The consequences of sexual desire in young women is akin to that of contracting the bubonic plague. That seems to be the message of the 1965 film version of A Rage to Live, best on the best-selling novel by John O'Hara. The opening sequences introduce us to Grace Caldwell (Suzanne Pleshette), a gorgeous high school student who lives a seemingly idyllic life in small town America. Grace shares her affluent home with her widowed mother Emily (Carmen Matthews) and her older brother Brock (Linden Chiles), a straight-as-an-arrow type who is attending Yale and who tries to fill the role of father and husband to the best of his ability. Grace is a "good girl" is all respects. She studies hard and looks after her mother, who she clearly adores. However, she does have one disturbing aspect to her personality: she has an active sexual desire in an age where a young woman was supposed to value her virginity above virtually anything else. Grace likes to flirt with her male classmates and there is no shortage of potential lovers. Disturbingly, she realizes that she doesn't have to have any deep emotions for any of them in order to find them sexually attractive. When she gets caught necking with one such boy, Charlie (Mark Goddard), they are discovered by his mother and Grace becomes the center of a local scandal. The notion of such an innocent act leading to such consequences probably seemed over the top even in 1965, but the situation does worsen when Grace does end up bedding several young men, thus living up (or down) to her new-found reputation as a "bad girl". This brings strife to her family and friends and Grace seeks to smooth things over by accompanying her ill mother on a vacation to an island resort. However, temptation rears its ugly head and while Grace sneaks out to have a dalliance with a hunky waiter, mom is stricken by an attack and dies. Consumed by guilt, Grace is convinced that she is nothing more than a slut, destined to live a life of shame. She gets a second chance when she meets Sidney Tate (Bradford Dillman), a handsome, hard working young man who is instantly attracted to her. Before long, he asks her to marry him, leading Grace to confess that she isn't a virgin. Sidney takes this bit of news with the same gravity he would if she had confessed to being a serial murderer, but he is forgiving of her past and believes her vow to stay loyal. The happy couple soon has a baby and all seems well...until Roger Bannon (Ben Gazzara) enters their lives. Roger had known Grace slightly for years and confesses to her that he has long been obsessed with her. Although devoted to her devout but boring husband, Grace becomes tempted by Roger's gruff, blue collar ways and is turned on by his raw sexuality. Before long, they become lovers-and their relationship sets in motion a series of dire events that lead to a shocking (and ironic) conclusion.
A Rage to Live seems very dated in its early sequences. Yet, it serves as a disturbing time capsule from an era in which women were supposed to know their place and regard sex as nothing more than a wifely duty, similar to doing housework or changing diapers. The notion that a woman may have sexual desires of her own had profound consequences in polite circles. One of the drawbacks of these opening scenes is that Suzanne Pleshette was in her mid-twenties at the time and, although her performance is excellent, she is simply too old to play a high school girl. Thus, when her mother or brother dictate directives to her, it seems rather absurd to see this clearly mature young woman meekly obeying them. This becomes less of an issue as the story progresses and Pleshette is playing a character her own age. Director Walter Grauman plays up the soap opera elements of the story, all to the accompaniment of a fine score by Nelson Riddle and crisp black and white cinematography by Charles Lawton. As soon as Grace resolves one crisis in her troubled life, another takes its place. Yet, these problems are all of her own making. The concept of the film- a likable woman who cannot control her sexual urges and fantasies- was certainly daring for its day, especially since Grace is presented as a sympathetic figure who dotes on her husband and young child. Yet, she repeatedly risks it all for another turn under the covers. The cautionary aspects of the tale are as old as time: if you play with fire, you'll probably end up getting burned. Yet, Grace is not a villain. Her defense of her unfaithful actions to her husband is the time worn excuse: she loves her spouse and her dalliances are only to fulfill her physical needs. (Seeing how boring Dillman's Sidney is, you can hardly blame her.)
The film is engrossing throughout, even during those scenes that approach guilty pleasure status. Peter Graves turns up later in the film in a key role as a would-be lover of Grace's who plays an instrumental role in her fate. Carmen Matthews is especially good as Pleshette's long-suffering mother and reliable character actor James Gregory provides a typically deft turn as the family doctor. Gazzara is especially good as the guy from the other side of tracks whose animal magnetism initially attracts Grace but eventually frightens her.
A Rage to Live is by no means an example of classic movie-making but it is certainly worth a look, if only to observe how cinema was maturing rapidly during this period and exploring subjects that would have been taboo only a few years before.
The Warner Archive has released the film as a burn to order DVD. Quality is excellent, though there are no bonus features. The DVD is region free.
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