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The Mark tells the story of a reformed pedophile named Jim Fuller who tries to lead a normal life after his release from prison. A war veteran, Fuller is able to find an apartment and a job with relative ease. On the street, he blends into the crowds (as the opening tracking shot shows us). But for most the movie, he can’t shake the notion that his past is lurking behind every corner. Daily life becomes a struggle of concealing what is already invisible.

Stuart Whitman plays Jim Fuller, and he won an Oscar nomination for his performance. A handsome Hollywood leading man of the 1950s and '60s, Whitman doesn’t play Fuller as mentally ill. If anything, his Fuller is resolutely normal, trying not to call attention to himself. At home, he lets his elderly landlady treat him like her son. At work, he impresses his boss and his co-workers. One of his co-workers is Mrs. Leighton, a secretary. She, like Fuller’s boss, knows that he is an ex-convict, but unlike Fuller’s boss, she doesn’t know why he was convicted. Fuller and Leighton begin seeing each other socially, and then they begin dating.

Adapted from Charles Israel's novel by Sidney Buchman and Stanley Mann, The Mark was among the first studio pictures to deal with pedophilia. Though considered controversial, The Mark nevertheless attracted a good deal of talent. Directed by Guy Green, who had won an Oscar for his work as cinematographer for David Lean's Great Expectations (1946), it was originally set to star Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, and Leslie Howard (as Fuller’s psychiatrist). Though the casting eventually fell through, Green stayed on as director, with Whitman as Fuller, German actress Maria Schell as Ruth Leighton, and Rod Steiger as the psychiatrist.

The screenplay is smart, if a little manipulative: it doesn’t reveal the nature of Fuller's illness until well into the movie, by which time we’ve already become invested in Fuller’s story. When the details are explained, it’s done as lurid flashback – dark photography, ponderous musical score, and a Fuller who looks and acts differently from the one we know. In his commentary for VCI Entertainment's DVD release of The Mark, Whitman points out how they parted his hair differently in the flashback scenes. This deliberate distancing act, of separating the sick Fuller from the reformed Fuller, is clever. We disassociate the two Fullers, and when they come together in the later parts of the movie, we’re surprised how readily we can forgive him.

Not everyone was convinced, though. Pauline Kael criticized screenwriters Buchman and Mann for legally exonerating Jim Fuller of pedophilia. (In the novel, Fuller is guilty of raping a child, but in the movie, he turns himself in before he commits the rape). This constitutes a basic cheat, Kael argued, because the filmmakers withhold the truth so that they may win over the audience’s sympathy.

There’s no doubt that The Mark would have been a more remarkable film if it had allowed Fuller to surrender to his illness – remarkable in its trust in the audience and in its flouting of studio production codes – but would it necessarily have made it a more powerful movie? Our attraction to Fuller, our gut instinct that he’s worthy of redemption, comes from our knowledge that he’ll probably never be able to construct a normal life. He may find a good job, fall in love, start a family – but he’ll forever be looking over his shoulder. What matters is that he was capable of committing the crime, that he served jail time for it, and that the entire experience has (as the title indicates) "marked" him for life.

How Fuller deals with his past and how it reflects on his present life become central to the film. The best scenes are the long conversations between the reformed Jim Fuller and his psychiatrist, Dr. McNally, played by Rod Steiger. They meet several times a week in Dr. McNally’s office, a kind of apartment/consulting room where coffee mugs and cigarette butts mingle with case papers. "You’ll do most of the talking," McNally informs him on his first visit, and Fuller, who was also McNally’s patient in prison, has clearly grown comfortable with the doctor’s informal, almost brusque style. The scenes have an insular feel – McNally is never seen outside of his office – and provide a safe haven for Fuller, a place where he can deal with his past in a setting that is far removed from society. Shot in an almost minimalist fashion, these scenes take full advantage of the Cinemascope format. Director Guy Green often places his two actors at opposite ends of the screen and lets the scenes play out with few cuts. Interestingly, Fuller never seems as isolated as he does in these scenes, sitting far away from McNally, the sole person who can help him.

Steiger’s performance is curious but effective. His McNally is no paragon of professionalism: he’s constantly being interrupted by his fiancee, who calls to berate him; he has poor personal hygiene (he smokes, drinks and always appears unwashed and disheveled); and he’s constantly moving about his office as if restless or bored. But we sense that he’s intelligent, and on more than one occasion, he displays a surprising clarity of thought. Steiger, performing a convincing Irish brogue, is clearly aware of his character’s redemptive, almost Messianic powers and delivers a performance that goes in the opposite direction: mundane, schlumpy, and spaced-out. It works, and saves his character from too many good intentions.

If The Mark ever feels excessively good-hearted, it is in the scenes with Ruth Leighton (Maria Schell), Fuller’s co-worker and eventual girlfriend. Approaching middle age but still sexy and stylish, Leighton is her own woman, a widow and single mother who has no desire to rush into a relationship. When she and Fuller do start dating, she is cautious and pragmatic. Her knowledge that Jim is an ex-convict (of what crime she is still ignorant) has been shuffled away to the back of her mind. She doesn’t deny it, nor does she actively consider it, and some may have problems with this. Surely a single woman would think twice about becoming involved with a convicted felon. Perhaps she has, only the screenplay doesn’t show it. Schell (who is the sister of actor Maximillian Schell) is quietly brilliant as Ruth Leighton, poised and confident. How she deals with her romantic dilemma is written in her eyes, which, being big and expressive, are capable of communicating a range of emotion.

Ruth Leighton is as much of a redemptive force for Fuller as Dr. McNally, but she also represents a source of potential destruction, particularly in the form of her eight-year-old daughter. Her daughter and Fuller become friends and for awhile, all is well. But then a series of missteps leads to a sudden unraveling, and Fuller must deal with the prospect of losing the life he has built for himself. The movie’s final half-hour deals with how Fuller copes with these crises. It doesn’t offer any easy answers, quite an accomplishment for a studio film made in the early '60s, and the final confrontation between Fuller and Leighton doesn’t solve anything. In this respect, The Mark was ahead of its time, and surprisingly pessimistic: the mentally ill will always be ill to a certain degree, and their relationship with the rest of society will be tenuous at best.

This is the first time The Mark has been made available on home video. VCI Entertainment's DVD presents the movie in a restored widescreen print. The disc includes audio commentaries by both director Guy Green and star Stuart Whitman. In addition, the disc includes a photo gallery; the original theatrical trailer; and Green’s acceptance speech from the 2000 American Society of Cinematographers Awards dinner, where Green received a lifetime achievement award.


The Mark is now available on DVD from VCI Entertaiment. Suggested retail: $24.99. The Mark is also available on VHS from VCI Entertainment in both standard and widescreen aspect ratios. Suggested retail: $14.99. For more information, check out the VCI Entertainment Web site.
 


Photos courtesy of VCI Entertainment.