Rethinking Romance

Even though I’m a lady, I don’t often watch what many critics refer to “women’s films” and typical romantic films tend to bore me to tears. It’s always bothered me that I’m supposed to enjoy An Affair to Remember (1957) more than The Dirty Dozen (1967) simply because of my gender. Apologies to the film’s legions of fans, but I find An Affair to Remember to be one of the most insufferably boring movies that Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr ever made and I love Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. On the other hand, if I come across The Dirty Dozen playing on TV there is a good chance that I’ll probably watch it.

So why in the world did I spend 95 minutes of my life watching the first film adaptation of a Harlequin romance novel recently? I could blame my fascination with the talented actor Keir Dullea who stars in Gerry O’Hara’s film Leopard in the Snow (1978). Keir Dullea is the reason I initially wanted to see Leopard in the Snow, but after I did a little background research on the movie my curiosity was piqued and I plunged into this romantic drama without reservation. I was curious to see a feminine approach to what I assumed might be some sexy ’70s style entertainment.

Harlequin novels are published in association with Mills & Boon, which is a well-known publisher of romance novels for women that has been going strong for roughly 100 years. They were originally based in Britain and Canada, but in 1971 they started releasing their books in North America. When Harlequin first debuted they published romantic novels with very little erotic content except the occasional kiss or caress, but after they discovered that their steamier novels were selling the most, Harlequin introduced a second line of books called Harlequin Presents. This second line of books from Harlequin highlighted the work of three popular British romance authors who were responsible for some of the publisher’s most sensual novels. One of these authors was Anne Mather (a pseudonym for Mildred Grieveson) who wrote the original 1974 Harlequin Presents’ novel Leopard in the Snow.

It seems only natural that the popularity of the Harlequin Presents line would lead the book publishers to attempt a film adaptation based on one of their earliest and most popular novels, and in 1978 Harlequin decided to produce a film version of Anne Mather’s Leopard in the Snow, which Mather also wrote the script for. Unfortunately for the book publishers their first foray into feature-length movie making was a financial and critical flop. Harlequin was so disappointed by the poor response to Leopard in the Snow that they didn’t produce another film version of one of their books until the 1994 TV adaptation of Cheryl Emerson’s Treacherous Beauties sixteen years later. Harlequin continues to release television films based on their novels, but Leopard in the Snow is still their only theatrically released film.

I’m not sure what the Harlequin Presents tagline was in 1974 when Leopard in the Snow was first published, but according the official Harlequin website it’s currently:

“Meet sophisticated men of the world and captivating women in glamorous, international settings. Seduction and passion are guaranteed.”

And the original film poster for Leopard in the Snow featured the line:

“Remember when a good love story made you feel like holding hands?”

The 1978 paperback and original film poster for Leopard in the Snow

Since I’ve never read the original novel, I can’t tell you if the film is a faithful adaptation of the book, but I can tell you that the movie features very little “glamour,” “seduction” and “passion.” It’s also not the typical kind of romance film that would encourage lovers to walk out of the theater “holding hands.” As a matter of fact, the film contains very little romance and no sex, so it’s not too surprising that it was a box office disaster for Harlequin. If potential viewers walked into a movie theater believing any of the advertising associated with the book imprint or the film, they were probably going to be a little disappointed. On the other hand, the film takes a surprisingly serious and somewhat unsentimental approach to adult romance.

Leopard in the Snow begins with a pretty upper class London girl called Helen (Susan Penhaligon) getting lost in a snowstorm while she’s driving in the bleak British countryside. Helen’s rescued by an attractive American stranger with a bad limp (Keir Dullea) named Dominic , who happens to be out walking his pet leopard… in the snow. Helen returns with the American back to his country home and as the plot slowly unfolds we discover that Dominic is a reclusive ex-race car driver who was involved in a terrible accident that left him crippled and killed his brother. Helen is told by Dominic and his faithful manservant (Jeremy Kemp) that it’s impossible for her to leave due to the snowstorm, so she finds herself trapped with the cranky Dominic and his pet leopard for days. Instead of romance blossoming between the two strangers, Dominic is strangely cruel and flat out mean to Helen at first and she seems frightened of him and immediately tries to leave. Keir Dullea has always played odd, thoughtful and strangely compelling characters so I wasn’t too surprised by his performance as Dominic and his rather brutal treatment of the helpless young woman, but it seemed really out of place in a “romance” movie.

