpected arrival of Paul (Keir Dullea), a seaman on leave, who explains to the women his grandfather once owned the farm. With no place to go, he volunteers to stay awhile and help out with the heavier farm work. Jill appreciatively agrees while Ellen needs to be persuaded. Paul is attracted to Ellen and while Ellen is at first reluctant they soon begin having an affair. The two fall in love, announcing to Jill they plan to marry and leave the farm. Jill becomes upset. Before the couple leave the farm, an unexpected accident sadly resolves the conflict.
The screenplay, by Lewis John Carlino (The Great Santini, Seconds) and Howard Koch (Casablanca, Mission to Moscow, The Letter), modernizes Lawrence’s short novel to the modern day late 1960‘s. Additionally, they moved the story from England to an isolated farm in rural Canada. Finally, they made Lawrence’s novella a more graphic story though managing to keep the author’s concept mostly intact.
The late Sandy Dennis was a terrific actress, but unfortunately the role she has here requires her to be a high-pitched, annoying, whiney, overly dependent irritant. Her voice is like nails screeching on a blackboard. Pauline Kael wrote she, “made an acting style out of postnasal drip.” One wonders just what Anne Heywood’s Ellen saw in her. Kier Dullea’s Paul comes across as self-confident, you might even say smug and opinionated. He has no doubts about himself. At one point he even questions Jill on why she’s a lesbian noting she’s not bad looking and has nice legs. Dullea is good, however, I found his character very likable. That leaves Anne Heywood as Ellen who arguably gives the strongest performance of the cast. Reserved and lonely, she allows herself to be become prey to Paul’s seduction.
The film is beautifully photographed by cinematographer William A. Fraker (Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt). Director Mark Rydell, a former actor (Crime in the Streets, The Long Goodbye), does a nice job turning this quiet, sometimes slow paced tale into an arty work of quiet beauty. This was Rydell’s first feature film as a director. He honed his skills in television doing shows like Mr. Novak, Ben Casey, The Fugitive and Gunsmoke. Rydell would go on to direct other films including The Rose, On Golden Pond, The Reivers and The Cowboys among others.
The husband and wife team of Raymond Stross and Anne Heywood would go on to make other controversial films including I Want What I Want (sex change) and Good Night, Miss Wyckoff (rape, interracial sex), neither of which were very good nor are deservedly very well known.
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