Nonce Upon a Time in the Midlands

THE MARK seems to be pretty well a forgotten film — which is a shame because it has strong performances and a daring theme. Stuart Whitman, who got an Oscar nomination which marked the peak of his career — if anything, the film may have hurt him professionally — plays a man convicted of child abduction and released after a prison sentence and group therapy conducted by Rod Steiger. He’s theoretically “cured” of his pedophile impulses, and embarks on a relationship with secretary Maria Schell.

Manchester in this movie is a pretty cosmopolitan city — Whitman is American playing Canadian, Steiger is playing Irish, Schell is unmistakably German. Interiors were actually filmed in Ireland (where presumably the Church welcomed a film on this subject?), and among Whitman’s fellow convicts are Eddie Byrne and Al Mulock (the knuckle-cracker from the opening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — who committed suicide on the set of that film).

The film is compassionate, sometimes ploddingly earnest, but Guy Green’s direction does include some elegant lap dissolves drifting into flashback — the idea here isn’t anything bold (the really hep film-makers were into direct cutting at this point) but long dissolves that creep across a b&w ‘scope frame are always beautiful to look at: think THE INNOCENTS.

Where the film has dated is probably its assumption that pedophiles can be cured, which at present looks doubtful. With the simple faith in Freud common at the time, the movie posits that a domineering, puritanical mother and weak father have rendered Whitman unable to face adult female sexuality, leading to his libidinous impulses taking a predatory interest in children. He abducts a little girl but can’t go through with assaulting her, which allows the audience to retain some kind of sympathy with him. Steiger’s aggressive therapy sessions force Whitman to confront his demons and he leaves prison ready to begin a mature relationship. But is society ready to have him back?

The demonizing of the press, with their panic-stirring moral campaigns, does still feel relevant — is there any subject more muddled in hysteria in the UK than child sexual abuse? And this problem is all the more serious because there are matters of genuinely tragic import within it. The fact that the media recognize no distinction between a pedophile — someone sexually attracted to children, which seems to be as innate a condition as any sexual preference, and therefore a biological rather than a moral failing — and child molesters, who are people who CHOOSE to act on those impulses and are therefore both morally and criminally guilty (and likely more motivated by a desire to control and cause suffering than by biological imperative) – means that it’s quite hard to sanely discuss the issues. The fact that the law here seems to regard a pornographic drawing as just as sinister as an actual photograph suggests that the natural revulsion to child abuse is possibly clouding the clear-eyed judgement essential for protecting children from harm. It seems like every time there’s a hot-button topic involving real dangers and real evils, a lot of people think the correct way to react is by being really stupid, as long as they evince the correct form of emotion. And I’m prepared to bet that many of the people calling for convicted child abusers to be killed, tortured or castrated are themselves deriving illicit sexual pleasure from their socially-conscious snuff fantasies.

That said, THE MARK is in many respects a fascinating period piece rather than a powerful drama, since it’s based on a naive understanding of how seemingly fixed sexual preference is. It would be great if a real “cure” existed — except that I’m sure a lot of reactionary fools would start applying it to other, perfectly innocent sexual quirks or leanings. But it might be amusing to have a world where everybody could switch preferences at any time.

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13 Responses to “Nonce Upon a Time in the Midlands”

  1. pauldbrazill Says:

    Reblogged this on 13 Shots Of Grit.

  2. Pauline Kael wrote, rather interestingly about The Mark, in an essay about “Problem Pictures” that can be found in “I Lost It at The Movies.”

  3. I must have read that as a nineteen-year-old, sitting behind the counter of the Cinema Shop in Filmhouse, but if so I’ve completely forgotten it. And the one volume of Kael I own isn’t that one. Did she like it? Or rather, did she decide that “we” like it?