Things take an even stranger turn when Helen finds out she’s being held against her will. Dominic refuses to let her go because he’s afraid that people will find out where he is. You see, ever since his race car accident he’s been hiding out in the British countryside and doesn’t want to be bothered by pesky reporters and fans who seem to think he’s dead. Naturally the relationship between Dominic and Helen becomes even more uncomfortable and strained. It isn’t until Helen finally succumbs to her captivity and accepts her disturbing situation that she begins to exhibit any real feelings for Dominic. This makes the poor girl’s romantic feelings for her captor seem like they’re fueled by a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome instead of love.

After Helen’s various escape attempts fail, Dominic finally lets her return home to her wealthy family in London where they’re getting ready to celebrate Christmas, but she begs him to let her stay. It turns out Helen’s got a handsome, stable and kind suitor at home who’s been asking for her hand in marriage, but she doesn’t want anything to do with him. Once Helen’s safe at home she can only think of the abusive and self-absorbed Dominic, so she finally decides to return to the place where he held her captive and throw herself at his feet. Following a few minor plot twists and turns, Leopard in the Snow ends happily with Helen, Dominic and his pet leopard literally walking off into the sunset… okay, it was actually more like walking out into a snowy winter landscape, but you get the idea. The title of the novel and film is a painfully obvious metaphor for the strange relationship between Dominic and Helen. I suppose either one of them could be seen as the “wild leopard” that needed to be tamed. Since the film is based on a Harlequin romance novel I expected a happy ending, but this cold and rather unusual film was completely unlike the passion-filled romance I expected it to be, and frankly that’s probably why I finished watching it.

I found the movie strangely compelling, mainly due to the lack of any strong narrative voice, which would have undoubtedly been provided in the original novel by the heroine. Since Helen’s voice is absent in the film except when she’s responding to other characters, viewers have no clear idea of what her feelings are towards her supposed love interest. I’m sure Susan Penhaligon’s rather low-key performance added to the odd feel of the film or maybe she was just having a hard time expressing what her character was supposed to be feeling, but the original novel was probably written from her perspective so readers would have had a clearer understanding of why she was attracted to Dominic. Without Helen’s voice dominating Leopard in the Snow, I was left wondering why she was willing to endure his cruel and controlling behavior. However, if a voice-over had been added to the movie it would have played out more like a Lifetime movie or an episode of Sex in the City, and I would have personally found it a lot less interesting to watch.

It’s really impossible to recommend Leopard in the Snow unless you happen to be a Keir Dullea completist. Gerry O’Hara’s lackluster direction is really uninspired. Much of the film was shot in Canada so the supposedly British countryside looks strangely alien at times and the occasional use of faux snow is distracting. The soundtrack by composer Kenneth V. Jones isn’t bad, but it’s pretty predictable and bland at times. The only thing really worthwhile about the film is the first half of Anne Mather’s script and Dullea’s odd performance as the crippled race car driver Dominic. Susan Penhaligon is really forgettable in her role, which is a shame since she’s a very pretty actress who I’ve enjoyed in other films. The lack of any real chemistry between the two leads definitely hurts the movie. Keir Dullea just wasn’t made for playing a romantic leading man. The American actor seems oddly out of place in Harlequin’s first film surrounded by an entirely British cast. He also doesn’t seem that comfortable with the leopard which he’s rarely shown with in the movie, but that’s not too surprising since he was supposedly almost mauled by the giant cat on the first day of shooting Leopard in the Snow.

