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Glee and venom

By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  May 8, 2007

Losey, an American HUAC fugitive who in Hollywood was a rich, imaginative manufacturer of genre movies, became an idolized figure among the cognoscenti, and he tried to rise to the occasion with his next two Pinter scripts, ACCIDENT (1967; May 25 at 9:15 pm and May 26 at 7 pm) and THE GO-BETWEEN (1970; May 22 at 8:45 pm and May 23 at 6:30 pm), filmizations of others’ novels that at the time were perceived as the salvation of English movies in the fierce art-film heyday of Godard, Fellini, Bergman, and Kurosawa. Pretension was a prevalent hazard, and it seems that the stultified existentialism of Antonioni and the historical objectivism of Rossellini were major influences on Losey. But today these movies, for all their highbrow glamor and pungent social commentary, do not wear terribly well — their fashionableness is enervating, mannered, and often stiffly acted. The latter, shot in chintzy color, is a grandly styled period piece that places a woozy young boy in the middle of a forbidden romance between Julie Christie’s manor maiden and Alan Bates’s tenant farmer. The class conflict couldn’t be simpler, and the film couldn’t be more entranced with its own obvious ideas about Old World soullessness. One can only guess at Pinter’s contribution and responsibility, but such is the grace of writing for movies, as well as possibly one reason he has so rarely stepped into the director’s shoes. (He’s helmed only a few TV plays, and the American Film Theatre version of Simon Gray’s Butley, in 1974.)

A meatier and more muscular experience was offered by Penelope Mortimer’s novel THE PUMPKIN EATER (May 13 at 7 pm), which as directed by Jack Clayton in 1964 bore all the famous and evocative earmarks of that decade’s Britfilm — serotonin-depleting black-and-white cinematography, constant drizzle and gray skies and overcoats, domestic strife that borders on the homicidal. The dialectic Pinter had to work with here was distinctive and involving: lost in her third marriage and her motherhood to six children, an English woman (Anne Bancroft) struggles to keep her sense of self together when it becomes apparent that her screenwriter husband (Peter Finch) is a philandering bastard. (Mortimer’s husband was busy scribe John Mortimer, who did indeed divorce her a few years later, then remarried and fathered Emily Mortimer.) The dialogue, pitched at a feverish speed and anger, careers and defiantly contradicts and barely keeps the lid on savagery, and it’s pure Pinter. “What do you think of our marriage?” Bancroft’s raging wife probes during the film’s furious peak exchange. “It doesn’t exist,” Finch’s lout spits back. “So what?”

She then asks whether he’s slept with a family friend, and, “Did you ever try not to?” He snaps, ambiguously, “Yes!” Later in that same scene, Finch’s exasperated jerk lets loose with “I wish you’d shut up, I wish you’d die!” — words that freeze the air. But he blanches when his troubled wife slowly shuts the door behind her and quietly asks, “How should I die?” Pinter is peerless at discovering the hidden impulses and surreal thoughts beneath hot-blooded marital combat, and the scene leaves a bruise. Of course, it may be that The Pumpkin Eater’s primary asset is Bancroft, whose wide-open eyes and dark strength command attention in ways that no English actress of the ’60s could have. But Pinter’s textures make the film sing with anxiety. It may be the first film made anywhere that explicitly links a woman’s psychological destruction to her oppression by men and by the traditional roles to which she’s restricted.

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