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A Rage to Live

by Glenn Erickson Feb 07, 2023

It’s a hot soap from ’65, when movies promised raging passion but delivered cheap teases and hypocritical judgments. It’s Suzanne Pleshette’s only starring role, but it doesn’t exploit her bright personality, her sense of humor. John O’Hara’s tale hasn’t much pity for a promiscuous young wife who breaks the rules. Does nymphomania make her a social menace, or is she victimized by a script determined to put the blame on Mame?  Costarring Ben Gazzara, Bradford Dillman and Peter Graves.


A Rage to Live
Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 197
1965 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 101 min. / Street Date December 28, 2022 / Available from [Imprint] / aud 34.98
Starring: Suzanne Pleshette, Bradford Dillman, Ben Gazzara, Peter Graves, Bethel Leslie, Carmen Mathews, Linden Chiles, James Gregory, Ruth White, Mark Goddard, Sarah Marshall, George Furth, Virginia Christine, Aneta Corsaut, Frank Maxwell, Almira Sessions.
Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Costume Designer: Howard Shoup
Art Director: James Sullivan
Film Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Original Music: Nelson Riddle
Written by John T. Kelley from the novel by John O’Hara
Produced by Lewis J. Rachmil
Directed by
Walter Grauman

We always loved Suzanne Pleshette, a personality with bright eyes and an easy way with playful dialogue. We were initially disappointed when she became a sitcom wife in TV’s The Bob Newhart Show . . . where had the feature career gone?  Looking back now, we can see that the TV comedy was ideal — she was naturally vivacious and funny.

Suzanne Pleshette was allowed to keep her dignity in Jerry Lewis’s The Geisha Boy but a full four years passed before her next movie and five until her best feature role, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Ms. Pleshette impressed us as a functioning adult, with an intelligent presence. Whether by bad luck or bad judgment, the films she landed didn’t give her the opportunities she needed — we compare her to Carolyn Jones, who had a similar lack of star-making luck but at least a better agent. Jones scored 100% in even the smallest supporting part, while Pleshette mostly found thankless roles in less-than vital pictures: Wall of Noise, A Distant Trumpet, Fate is the Hunter.

The Mirisch Corporation’s A Rage to Live promised Suzanne Pleshette a way out of the actors’ swamp. John O’Hara’s ‘hot’ 1949 novel concerned a young woman branded as promiscuous, whose notoriety doesn’t end with her marriage. The controversial O’Hara was a core writer for the New Yorker magazine and the legendary source of the character Pal Joey. His books Ten North Frederick,  From the Terrace and BUtterfield 8 had become high profile films with big stars.

A Rage to Live was optioned in 1959 but took years to get into production. Walter Mirisch wrote that it was purchased with Natalie Wood in mind, before she played another troubled teenager for Elia Kazan, in Splendor in the Grass. Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Bancroft and Sue Lyon were considered to star, with a prestigious director; but a package was settled on only as the option was about to expire. It ended up with Miss Pleshette and director Walter Grauman, a TV name that Mirisch had on contract, and who had made the fairly notable suspense picture Lady in a Cage.

The story of adultery and scandal arrived in 1965 when its subject matter was no longer shocking. Peyton Place had already premiered as a TV show. Still, Rage featured Suzanne Pleshette as an oversexed woman causing havoc in an upscale social scene. . . who could argue with that?

High school senior Grace Caldwell (Pleshette) is seduced/raped/take your pick in her own bedroom. The culprit is Charlie Jay (Mark Goddard of TV’s Lost in Space), a friend of her older brother Brock (Linden Chiles). But Grace’s reaction is to continue the relationship, until Jay’s parents (Frank Maxwell, Brett Somers) catch them and the news gets back to Grace’s ailing mother Emily (Carmen Mathews). Grace sees other men on a more careful basis, but her reputation is established. The interest of newspaperman Jack Hollister (Peter Graves) immediately alerts his wife Amy (Bethel Leslie). After Emily Caldwell’s death, and with Brock’s insistence, Grace goes straight long enough to enter a promising, conventional marriage with Sidney Tate (Bradford Dillman), an ethical businessman. A couple of years later Grace and Sidney have a young son, yet Grace is easily led astray by Roger Bannon (Ben Gazarra), a rugged local contractor who has wanted her for years. In no time at all Grace’s domestic disaster is complete.