Coincidently, Harlequin’s associate publishers Mills & Boon will be celebrating their 100th birthday in 2008 and recently there has been a lot of discussion among female critics and writers about the long-term effects of romance novels like Leopard in the Snow and how they shape or inform women’s romantic relationships and sexual behavior. Harlequin and Mills & Boon have been criticized for decades by critics who rail against what they see as “misogynistic hate speech” and “positive images of rape” in the books they publish and I’m sure plenty of people would be troubled by the way that the romance plays out in Leopard in the Snow, but Harlequin romance novels are written by women and read by women, so using a term like “misogynistic” to describe Leopard in the Snow and Harlequin romances in general, seems utterly absurd to me. It’s not a term I like casually tossing around when discussing movies and I find it impossible to use it when describing female focused entertainment.

In some ways Leopard in the Snow could be seen as a product of the ’70s and it would be easy to dismiss the original novel and film as presenting a dated representation of women and female sexuality, but at a time when movies like Knocked Up and Black Snake Moan are becoming critically acclaimed films, criticizing or dismissing Leopard in the Snow for the way it portrays its female characters seems ridiculous to me. Like all Harlequin romance novels, Leopard in the Snow should be viewed as a romantic fantasy told from a uniquely female perspective, which we rarely get to see in films. I personally think having a healthy fantasy life is essential to human development as long as it doesn’t interfere with daily reality, and Harlequin romance novels seem to enrich the lives of a lot of people even if they aren’t exactly my own cup of tea. Regular Harlequin readers would probably enjoy the film adaptation of Leopard in the Snow since the original novel appears to follow typical formulas often used by romance writers. Romantic entanglements with race car drivers seem to be a popular theme among Harlequin readers. The company recently created a successful new line of books called NASCAR Romances and it’s possible that Leopard in the Snow was one of the forerunners of this unusual romantic subgenre.

Leopard in the Snow was released on DVD by Televista in October and the film is currently available from Amazon. Like all of Televista’s DVD releases, the quality is rather poor so it’s hard to recommend. Hopefully another company will release a better print of the film in the future.

Recommended Links:
Harlequin’s Official Site
Mill & Boon’s Official Site
Teach Me Tonight (A terrific blog devoted to intelligent conversation and scholarly research into romance novels)
Keir Dullea Profile (Richard Harland Smith’s look at the film career of Keir Dullea)

16 thoughts on “Rethinking Romance

  1. Well, you certainly seem underwhelmed. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of this movie but I will say that Keir Dullea was a fine if uncharismatic actor who probably would have gotten roles better suited to his understated style (like 2001 for instance) had it not been for his model-like looks. I mean, look at the picture at the top of this post. It could be a cover of GQ. Understated actors like Dullea are better suited to supporting roles where they don’t have to carry the movie but when you look like him you get put in the lead, regardless. For instance, I thought he did a good job as the son/lawyer in Madame X with Lana Turner. It was a small but effective and important role. Just out of curiosity, have you ever seen David and Lisa?

  2. It’s not the kind of movie that really appeals to me so I was rather underwhelmed by it, but I’m still glad I watched it even if it wasn’t what I expected and I’m sure some romance fans might like it. I hope I conveyed that above.

    It’s funny, but I don’t personally find Dullea particularly attractive (in retrospect, he might be a little all-American looking for me). I do find him charismatic (or maybe compelling is the right word?) so we seem to have opposite opinions there. He is a nice looking guy though! I have seen David & Lisa and even reviewed it earlier this year. You can find my review here.

