Kim Stanley (best actress, New York critics, National Board of Review) gives a tremendous performance as unhinging psychic Myra Savage, who impresses a weak-willed, asthmatic spouse, Billy, into a dangerous scheme to bring celebrity to her, one involving kidnapping a schoolgirl whose parents are wealthy, extracting a ransom, and divining at her weekly séance the whereabouts of both child and loot. Presumably, Myra is guided by the spirit of the Savages’ deceased son, Arthur, who, it turns out, did not survive birth. Billy notes with horror that his wife is increasingly comfortable with the idea of murdering the kidnapped child.
Bryan Forbes wrote and directed the film, which is based on Mark McShane’s early-sixties novel. Two aspects of the script fascinate: one, the piecemeal disclosure of the Savages’ plot, by which Forbes’s wily filmmaking lures the audience into siding with the Savages; two, the extent to which Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems to be hovering about, although in fact the book and the play were both written at about the same time.
The setting is a shadowy Victorian house, where the victim, told that she is in a hospital, is confined to “Arthur’s room.” Suspicious, the police keep a-callin’, but Myra’s apparent self-control seems unshakable. However, Myra falls apart once Billy, fearful for the child’s safety, explodes.
Gerry Turpin’s black-and-white cinematography captures the gray weather, whose dissolving edges convey Myra’s steady withdrawal from reality. John Barry’s fine score enhances the melancholy mood. But there is one major weakness: producer Richard Attenborough cast himself as Billy, and his acting is blatant and abominable.
Otherwise, this is a suspenseful tour-de-force for Forbes, and Stanley, considered by many to be the finest American actress of her generation, deeply moves, chills and astounds.
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