A Rage to Live is an example of a Hollywood movie that looks as if it were made to fulfill a commitment. Director Walter Grauman may have had a fine reputation from TV, but he does little more in this show than stand people up and have them say their lines. It’s hardly the venue to boost Suzanne Pleshette into star status, even though she’s in almost every scene. Her character frets and suffers among a cast of faces mostly familiar from television. The show looks like a TV movie. It’s filmed mostly on Hollywood backlots. The Southern California locations don’t match the postcard-photogenic scenery behind the main titles.

Color movies were becoming the standard by 1963-’64. Studios cranked out B&W pictures as second-tier productions, but numerous serious dramas continued to be made in B&W out of choice — A Patch of Blue,  The Slender Thread,  The Money Trap. Led by the example of Billy Wilder, the Mirisches made plenty of prestige productions in B&W, with directors like Robert Wise and William Wyler.

 

The problem is, it’s Hollow.

John O’Hara’s book falls into the category of what the Production Code of 1964 considered ‘content unsuitable for general audiences.’ Even Stanley Kubrick had to find a way to make Lolita screenable for 12 year-olds. A great many Hollywood pictures promised the frankness shown in foreign imports, as did A Rage to Live’s advertising taglines: “The best-seller that dares to probe a woman’s intimate desire!” “The story of Grace Caldwell Tate really began in the back seat of a car… …and went from man. . . to man. . . to man. . .”  But Hollywood films had to be very clever even to allude to adult content. Rage is left with a series of hollow dramatic confrontations. The lack of sexier scenes isn’t the problem, it’s the film’s avoidance of its own subject matter. Grace never makes emotional sense. What are the inner forces that give her so much grief?

The show gets off to a bad start. Walking home from what is presumably High School, Grace is dressed in high fashion more suitable for an Audrey Hepburn movie. Her family is wealthy, we’re told. But their mansion is on a standard TV-land neighborhood street. The unreality continues when Charlie Jay just walks in off the street, strolls up the fancy staircase and proceeds to peep at Grace’s shadow as she undresses.

The peep-show moment is typical of what passes for a directorial effect here. Before we know who Grace is, it chooses to have us identify with the lust of the uninteresting Charlie Jay. Poor Ms. Pleshette — the scene couldn’t be any cheaper. It’s followed by the classic false note that brands women as slaves to their physical urges — Grace stops resisting Charlie’s assault and becomes an enthusiastic participant. Was she always just playing Hard To Get?  Charlie Jay certainly thinks so.

 

Grace doesn’t for a minute look like a teenager, so we don’t buy the parents’ tantrum when they’re caught necking in the basement. Credibility aside, the show continues to send contradictory, judgmental signals. Instead of introducing Grace as a personality, she’s objectified as a sexy body. Her disgraceful reaction Jay brands her as a troublemaker, at fault for being attractive.

They called Peyton Place trashy, but we strongly identified with the problems of the characters played by Diane Varsi and Hope Lange. This screenplay leaves the capable Suzanne Pleshette stranded. Grace tries to hide her desires by lying to her mother and brother. But she (‘sigh’) just can’t help herself. Her ordeals skate from incident to incident, never bothering to give an indication who ‘the real’ Grace might be. Sex is always one step away from heavy-duty guilt. On a fancy vacation in the Bahamas, Grace keeps an illicit midnight beach rendezvous just when a relative is stricken with a fatal heart attack.

The thin screenplay is populated with ‘types.’ Even the major players feel like walk-ons, carrying out roles we’ve seen ten times before. We know Bradford Dillman’s Sidney Tate is a solid citizen, because he’s a kind and polite. We also know he’s ‘all man’ because he defends Grace’s honor by punching out Charlie Jay in public. We know what will happen before it happens. Sidney will marry Grace even after she bravely admits to having slept around. We also know that Grace will continue to sleep around, ruining everything.

The story skips forward to the ‘good parts.’ Across a fast transition from their wedding day, Grace suddenly has a two-year old boy and is comporting herself like a decent wife and mother . . . for about ninety seconds. The moment Ben Gazzara’s rough, dangerous Roger Bannon expresses interest, Grace can’t resist.

 

Needed: Lessons in Boyfriend Management.

From that point forward there’s no hope for poor Grace. She abruptly calls off her torrid affair with Roger, who immediately goes off the deep end. Convinced she’s defected to the arms of Peter Graves’ Jack Hollister, Roger flies into drunken, suicidal violence. As it turns out, the ‘nice’ Jack wants to be Grace’s lover as well. It doesn’t matter that Grace gives him a gracious turn-down. Jack’s wife Amy misreads the signals and rushes to confront Grace in public, with a gun.