  3. Good review of David and Lisa. I think you summed it up perfectly. And I can see Dullea as compelling, as I thought he was in 2001 in the showdown with HAL for instance. As for charisma, to me that’s something an actor has that jumps off the screen, like Cary Grant for example. But it does not mean to me that an actor is good or not, although I thought Grant was terrific. For instance I wouldn’t classify Robert DeNiro as charismatic either but certainly he’s an excellent actor. Adrian Brody would be a current example of an actor who I think is excellent yet uncharismatic. So I just wanted to clear up what I meant there. I don’t equate charisma with talent, it’s just something some have and some don’t. And I hate to keep bringing up 2001 but I think I’m one of the few people out there who really thinks Dullea was fantastic in his portrayal. No one ever talks about the acting in that movie but he was so devoid of mannerism and cliche that I never felt for a moment he wasn’t Dave Bowman. Charisma or not, that’s good acting.

  4. Thanks for the comments about my brief piece on David & Lisa!

    We all have personal definitions of things like “beauty” or “charisma.” What appeals to me, very likely might not appeal to you, but with that said, I do think “compelling” is a better way to describe Dullea’s screen presence. For me Grant’s appeal really is his charm. The guy just drips charm and how can you not like someone who’s incredibly handsome, a snappy dresser and so damn funny all at once? Anyway… I digress (as usual), but it’s easy to get lost talking about how fabulous Cray Grant is.

    Feel free to bring up 2001 all you like since I love Kubrick even if he’s been talked and written about to death. 2001 is one of my all-time favorite films. I completely agree with you about Dullea’s low-key performance as Dave. He really is perfect in that role. I also like him in films like The Fox or even The Haunting of Julia where he also plays a very controlling and domineering guy. I was reminded of The Fox while I was watching Leopard in the Snow. I really wish The Fox would get a DVD release. It’s based on a D.H. Lawrence story and Lawrence is my kind of romance writer!

  5. Thanks for the review. I don’t think gender should have to determine what genre of films a person should enjoy. I know that’s how Hollywood, etc. works though. I don’t blame ya for loving The Dirty Dozen. Not a big fan of romance novels. I always saw Harlequin romance as something old women like my grandmother read. I read some of those trashy Jackie Collins novels as a teen, but that’s about it. This was still an interesting blog nonetheless. Not sure that I would ever seen this film, but I enjoyed reading this.

  6. I’m glad you enjoyed my look at Leopard in the Snow, Keith. As I mentioned above, I’m glad I watched the film even if it wasn’t what I was expecting. In some ways it was better then what I thought it was going to be. It’s strange how so much cinema seems to still be divided by really old-fashioned gender lines. Hollywood often resembles Toys R Us. . .

    Boys in the blue aisle with guns, sports and science toys.

    Girls in the pink aisle with dolls, kitchen goods and jewelry making supplies.

  7. Funny how certain movies really do worm their way into your heart when viewed at a formative age… I remember plopping myself in front of the TV when I was 13 — like a zombie — watching this film over and over again when it first showed up on HBO in 1978. No questions asked. Just sucked it in. Over and over and over. Perhaps it was because of what you aptly describe as the “alien landscape” that might be part of the tidal pull. Actually, now that I think of it, you mention a lot of things that I agree with…but not. I have impossibly fond memories of this film — but then again, i also sat and studied BIRCH INTERVAL, PIPE DREAMS and QUILP (THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP) — basically EVERYTHING that played on HBO at that time! Maybe it was the opportunity to see so many movies — just for the lust of seeing movies — ANY movie — uncut and in my livingroom. Nothing could touch any of them. No bad. Only great. Funny. Never thought of criticizing any aspect of these films. Still, whenever I get a hold of them, I love them. Like a family member that I knew loved me. I remember racing home from the school bus so that I could get to the TV by 2:30pm every single day just to watch the trailers for all these things (that’s when HBO would roll their previews for the next month’s schedule). It’s almost Proustian. LEOPARD IN THE SNOW. Thanks Kimberly. You’ve reminded me how much I miss LEOPARD IN THE SNOW! I better go before I start singing Skeeter Davis songs!

