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THE FOX 1967

Films which attempt to dramatize (and in so doing, comment upon) distasteful aspects of the human condition, set a difficult course for themselves. Pedestrian directors, often in an effort to appear even-handed and avoid offending, tend to oversimplify. In these instances the nuanced complexities of flawed personality and ambiguous morals are muted in ways designed to confirm audience preconceptions and, by fade-out, restore order and confidence in life's parity. By way of contrast, artful directors take the risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted as they eschew easy answers in favor of a little emotional honesty. Invested in examining more than explaining, while at the same time respectful of an audience’s ability to extract from a story whatever ideas or themes they wish to divine on their own; this particular genus of film is not often a popular taste favorite, but it's the kind of movie that bears the stamp of creative fearlessness (recklessness?).


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 a reputation for preferring our films to 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 exhibited by the men wasn't as obviously satiric as some would have liked. Similarly, Samuel Fuller’s powerful anti-racism film White Dog (1982) was practically yanked from theaters because many mistook this dramatic parable about the teaching of hatred (a dog is 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 heavilyFreudian 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 all 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, whether one finds it maddeningly coy or simply a cop-out, genuinely serves to make what might otherwise be just another romantic triangle more emotionally provocative. Label it lesbianism or bisexuality, whatever is between Jill and Ellen is intensified once their peace is invaded by the fox-like Paul (Dullea), the merchant seaman grandson of the farm’s deceased former owner. 5/13

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 insinuated himself into 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 politics, 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." 6/13

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'm certain that at the time I would have been deeply disappointed that this intelligent, psychologically intricate film wasn’t the risqué, lesbian romp its ad campaign (and my 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 7/13

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 of the two. His marriage proposal (the least romantic on record, and underscored with ominous music) is more an act of authority 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 became preoccupied with my expectation of the film offering a conclusive, pro-individualism message. So keenly was I hoping for some last-minute sign of feminist redemption, 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 actually (and 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 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 conflicted, least communicative character, Heywood somehow manages to make us feel Ellen’s strength as well as her uncertainty. 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. 9/13

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 truly these scenes 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 that which the casting of Shelley Duvall served for Stanley Kubrick in The Shining: asked why he cast Duvall in his film, Kubrick gallantly responded "Well, you gotta have somebody in that part that maybe the audience would also like to kill a little bit."


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. They can be just as engrossing and engaging if they are 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 Donald 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 instinctual and primitive is not necessarily natural.

Bill Gold


Copyright © Ken Anderson


Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: The Fox- 1967  

Screen adaptation D.H. Lawrence's 1922 novella about two women whose solitary lives are disrupted by the intrusion of a male. Sandy Dennis s...

Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: The Fox- 1967  

Screen adaptation D.H. Lawrence's 1922 novella about two women whose solitary lives are disrupted by the intrusion of a male. Sandy Dennis s...