If you’ve ever attended a bad performance of a Harold Pinter play, one in which the actors on stage pound their lines out with contrived pauses between words, you are probably aware that the oft-repeated maxim that “Pinter is all about the pauses” is incorrect. The reason why so many of his characters begin thoughts that trail off into nothingness before completion, or make interjections that they cannot support with a follow-through, is that Pinter doesn’t have much faith in humanity’s ability to communicate. This thing we call civilization is a sham. Genteel conversation is a thin covering for our natural, unchecked aggression. When done well, the pauses occur because the actor simply can’t speak, not because he or she is taking a break. Pinter’s “comedies of menace,” as they have been properly described, treat the audience to characters constantly failing to hide their base and banal nature behind language that they haven’t successfully mastered.
Born in Hackney in 1930 to Ashkenazi Jews, his father a tailor, Harold Pinter carved out a rebellious career from early on. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) but dropped out and later received a fine for not completing his national service (as a conscientious objector). He later attended the Central School of Speech and Drama, successfully, and entered the world of theatre as an actor before writing his first play, The Room, in 1957.
An acquired taste from the very beginning, Pinter’s The Birthday Party closed after eight performances. It’s now considered one of his best-known plays, likely because it took time for audiences to appreciate being put through his rigorous but never hectoring explanations of hopeless human frailty. Pinter’s frustrations are primarily those expressed by male characters. However, unlike other writers primarily known for the scolding nature of their work, the women are allowed to participate in his amorality rather than being set up as outsiders who solely exist to ruin the boys’ treehouse fun. (The way they are in David Mamet’s plays, for instance.) While married to actress Vivien Merchant (best known to film watchers for her Oscar-nominated performance in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie), Pinter’s female voices had a perfect instrument to express a sanguine, assured command. This quality is on display in two of the features included in Criterion’s summation of the author’s film work.
In his career, Harold Pinter directed nearly fifty productions for stage, theatre and screen. He acted in a number of his own films as well as others (Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park). He also wrote many screenplays for hire before his death in 2008 of liver cancer, three years after his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Criterion Channel’s richly enjoyable, varied and challenging collection shows off adaptations of his own works (though sadly missing the film version of Betrayal), the screenplays he adapted from other sources, and even the one feature film he directed from someone else’s play.
THE HAROLD PINTER MUST-SEES
The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)
Harold Pinter’s first of three (official) collaborations with director Joseph Losey is still the best. The Servant is a searing portrait of class conflict in which deferential, mild-mannered Dirk Bogarde comes to work in the home of solitary gentleman James Fox. He then brings in his little sister (Sarah Miles) to work as Fox’s maid. The man of the house barely has to issue a command before his perfect servant anticipates his needs. He thinks nothing of enjoying some canoodling with the charwoman, while his snobby girlfriend deals with her natural dislike of Bogarde by treating him like dirt. Superiority in the British class system is an illusion, however, as you cannot be above unless someone is supplying the below. Things twist towards a disturbing and perverted conclusion as the tables turn and the servant lets his master know just how much he needs him. The ending lays it on a bit thick, but the performances are superb and the crisp monochrome cinematography has never looked better.
The Pumpkin Eater (Jack Clayton, 1964)
Pinter adapts a novel by Penelope Mortimer for a big-budget production that failed to connect with audiences at the time, likely because of its dark theme and downbeat ending. It features Anne Bancroft proving she can do more than just the broad characterizations she’s better known for. Bancroft gives a subtle and sensitive performance as a woman who has reached her third husband, a successful screenwriter played by Peter Finch, and accumulated eight children along the way. But she finds herself dealing with a depression that is exacerbated by her husband’s philandering ways. Director Jack Clayton treats his lead with great care and never insults her by insinuating that there are easy answers available to her. The film instead brings us into a close and careful examination of the distance between who she is and where life has brought her.
Accident (Joseph Losey, 1967)
Another collaboration between Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey. While other films he scripted feel more like jobs for hire, Accident places the quiet tension of his plays directly on the screen. Dirk Bogarde plays an Oxford professor whose philosophy student (Jacqueline Sassard) puts his life with wife Vivien Merchant and three children into perspective. She sets him at odds with his libertine colleague (Stanley Baker) and the girl’s youthful fiancé (Michael York). Glacially slow and photographically pristine, Accident treads heavily on its theme of masculinity in crisis. At the same, it treats every one of its characters with a slight, brittle sense of ridicule. The film ultimately reveals a mordant humour intermingled with the writer’s frosty observations.