  8. Could you be any more vague in your comment HSB? For the love of everything that is Harlequin, please elaborate on what you like so much about Leopard in the Snow! I would love to hear you thoughts on it. Clearly my feelings on the film are mixed, but I don’t think I’m part of the intended audience. Proust didn’t come to mind when I was watching Leopard in the Snow. I really wanted to be able to link it to something truly wonderful like John Fowles’ The Collector, but I just couldn’t make the leap. Leopard in the Snow was far too pedestrian for my own tastes.

  9. Fun review. Thanks!

    I have a couple of Harlequin anecdotes: In the mid 70s, they launched a line of science-fiction paperbacks (which didn’t do well). I was working at the Montreal Book Fair and they had a stand next to mine. It was filled with sci-fi paperbacks, but for display only. The books had covers, but nothing printed inside. When the Fair closed, they left everything there to be thrown away. I picked up a bunch of those paperbacks and I’d give them to friends. They’d go, “Hey, great Kelly Freas cover!”, but when they opened the book, it was just blank pages.

    Anecdote #2: Many years ago, Harlequin had this promotion where they gave away paperbacks… in boxes of Tide. You’d find a Harlequin Romance in a plastic wrap inside the box, buried in the detergent.

    To this day, I think of laundry detergent whenever someone mentions Harlequin books.

  10. I’m sure you are entirely correct in your review — I have actually just ordered it from Amazon and will shortly rekindle my emotional memory of it. I’m almost terrified to attach an adult critical assessment to it. But like a moth to a flame, I know I must. I just confronted a similar demon with my love for TWO ON A GUILLOTINE, which my childhood told me was a beloved experience — but which a respected friend challenged that it was a bore. Upon re-watching some 30 years later, well, I still loved it. I understood his critique, but nothing at this point could erode that crust of elation that had developed around the memory of staying up past 11pm for the first time to watch TWO ON A GUILLOTINE. The movie may well be a bore — but the moment was too precious and I wouldn’t want my vision of it to change at this point. I’m hoping my memory of LEOPARD IN THE SNOW remains untarnished upon revisiting it. But don’t get me wrong — your descriptions (and criticisms) are probably right on the money — but it only made me want to share time with it again. I’ll report back with definitives soon. Thanks for another grand post!

  11. Pierre – Thanks for sharing those Harlequin stories! Sci-fi romances? Now that could have been a romance genre I would have found interesting! I can only imagine what they would have been like… possibly like some episodes of Star Trek, but with Captain Kirk being a woman who meets up with sexy alien men maybe?

    HSB – It’s really funny how we get attached to some things as kids and then watching them again later the reaction can sometimes be “Why in the world did I like this so much?,” this isn’t to say that you still might enjoy Leopard in the Snow, but I know the feeling well. I’ve been watching some episodes of the TV show Fantasy Island recently and wondering why I loved the show so much when I was a kid. The concept of Fantasy Island is fantastic, but the execution, not so much.

  12. I’m glad you reviewed this film – I’ve seen it in Dullea’s credits, and wondered what it was like, but generally avoid anything that smacks of “romance novel”, even warmed over a little, altho this was cooled down some with the winter setting. I must’ve seen snatches of it over the years, the leopard in the snow sounds awfully familiar, but it didn’t make much of an impression, I guess, regardless of Dullea’s presence. Guess if it comes on TV, I’ll watch it, for Dullea completeness sake, 😉 but I won’t be plopping down loose change for it.

    I much prefer him in “The Fox”, another kind of wintwer domination movie, but perhaps his character’s distasteful manipulation in that one was overshadowed by Anne Heywood’s performance, something I don’t think Penhaligon had in her most of the time. Not that Penhaligon lacked the chops for making the most of a role, her work in “Under Milk Wood” as Mae was as natural as can be, and I’ve heard her work in “Bouquet of Barbed Wire” on UK TV was awesome, tho I’ve never seen it; I think she needed strong direction. Curious that Harlequin would pin their female character on her, I don’t see her as a genteel bodice-ripper, altho I wouldn’t’ve minded if she did – that was a bit of a specialty of hers on screen back then, another curious reason for Harlequin to leave out adult material, as she was made for it.

