John Waters handed out scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards that smelled like fake farts for his Polyester, but there has never been a stink as bad in cinema as the smell that permeates 1965’s Repulsion (Criterion Collection). Helene (Yvonne Furneaux) is getting ready to leave her Swinging London apartment for an Italian vacation with her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry), but before she leaves, she prepares a rabbit for supper. (She’s French, so this is not as unusual as it might sound.) Once she’s gone, her roommate, younger sister Carol (Catherine Deneuve), takes the naked-looking little thing out of the fridge and absently places the platter on a table near the phone. And there it sits for days, in the hot apartment, as Carol’s grip on reality slowly deserts her. Every now and then, director Roman Polanski’s camera returns to it, ever more deteriorated and flyblown, until you can practically imagine the reek permeating your clothes.
Polanski put his growing mastery of creating unease onscreen to bravura use in his first English-language film. The plot is little more elaborate than outlined above. Carol, a repressed mouse with Deneuve’s platinum looks, lives with her sister, works in a day spa, and draws far more attention from men than she wants. In fact, men disgust her, literally; she recoils from Michael’s toiletries in her bathroom, and at overhearing Helene and Michael in bed in the next room. When an unbidden suitor (John Fraser) plants one on her, her eyes widen in terror and she races to brush her teeth. Once her sister leaves on her trip, Carol’s inward retreat escalates. And yet she can’t block out wild imaginings of rape at the hands of brutish men, and the very walls of her darkened, stifling sanctuary assail her as the plaster rips open in jagged cracks and sprouts groping hands. Eventually, real men barge their way into the wreckage with tragic results.
Local fellow film nerd Diana Rogers once quipped on the KnoxBlab bulletin board that Repulsion was “Eraserhead for girls,” and that’s an apt capsule. Gilbert Taylor’s black-and-white photography, done justice in this much-needed Criterion upgrade, and Polanski’s eye for unsettling compositions and skin-crawling detail give the film a creeping dread that’s all the more effective for the ordinariness of the setting. Likewise, Deneuve mines the depths beneath her own icy beauty in a tightly controlled performance that helps elevate the film above genre. This sort of atmospheric psychological degeneration has been done a million times onscreen since, but rarely better than here.
Another solitary type occupies the foreground in one of the most welcome first-time DVD issues in months: 1962 cult favorite Lonely Are the Brave (Universal). The opening shot finds iconic screen he-man Kirk Douglas dozing by a campfire under the stars on the lone prairie, only to stir at the sight of a jet passing miles overhead. Douglas’ Jack Burns is a contemporary cowboy riding a range encroached on by barbed wire, busy highways, and ’60s tract homes. When he moseys into civilization to visit a friend, he finds the friend in the Albuquerque jail and starts an old-fashioned bar brawl to break in to see him. But Burns winds up in deeper trouble than he planned and is forced to break out and lam it across the rugged Sandia Mountains, a modern posse equipped with walkie-talkies and helicopters on his trail.
Lonely Are the Brave is a glorified B-movie that trades in a theme that would become almost hackneyed in Hollywood films over the coming decade or so: the passing of the Old West, and with it, the Western. But this was a labor of love for Douglas, and it shows. He optioned the Edward Abbey novel The Brave Cowboy and commissioned the excellent script from blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Director David Miller was a journeyman at best, but he managed to get onscreen both actorly nuance (Walter Matthau and Gena Rowlands both shine in early roles) and a measure of the epic struggle against nature that underpins many of the best Westerns. Indeed, scenes of Douglas’ character (or his stunt double) almost literally dragging his beloved horse up the crumbling crags of the Sandias help give what’s at stake here a more mythic dimension than a couple of years in prison, and helps give Lonely Are the Brave more lasting resonance than the average Saturday-afternoon-on-the-couch flick. After all, what Burns is fleeing isn’t just jail; it’s the future. And the future ultimately has the final word, as it usually will.