  4. She starts off by complaining that the film’s advertising campign speaks of the hero’s problem being “sexuali deviation” — which would imply that he’s gay which he’s not. She then talks about a gay man she once knew who went on and on to her about how he’d gone straight only to be “beaten up and robbed by a Negro he’d picked up” a week later

    How vivid.

    As to the film itself she complains it never actually discloses a sex crime. “When you think it over, The Mark falls apart. You can’t help wonderign why the makers have evaded the actual commission of a sex crime: would he somehow not be a suitable subject for a compassional study if he had actuallyattacked the child? What the movie turns out to be about is a man who has experienced a crime he hasn’t committed: in other words , he’s morally one up on all of us, and still, he’s being branded and mistreated by society. . . .Supposes that instead of Staurt Whitman, the innocent white-collar hero of The Mark we visualize Peter Lorre, the miserable sweating, fat child-attacker of M , also desperate to be caught and knowing that he can’t control himself — and finally when trapped screaming that he can’t help himself. . .I must admit also that I got the uncomfortable feelign at times that we were suppsoed to feel sympathetic toward Whitman because he was such a pained, unhappy, dull man. . . .I wish it were a really good movie instead of jsut a commendable one.”

  5. It’s all pretty interesting. Guy Green reportedly said that the film couldn’t have worked if the hero had really assaulted a child — no audience could go with him. And I suspect he’s right. Whitman abducts a child, which is still an offense, so he’s not an innocent man unjustly accused at the start, but he has enough moral sense to restrain himself. It’s society’s refusal to allow him to go straight that’s being condemned.

    Is she implying that a braver film would have been made about a gay man? It’s certainly striking that Victim was still a year away: pedophilia was an easier sell than same-sex love. Nowadays, The Mark seems the more surprising subject for a film, but Victim is the better movie.

  6. Well she didn’t like Victim. Either.

    Pauline was a MAJOR Fag-Hag. For years she was a Grace in perpetual pursuit of a Will. When she nailed James Broughton she thought she’d found her man. But just because she managed to get him to knock her up didn’t mean he was about to “change teams.” Far from it. Broughton refused to have anythign to do with the daughter (who Pauline doted on) his entire life.

    I well recall a panel at the 1966 New York Film Festival with Pauline and several other crtcs. Pasolini had attended the festival and had spoken at a panel — though he wasn’t there for this one in question. Someone mentioned that he was a poet, causing Pauline to laugh derisively “Oh I know all about poets.” At that point Gregory Markpoulos, seated in the audience, rose and with all the rage that was within him (and there was quite a lot) screamed “YOU SOULLESS MORON!!!!” at her.

  7. Whew.

    I never cottoned to Kael. Very readable, immensely aggravating, at times incisive, but at times definitely verging on the soulless moron, or at least the philistine.

  8. Quite true in much of writing. In person she was the soul of charm.

  9. Off-topic, but certain to be a Major Motion Picture sometime soon: I have learned that the homeless man whose face was eaten off by the naked guy hopped up on “Bath Salts” (a new and deadly form of LSD) was an elementary school classmate of mine. I was on the phone this afternoon with a reporter from the Miami-Herald. I explained to him that I had seen Popoff (Ronald was his first name but we always called him by his last) for something like 58 years. He went from elementary school to high schoo land college with considerable academic honors. Then somewhere along the way he came apart. When told of the recent horrid news his family said they had assumed he’d died years ago.

    Six degrees, Mr. Cairns, six degrees. And in this case a lot less than that.

  10. I think I’m going to put what I had to say about Pauline Kael on the shelf for now, because: Holy shit, David E.

  11. I predicted that the attacker would prove to have been on PCP or something similar, but I did not predict THAT. Such connections certainly bring the victim into focus: the initial news reports calling him just “a homeless man” were not helpful. Simply calling him “a man” would’ve been better.

  12. He had been spotted by the paper days before wantering around. They even took a picture of him

    http://media.miamiherald.com/smedia/2012/06/02/15/56/ZylFo.Em.56.jpeg

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