Based on a John O’Hara novel from 1949, A Rage to Live is a film that gives every impression of having been unearthed from some dusty tomb of long-forgotten movies. You wouldn’t think this would be possible for a melodrama about nymphomania, but long stretches of the film are stupefyingly dull, with only the occasional risible moment to break up the overall sense of aridness.
The story follows the trials of Grace Caldwell (Suzanne Pleshette), first as a precocious teenage nymphette whose desires cause havoc in her well-to-do family’s home, and then a few years later, as a suburban matron whose affairs are all that keep her from suffocating in affluence. I haven’t read the John O’Hara novel, but whatever O’Hara’s intentions were, this adaptation is fatally tripped up by awkwardness and reticence about the protagonist’s sex drive.
It’s as if a Hollywood studio film, as late as 1965, can’t possibly figure out what to make of a young woman who might want to experiment and who, having married very young, might not want to settle for being stuck with one partner for the rest of her life.
You get the impression that director Walter Grauman felt he was handling nitroglycerin with this subject: The film can’t bring itself to mention the term “nymphomania,” but just the way Grace’s urges are treated as a kind of illness or disorder speaks the proverbial volumes about the sexual repression of the era. Needless to say, there’s no hint of any pending sexual revolution in the well-manicured town of Caucasianville, Pennsylvania, where the story takes place.
Like most Hollywood releases of the time that aspired to serious, social-issue drama, the film is shot in black-and-white, a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and In Cold Blood. What’s striking is how antiseptic the cinematography is — the movie wants to be “real,” yet there’s curiously little sense of texture or grit to any of the settings. The interior scenes often suggest a soap opera with slightly better lighting.
Marooned in an aesthetic no-man’s-land between the glory days of the old studio system and the “new Hollywood” of the 1970s, and hopelessly compromised by the senescent Hays Code, this modestly budgeted middlebrow affair shows just why that new Hollywood had to arise to overthrow the old. When you stop to consider the casual sexual candor of European movies circa 1965, the diorama-like ambiance of A Rage to Live suggests a Hollywood fast sinking into irrelevance. This is a movie that must have felt dated and unreal the week it came out, an instant anachronism.
The early scenes, wherein seductive-eyed young Grace acquires a rep as the town tramp, are the most awkward. Everyone is too old for their parts, most of all 35-year-old Ben Gazzara as Grace’s high-school contemporary. Fast-forward a few years, and a slightly chastened Grace, trying to tamp down those sensual urges and be a good girl, meets and is wooed by Sidney Tate (Bradford Dillman), whom the movie insists is some kind of dreamboat and prize catch — manly, virtuous, successful in everything he does, sticking up for Grace’s honor, etc. But it’s hard to imagine any viewer today viewing Sidney as anything but a stuffed shirt. As played by Dillman, a graduate of the Charlton Heston School of Maximum Pomposity, he comes across as an unwitting satire of oppressive white-guy patriarchy.
A lifestyle of creature comforts and ladies who lunch is not enough for Grace, so when earthy stud Roger (Gazzara) reenters her life, they become lovers, sneaking off in the afternoons for motel-room liaisons. It’s no contest between hubby Sidney and bad boy Roger; Gazzara is the only actor who brings any juice to these proceedings, so it’s no wonder Grace wants to relieve her boredom with Roger. A trace of the real world accompanies Gazzara in everything he does here, whereas too many of the other actors are trapped in a pre-Method woodenness, all good grooming and perfect diction. Grace’s other option for l’amour is newspaperman Jack Hollister, who as played by Peter Graves might be even more ponderously dull and vanilla than Grace’s husband.
The movie ends with Grace standing alone in the street, with nowhere to go. The film’s attitude is not quite punitive, more like a moralistic tut-tutting at this terrible social problem of a grown woman who dares to be unsatisfied with a husband who’s a good provider. Grace is still in her early to mid 20s here; at the fade to black, I reflected on what kind of adventures a free spirit like her could go on to over the next 10 years, and what entertaining company she’d probably be in her 30s.