Grace is judged and blamed for sins she didn’t commit; all that’s missing is a Scarlet Letter. After a screaming argument where little is communicated, ‘noble’ Sidney Tate finds the limit of his patience. It’s been no picnic for Grace either. We hope the sex was fulfilling, because nothing else has worked out in her life. A b-a-a-a-d woman just can’t get a decent break in this world.

I once wrote, “Suzanne Pleshette has a real presence on screen, a look of intelligence and good humor and more than enough sex appeal to convince us that that she’s capable of much greater things.”  The real disappointment of A Rage to Live is that it gives Pleshette no chance to be funny. Even her Annie Hayworth in The Birds mixes sly asides into her serious dialogue, but Grace Caldwell has almost no sense of humor. There’s just nothing for Pleshette here, just a frustratingly deterministic demonstration that Girls Can’t Win unless they curb their appetites.

This show came before what the culture branded as the feminist emancipation of women, and we don’t miss the absence of an overt political context. But all we get is a lecture about the status quo. The script doesn’t even acknowledge a double standard at work. Why should only men be sexually aggressive?  The movie isn’t even curious about Grace’s ‘rage to live.’ Condemned as a guilty nymphomaniac, the best she can achieve is what she calls ‘almost love.’

Slut!  Slut!  Rich lousy slut!

Ben Gazzara and Bradford Dillman carry out their appointed roles as Good Sex Cop and Bad Sex Cop, hitting the notes in the shallow script. Gazzara’s Roger Bannon is sweaty, lustful and emotionally self-destructive. When he beats up a woman in a hotel room, screaming Grace’s name, we pretty much have to write him off. Dillman’s Sidney goes from clueless to unforgiving in one not-very-good confrontation that turns into a screaming match.

But there was some potential in an intimate bedroom scene, a little earlier. Dillman’s Sidney makes an overture for some lovemaking, apparently inspired by seeing Grace naked. Until he speaks up Grace hardly acknowledges his presence, at which point she shows affection, like a good little missus that knows her duty. Is she sincere, or is her passion going somewhere else?  Unfortunately, the directorial emphasis is on the implied nudity. Did no one realize that one teasing change of expression on Ms. Pleshette’s face would have been three times as sexy?

Like a trashy pocketbook cover, the film’s key poster art also shows Grace undressing for a man. He has his arms crossed, as if waiting impatiently. It’s a shame that Suzanne Pleshette’s big break sees her mainly being used as a generic sexy female. How many fine actresses ended up this way?  The big opportunity amounts to so little.

A Rage to Live moves from crisis to crisis, and will probably please fans of soap operas about Sin in the Suburbs. Glossy soaps never went out of fashion, even after the Production Code went away. Today’s reviewers often suggest that A Rage to Live would have been more sexually explicit had it been made just a couple of years later under the ratings system. But would it have been any more honest or meaningful?  The story is anchored back in 1949 when the book was published. Nudity or raw situations wouldn’t make the show more relevant — it needed more of the adult context that the Production Code had suppressed for over 30 years.

 


Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of A Rage to Live is perfect encoding of this Panavision B&W movie. The new 4K scan shows that the UA release has been well-preserved. Sharpness and image quality are of a very high standard. In less than a year B&W Hollywood features would be almost completely extinct, to the point that only six years later, Peter Bogdanovich’s choice of B&W for his The Last Picture Show was hailed as a profound artistic decision.

Nelson Riddle’s piano and violin-driven film score strikes the notes of serious melodrama, ending with a flourish as the camera cranes into the trees for a final long shot.

We’re ready for any film with Suzanne Pleshette, and [Imprint]’s extras are practically a valentine in her honor. Neil Sinyard’s career appreciation reminds us that this was her one starring role. It includes clips from The Birds when explaining just how good Pleshette could be.

Daniel Kremer also riffs on the special allure of the leading lady. He begins his video essay with a scene from Once Upon at Time in Hollywood, expanding on Suzanne Pleshette’s presence in a fake movie poster starring ‘Rick Dalton.’ Kremer then favors us with own film clip selections, seeking the essence of Pleshette by jumping from movie to movie (Mister Buddwing, Youngblood Hawke, Nevada Smith, The Ugly Dachshund). It certainly reminds us why we’re always ready for a Suzanne Pleshette movie — she was always alive, present, demanding our interest.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


A Rage to Live
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Video essay with Neil Sinyard on the career of Suzanne Pleshette (22 minutes)
Video essay Paralyzed Segments: Suzanne Pleshette Tangled Up In Codes by Daniel Kremer (17 minutes)
Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 5, 2023
(6879rage)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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