Friday, 15 June 2012

Friday Night Film: The Pumpkin Eater

Pinter chooses his words to effect. When he uses the word "arsehole", it means something.

Derek and Clive, The Critics, Ad Nauseam (1978)

At first glance The Pumpkin Eater (1964), starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch, might appear to be a little outside of the Mounds and Circles fleshy comfort zone. It's certainly not the sort of 'pumpkins' we're used to. The needle on the smut-o-metre doesn't even twitch. But it has much to recommend it.

If you are familiar with the work of director Jack Clayton (Room at the Top, The Innocents) you may have already encountered this film. The original novel was written by Penelope Mortimer, an interesting character who had a complex marriage to John "Rumpole" Mortimer. She may well have used elements from her own experience of wedded bliss (numerous affairs, numerous children) in composing the story of The Pumpkin Eater, a dissection of a marriage between a successful screenplay writer and an unusually fecund woman with six children.

There are echoes of Clayton's Our Mother's House as both share a large cast of children that almost resemble a gang more than a stable family unit. Finch is a philandering jerk who steals Bancroft, the wife of his best friend. She already has six children from two previous marriages, but Finch is cool with that. Until, of course, he suddenly hits the big time and becomes an international success. He has an affair with Bancroft's best friend (a young Maggie Smith) and begins shagging around, leaving Bancroft with an increasing sense of anxiety until she boils over into mental collapse. Her recovery is slow and difficult and Finch does little to help.

Appearances from Yootha Joyce and James Mason, both on great form, feel much more Pinter than Mortimer and ramp up the action as the marriage teeters on the brink of falling apart. Eventually there is a sense of rapprochement between the main parties and although it's no happy ending it's not too depressing either.

The novel was adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter and as usual it is his undeniable gift with dialogue that makes this more interesting than the average melodrama, the speech alternately exploding into life and seething with dark intent. Pinter's ability to invert the ordinary phrase, twist meanings, employ sly implication, bark and snarl are all present and correct, as of course is the infamous... pause.

The film is particularly worth viewing for the work of Oswald Morris, whose beautiful cinematography shows a man who really knew his craft. The monochrome film stock has a great feel to it, and with Clayton's eye for design composed many shots of Bancroft at her most beautiful, but showing only part of her face or in profile. This is perhaps designed to imply a sense of the hidden, of what is not said as Bancroft struggles to contain her thoughts and disquiet.


  1. I'm certainly this is at least partly based on Penelope Mortimer's relationship with John.
    IIRC when it came out she remarked that "If John had looked like Peter Finch then there wouldn't have been a problem"
    I also seem to remember that both were a little miffed that they weren't able to adapt it themselves especially after working with Clayton on the Innocents.

    Brilliant British film, which features briefly in Nic Roeg's Castaway (too modern for M&C?)

  2. I agree with your observations, and although both Mortimers are fine writers IMHO it's definitely Pinter's dialogue that really lifts the film above average melodrama.

    Roeg's Castaway may well feature on M&C in the future. The charms of the priapic Mr Reed and the (n)ever-willing Ms Donohoe have a timeless quality.

  3. Incidentally, does anyone know the location of the converted windmill featured in the film?