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.