On Wednesday, May 8th, after a long illness, British director Bryan Forbes passed away at his home in Surrey, England. Although never as well-known to American audiences as fellow countryman Alfred Hitchcock, Forbes nevertheless achieved a kind of anonymous Hitchcock-ian immortality with his direction of The Stepford Wives (1975), one of my all-time favorite suspense thrillers …EVER.
Forbes, who made his directing debut with the Haley Mills vehicle, Whistle Down the Wind (1961), was at the time considered an odd choice to bring Ira Levin’s (Rosemary’s Baby) bestselling feminist nightmare about a woman who finds there’s something sinister afoot in a suburban community comprised of beautiful, eerily servile women and unprepossessing, boorish males.
“I thought it was fascinating they would ask a British director to direct what is obviously a very American subject,” Forbes says in an interview on the Special Edition DVD’s bonus features. A statement failing to take into account that it was precisely the director’s “otherness” that the film’s producers had hoped to mine in order to bring something special to the material. (Something akin to the unique, “outsider” perspective Roman Polanski was able to bring to the paranoid thriller, Rosemary’s Baby.)
Easier to understand and likely a persuading factor in Forbes’ recruitment for The Stepford Wives, was his deft handling of the kidnap thriller, Séance on an Wet Afternoon (1964), a minor classic of atmospheric suspense that reveals Forbes as a director of subtlety, intellect, and a flair for communicating n the visual language of film.
Starring Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss, The Stepford Wives was surely one of the most effective of the post-Rosemary’s Baby entries in the suspense thriller genre, but in the few short years following the release of -The Exorcist in 1973, audiences had developed a taste for the explicit. Atmospheric thrillers were out. Make-‘em-jump-out-of-their-seats thrillers were in.
Following a bumpy road to the screen which saw Katherine Ross stepping in for original choices Diane Keaton and Jean Seberg; a director and screenwriter (William Goldman) who couldn't see eye-to-eye on anything; and an uproar raised over Forbes’ contractual stipulation that any film that employs his services, also must employ those of his wife, the lovely Nanette Newman; The Stepford Wives was not particularly well-received by audiences on first release. Happily, it has since gone on to revisionist acclaim and well-deserved cult status. Better still, a 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives proved so thoroughly execrable that even detractors of the 1975 original began to look upon it more favorably.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Bryan Forbes, the director of other such memorable films as: The L-Shaped Room (1962), King Rat (1965), The Whisperers (1967) - do yourself a favor and check out these theatrical trailers. Perhaps not a very famous name, stateside, but an influential filmmaker whose work will endure. He's one of my favorites. RIP.
If you want to spenda little time with me mourning this great man, visit my blogspot.