    Dullea always seemed to have a controlled violence just under the surface in most of his performances, I feel, and it come across as a quiet fearlessness, especially as Dave in “2001” – his single-minded attack on Hal and the ship was like peeling layers of an onion until he found the center. His David was somewhat the same – he popped his top a little, but couldn’t stop himself from figuring out a way thru Lisa’s defences. Too bad he didn’t have a Janet Margolin in this one, I guess.

    The time of production must’ve put more than a few strictures on Harliquin’s efforts – the actual sex and nudity of newer romance novels have overshadowed the staples of the genre that were pretty suggestive, and just as submissive, back then, and could’ve been out of the question in a 1978 romance genre film – judging by your description, I think they were shooting low, and could’ve aimed higher.

    You always something unique here, and it’s always worth a read, keep up the good work.

  13. Thanks for the nice words Vanwell! I think Leopard in the Snow is an important film obviously due to it being the first film produced by Harlequin and based on one of their books so I’m sort of surprised there’s little to zero information about it floating around, which is why I decided to tackle it.

    As I mentioned above, The Fox is much more my cup of tea and I really like that film since I love Lawrence and I thought Dullea was terrific in it, along withe rest of the cast. It’s a shame that it’s not available on DVD yet.

  14. Kimberly – The Harlequin SF series was straight science-fiction, no romance. It was a serious attempt at diversification, applying their marketing savvy to another genre. There were some decent titles in the series, but the clinkers were mercilessly ridiculed in SF circles and the series tanked.

  15. “Since I’ve never read the original novel, I can’t tell you if the film is a faithful adaptation of the book”

    Over 20 years ago, a large box of then old harlequin books sat in the corner of my room for a couple of weeks (props for a party that was being planned). Boredome and curiosity got the better of me and I read a half dozen or so of them, including (the only title I remember) Leopard in the Snow.

    Your description here sounds like the filming was pretty literal and reading your plot rundown fired some memory synapses that hadn’t been used in years.

    What I remember about the book:
    1. The title: catchy as all get out (the only reason I remember the book, I can’t remember any other harlequin titles)
    2. The real leopard in the snow was very marginal in the book. I seem to recall some unconvincing dialogue about it too, but details are blurry. The overall impression was that it didn’t have much to do with anything, almost as if the author had written the first draft then got the title at the last minute and had to work in a leopard in the snow in the final draft.
    3. The lack of chemistry or interaction between the leads seems to have been a standard harlequin policy. In most of the books I read (mostly from the early 70’s) despite the expected lack of sexual activity there’s virtually no other activity either. Most commonly the heroine had no idea of the leading man’s intentions until the final page (or paragraph!) of the book. Typically, the heroine thinks the man is acting beastly for 9/10’s of the book. Then in the final tenth she realizes she loves him (and despairs because he obviously hates her) and this goes on until the very end at which point it’s revealed that the man had been either a) trying to mask his feelings b) acting out of despair. Both of these strategies were responses to his assumption that _she_ hated _him_.

    So I imagine the intended audience was used enough to the format (if not the book itself) that they could fill in both the heroine’s growing (unconscious) love for her tortured loner and the man’s gruff, clumsy attempts to cover his feelings. If you don’t have that background, I can understand that it all might be a bit of a blur.

  16. Many thanks for your insightful response Michael! I really appreciate it since I’m rather clueless about Harlequin romance novels myself. They do seem to follow a particular pattern or formula so I suppose if you’ve read one, you’ve read many.

    I do think Harlequin readers would probably enjoy the film adaptation of Leopard in the Snow so I hope the movie finds a new audience on DVD.

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