The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, 1971)
Another collaboration with Losey, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Dominic Guard plays an adolescent boy come to stay at the country estate of a school chum’s family. He instantly falls in love with his friend’s older sister (Julie Christie). He’s glad to do her bidding when she asks him to take a note to a tenant farmer (Alan Bates) and is happy to return with a note from the man. Eventually, he finds himself bouncing back and forth between the two and only slowly growing aware that he is accommodating a forbidden love affair. When he begins to question the wisdom of abetting them, they turn from kind and friendly to manipulative and cruel. A lushly photographed, subtle critique of the British class system, this one set the tone for intellectually stimulating period pieces to follow, with Harold Pinter’s usually cold attitude towards romantic stories coming across as reserved intelligence.
The Homecoming (Peter Hall, 1973)
Harold Pinter’s Tony-winning play is transferred directly to the screen with much of the original cast intact and kept to a limited, theatrical setting. The bright white walls almost increase the claustrophobia of a North London home where angry Paul Rogers lives with his elegant chauffeur brother Cyril Cusack and his two sons. The boys are a mercurial pimp (Ian Holm) and a meathead construction worker and amateur boxer (Terence Rigby). His third son, an accomplished academic played by, Michael Jayston comes home for the first time in a decade, bringing with him a wife (Vivien Merchant) whom none of them have ever met. Over the course of a day, the men reveal the savage darkness at the heart of their relationships while playing games of one-up-manship with each other. They never notice what a formidable opponent they have in the odd woman out. The kitchen sink anger gives way to narrative absurdity by the end. All of it is performed on the sharp dagger points of Pinter’s potent, exact language. Director Peter Hall avoids trying to make it much more than a play on film but still includes some effective close-ups (particularly of the fascinating Merchant) and lighting schemes that envelope the viewer in the enigmas of this multifaceted script.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Volker Schlondorff, 1990)
A novel celebrated as a feminist allegory would seem an ill fit for the man who often explored masculine aggression hidden beneath disingenuously civilized behaviour. However, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale also seeks to explores the delicate layers of societal norms that barely stand between us and tyranny. It suits Pinter just fine. Natasha Richardson is wonderful as a woman whose attempt to escape the newly formed police state of Gilead gets her placed in the home of a high ranking general (Robert Duvall). She becomes a surrogate womb for his barren wife (Faye Dunaway). Pinter can only do so much with a plot that, when literalized visually, is so much heavier than it was on the page, but maintains tight control over the strong dialogue.
ONLY IF YOU’RE SO INCLINED
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz, 1981)
John Fowles’s meta-textual commentary on Victorian conventions folded into the narrative of his Victorian romance in his 1969 novel is transformed by Pinter and British Invasion maestro Karel Reisz into a film-within-a-film that examines two love affairs. One is between a gentleman scientist studying the flora of sunny Dorset and a governess who has self-destructively allowed her reputation to falter. The other is between the actors playing them in the film, both portrayed by Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. It’s a handsome, intelligent and uncherishable work of prestige in which you hardly get the best of anyone’s world. Pinter’s script is unpleasantly reserved and the connections between the two stories do not produce anything memorable. Irons has yet to achieve the charisma on camera that would happen with David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers seven years later. Streep, in her first lead film role, is still at the period of her career where she is giving, as writer Michael Gebert put it, “a bloodlessly perfect imitation of a human being.”
Butley (Harold Pinter, 1974)
Harold Pinter’s cinematic directorial debut is the only film he made for theatrical release. It is not written by him, though. It’s an adaptation of a play by Simon Gray. Alan Bates recreates his Tony-winning role as a verbally manic, slovenly and disillusioned literature professor who comes into the office and experiences a day of non-stop shocks., First his teaching assistant (Richard O’Callaghan) is moving out of the flat they share to live with his publisher boyfriend. Then Butley’s old-fashioned colleague (Jessica Tandy) has published her monograph on Byron and is furious about a student’s desire to switch to his class. Finally, his wife shows up to tell him she’d like a divorce. He reacts with his usual abrasive sarcasm, but as he grows more desperate, he is surprised to find himself surrounded by people who are perfectly capable of giving as good as they get. However, Butley feels even more like a play on film than The Homecoming does. The setting rarely goes beyond the one cramped office, but the writing is delicious.
The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader, 1990)
Another sordid tale by Ian McEwan in which an unsuspecting person is beset by a stranger’s odd obsession, this one has Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson vacationing in Venice. They befriend an intimidating Sicilian gentleman (a sorely miscast Christopher Walken) and his shy, retiring wife (Helen Mirren). Schrader manages some of the most beautiful images of Venice you’ve ever seen. Every shot is vibrant and colourful, but a story about unconsummated, illogical sexual obsession needs less of Pinter’s cold, precise lecturing about human nature. It deserves someone willing to really indulge in erotic madness.