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The full force of literary symbolism comes crashing down on The Fox, a well-directed, well-intentioned adaptation that maintains fidelity with D.H. Lawrence's 1918 novella, even the dated parts. A three-person dramatic piece given excellent performances and sensitive direction, The Fox was one of the very first films to take advantage of Jack Valenti's new rating system. The media of 1968 had a field day pretending to be shocked by the adult content in pictures like this and The Killing of SIster George. 1
The underrated Mark Rydell directs The Fox with taste and precision. He does better than one would think possible with the Lawrence text, which when adapted to film becomes a parade of psychosexual kinks. Jill Banford and Ellen March (Sandy Dennis & Anne Heywood) are close friends trying to run a farm and not doing very well. It's winter. Their chickens aren't laying and a fox is raiding the hen house unopposed. Jill maintains her optimism and tries to drum up more enthusiasm from Ellen, who often seems distracted. In fact, Ellen has the fox dead to rights one day but can't force herself to shoot it, and can't explain why. That's when Paul Renfield (Kier Dullea) shows up, the son of the old man who owned the farm before the women came along. Paul stays for two weeks to hunt and do repairs, and predictably drives a wedge between the two women. He chooses Ellen, unilaterally deciding that she's going to marry him. Ellen seems to have lost her will while Jill throws tantrums and warns Ellen that the marriage is Paul's way of securing the farm.
A blind and deaf audience could immediately tell that The Fox is a serious drama about --- whisper now - Forbidden Sex. Jill and Ellen seem to be living in an unconscious or sublimated lesbian relationship, with or without sexual relations. Ellen is frustrated by Jill's chirpy attitude and takes to quietly masturbating behind locked doors. That scene surely left 'em laughing in Sioux City. A pair of more tasteful lovemaking scenes aside, the rest of the movie concentrates on the sexual politics between the two women and the interloper Paul. The rogue male drifter ingratiates himself with both of his hosts, winning Jill over immediately. Clearly struggling to maintain her defenses, Ellen is at first cold and disconnected. Then Paul comes on to Ellen, at which point she reveals herself to be a mass of doubts and indecision.
D.H. Lawrence was a great writer who investigated previously taboo human relationships. His symbols and road-sign messages are totally appropriate to a novel, where a realistic story can also be a fable or an allegory or whatever he wants. The messages in The Fox are right out in the open, so much so that we're surprised that his uptight characters don't start reflecting on how absurdly symbolic everything is. In the movie's view, women without men are unnatural. Jill and Ellen have no feeling for life or growing things. One of the first things Ellen says is that the chickens aren't any better at laying eggs than she and Jill are. Jill bakes up a storm in the house while plants die and the cow won't stay in her corral. Ellen insists that a leafless tree is still alive, which of course hints that she still has a chance at life. The movie defines Ellen's only path as getting nailed by some guy and producing offspring.
There's nothing in The Fox for feminists. When Paul finally levels with Jill, he tells her that her problem is that she needs a man. Like the fox raiding the hen house, Paul expresses his masculine demands and insists that Ellen fall in line. Ellen is so confused by her attraction to Paul (has she never been around other men?) that she bends to his will in everything. She tells Jill that she's resisting Paul's demands, but then shows up for dinner wearing a bright dress. Her intentions couldn't be clearer.
The acting and direction in The Fox are very, very good. Sandy Dennis is excellent as the giggly but demanding Jill. She cries out for Ellen's attention before Paul arrives and then follows the lovers around calling Ellen's name in vain. Anne Heywood's Ellen has an intelligent look in her eye until Paul steps in, at which point she goes to pieces. Ellen is clearly beset by emotional / sexual hysteria, the way she sends mixed signals. She acts inconvenienced by Paul's presence, but then drinks too much and entertains him with a bawdy ballad. Ellen loses a stare-down contest with the real fox, and turns to Jello whenever Paul makes eye contact. The Ellen-Paul scenes are actually pretty hot. The actors do a fine job of convincing us that the hormones are running wild on this snowed-in farm.
Director Mark Rydell makes The Fox a good debut feature after years of TV work. The farm cabin seems snug and warm and his blocking of scenes clearly helps the actors. When "symbolic" content is foregrounded -- the shotgun, for instance -- it never seems forced. This is a good example of a picture that stretches the freedom of the screen for legit purposes.Spoiler
Just the same, this movie about women and sexuality not only takes on the social mindset of 1918, it resolves itself as might a Production Code movie. A giant symbol of life being cut short intervenes to eliminate one of the characters in a way that smacks of old-time censorship -- the prime sexual "deviant" is conveniently obliterated. None of this symbolic content of is handled awkwardly, but the movie still seems an odd mix of old ideas and new freedom.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Fox is a good enhanced transfer of acceptable color quality. Some light flaws intrude here and there, along with some tiny black spots that show up only on transition shots of the farm -- as if grease pencil marks had not been fully wiped away. When opticals are used the picture is much more grainy. Yet the picture is intact and seemingly uncut (it was trimmed five years later for a reissue). The widescreen transfer will please fans that have had to make do with incomplete full frame copies from television.
A trailer is listed, but what we get is a repeat of the quality sample scene used on the Warner Archive Collection website. It looks like somebody mastered with the wrong file again -- the same thing happened on WAC's The Unsuspected.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fox rates:
Dear Glenn: Nice review, thoughtful analysis. Someone ought to write a good monograph on The Fox, an interesting adaptation of the Lawrence work as well as a key transitional picture in terms of the final days of the production code and beginning of the ratings system. The domestic release of The Fox actually predated the MPAA's rating system. It opened in New York in early 1968; the MPAA ratings began in October of '68. I believe exhibitors and newspaper ads carefully cautioned theatregoers about the adult nature of the picture. Warners had already gone down that road with its highly successful '66 release of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which had specifically instructed theatres to restrict admission to children unless accompanied by parents. I don't recall the campaign for The Fox going that far -- the Woolf restriction was on all posters and ad material -- but then Warners backed away from handling it directly, releasing it through the studio's dummy subsidiary, Claridge Pictures. The Fox did receive a fair arthouse/mainstream release for its time. Photos from the film -- some a bit more graphic than the images on-screen -- did end up in Playboy, which doubtless helped the trade. I believe some people were shocked by this, and by the far more abrasive Sister George, by the way, though this was certainly magnified by the press.
I have been unable to determine whether The Fox received a Code Seal in the waning days of the Code (you note that "it resolves itself as might a Production Code movie" -- it technically was intended to be one). There's no seal on this poster -- there wasn't always a seal on a pre-ratings era one-sheet, of course -- but there also isn't a "Suggested for Mature Audiences" slug. I don't know what to think. Wish I had a major daily on microfilm handy to check the ads.
The film was produced by Raymond Stross, who was Anne Heywood's husband; he produced a number of her films. A principal investor was Steve Broidy, who once controlled Allied Artists. Best, Always. -- B.
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