It's often the case that within a man of action beats a more sensitive heart, though it may not be obviously apparent. John Guillermin (born 1925 and still with us as I write this) had a directing career of thirty-nine years, and is best known for large-scale action-adventure, whether they be war movies (The Blue Max from 1966, The Bridge at Remagen, 1969), disaster movies (The Towering Inferno, 1974) or violent thrillers (Shaft in Africa, 1973). Add to that an all-star Agatha Christie adaptation (Death on the Nile, 1978), two Tarzan movies in the 1960s and the 1976 iteration of King Kong. In amidst all that blood and thunder, Rapture, seems out of place. It's a French/US coproduction, set and shot in Brittany with an international cast speaking English, with more of an emphasis on mood and atmosphere, and notably downbeat, more akin to the European art movies of the time than Hollywood – though as Mike Sutton mentions in his essay (more of which below) it's not so different thematically to the rest of Guillermin's work as it might appear. It was made in 1965, in between the military drama Guns of Batasi and The Blue Max. It wasn't a commercial success but it seems to have a place close to its director's heart.
Rapture is based on a novel, Rapture in My Rags, by Phyllis Hastings, published in 1954. The fuller title comes from Walter de la Mare's poem “The Scarecrow”, which is of significance given the film's imagery. The novel was set in England, but the film adaptation (written by Stanley Mann from a film treatment by regular Fellini collaborator Ennio Flaiano) shifts the story to a small town on the Breton coast.
The central character, onscreen almost throughout, is teenaged Agnes (Patricia Gozzi, herself fifteen at the time) who lives with her domineering father Frederick (Melvyn Douglas). At the start of the film, her older sister Genevieve (Sylvia Kay) is marrying Armand (Peter Sallis). There are more than a few hints that this marriage is Genevieve's escape from a distinctly dysfunctional family. Agnes is left alone and lonely with Frederick and their housekeeper Karen (Bergman regular Gunnel Lindblom). Spending much time solitary, Agnes retreats into fantasy and at first believes that the scarecrow in her garden has come to life. But this is in fact Joseph (Dean Stockwell), on the run after having killed a man. Soon, he and Agnes become close – too close for Frederick's liking.
If Patricia Gozzi is not a name to conjure with nowadays, that may be because she only made six cinema films and one TV film before leaving acting, and most of them – until recently at least – have not been especially easy to see. She can be seen as a ten/eleven-year-old in Jean-Pierre Melville's Léon Morin, Priest (1961) but made an impression a year later as the title role in Sundays and Cybèle. Rapture was her fifth film, and her only one not in her native language of French, and she gives a remarkable performance which should be better known. Melvyn Douglas gives what could have been a two-dimensional villain role considerable shading, and Dean Stockwell is affecting as the fugitive who is clearly as unable to deal with his attraction to Agnes and she is. The film doesn't disguise the fact that their relationship becomes a sexual one. It isn't graphically portrayed: we get no further than seeing them in bed with the sheets up to Gozzi's shoulders. However, it's a sign of changing sensibilities that this relationship with a distinct age difference (and in real life Stockwell is fourteen years Gozzi's senior) makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing nowadays.
Guillermin's direction contributes significantly. The camera is locked down when Agnes is not on screen, but when she is, it's constantly mobile, its instability putting us into the world as she sees it. The later sequence set in the city, with Agnes trying and failing to make a go at living with Joseph, is shot throughout with Dutch angles. Shots towards the end of the film mirror earlier ones. Near the start, an overhead shot of Agnes shows her in a state approaching that of the title as she watches seagulls wheeling overhead, freer than she can be. A similar shot towards the end takes on a The film is beautifully shot in black and white CinemaScope by Marcel Grignon who, a year later, would shoot one of the last big-budget monochrome films of the 60s, Is Paris Burning?. Indeed, by 1965 black and white photography was rapidly becoming obsolete, commercially if not artistically, in mainstream American and British cinema, and Rapture was Guillermin's final film not shot in colour. There is also an effective score by Georges Delerue.
Rapture was not a commercial success. It appears to have been shelved in the UK for two years: the BBFC passed it with a X certificate (restricted to sixteens and over, uncut – it's now a 12, still uncut) in May 1965 but the Monthly Film Bulletin's short and dismissive review can be found in the December 1967 issue. You wonder if it might have done better if it had been shot in French and released with English subtitles. It has certainly fallen into obscurity over the years and I have no memories of this ever turning up on British TV – and if it had been shown before at least the mid-80s, it would have been ruinously panned and scanned. By all accounts this was the one of his films that Guillermin particularly wanted to be made available again, and now, thanks to Eureka, it is indeed available again in the UK.
Rapture is a dual-format release in the Eureka Classics line. Only a Blu-ray checkdisc was sent for review, but the DVD is identical in contents to it.
The transfer is in the original ratio of 2.35:1 and is a reminder of how good black and white 35mm can look in a high definition transfer. Grignon's camerawork has strong blacks, clear whites and rich greyscale. Contrast, which is vital in monochrome, is spot-on and grain is certainly present and natural.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered in LPCM 2.0, and is clear and well-balanced. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The only on-disc extra is a commentary, recorded in 2014, featuring film historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. Redman has corresponded with Guillermin on a number of occasions regarding this film, with the result being the 2011 US Blu-ray release from Twilight Time. Kirgo saw the film when much younger and it had had a lasting effect on her. She compares it with Jules et Jim, a rather better-known downbeat love story which has in common with Rapture the services of Georges Delerue and the format of black and white Scope. It's an informative commentary, well worth listening to.
Eureka's booklet runs to twenty pages, mainly taken up by a newly-written essay by Mike Sutton. This is a thorough piece on the film, discussing the original novel (not in print, nor available in my county library system) and the film's differences to it, and also, as I mention above, pointing out some thematic similarities to otherwise much different films directed by Guillermin. The booklet includes original stills and poster artwork, transfer notes and film and disc credits.