14/06/2021

Harold Pinter and Cinema

 




A Nobel laureate and the backbone of post-war British theater, Harold Pinter was responsible for some of the most important shifts in drama of the last century. Yet, if his plays disappeared tomorrow, his name would still be dramatically important because his work was never solely confined to the stage. As his catalogue of work makes plain, Pinter loved cinema.
 
The writer’s earliest plays coincided with an artistic storm in Britain. New playwrights found space on television’s growing array of drama anthologies. The crossover between British theater and television in the 20th century became a great creative boon. Pinter, being an admirer of screen drama, took such opportunities with aplomb. It came as no surprise that, between his debut play The Birthday Party (1958) and his success with The Caretaker (1960), screen opportunities quickly arose.
 
Pinter soon jumped to big screen adaptations, his first being an effective collaboration with Clive Donner bringing The Caretaker to cinemas in 1963. At the same time, Pinter started to adapt other writers’ work, his first being Robin Maugham’s The Servant (1948). The Servant (1963) began several collaborations with exiled American director Joseph Losey, setting the benchmark for intelligent literary adaptations even then. As Pinter’s work progressed on screen, his experimentation gained confidence.
 
In hindsight, his most daring and influential work came in adapting period dramas. By the 1970s, Pinter was already redefining period drama with the addition of defiant non-linear storytelling. It was in his final collaboration with Losey in 1971, adapting The Go-Between (1953) by L.P. Hartley, that his work found a new temporal voice. Time would dominate his writing for the foreseeable future, and, a decade later, resulted in his widely admired take on John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) with Karel Reisz.
 
With The Go-Between celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and The French Lieutenant’s Woman celebrating its 40th, it’s clear today that both films had a powerful influence on British literary adaptations. The past for Pinter was something not to naively cherish, but to regain in earnest. Rather than excavate, he looked to fragment. Time was his to remold. Memory splintered.
 
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“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” Few novels open with such a succinct summation of their purpose as Hartley’s The Go-Between. Already, the division between the yellowing daydream of the past and the melancholy of the cold present is inescapable for the reader and the main character Leo. Following Leo’s recollection of the summer of 1900 and his stay at Brandham Hall, the narrative is one in which the past is a nostalgic yet troubling place. Recalling the awkward position he was put in by the daughter of the aristocratic household, Marian, he tells of his role as messenger boy in her affair with farmer Ted Burgess.
 
The novel has elements that naturally interest Pinter; communication or lack of, affairs and their concealment, dialogue infused with ulterior meaning. For a writer so well known for his pauses in communication, the go-between itself is a concept that fits perfectly into Pinter’s creative intention. Leo is almost a personification of the Pinter pause, that clichéd embodiment of his dialogue in which silence became crucially measured. As Leo (Dominic Guard) passes secret, lustful messages between Marian (Julie Christie) and Ted (Alan Bates), he becomes a human example of Pinter’s grammatical trait.
 
The Go-Between showcases Pinter’s growing experimentation with time. He broached its potential as a structural device earlier in adapting Nicholas Mosley’s Accident (1965) with Losey in 1967, and Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater (1962) with Jack Clayton in 1964. It feels a less adventurous inclusion considering their narratives’ modern settings and mores. The Go-Between provided subtler possibilities, despite the vast qualities of those earlier films.
 
Enraptured by the novel and unable to put it down, Pinter completed the script in 1969. Several notable changes took place. The first was to shift the emphasis from class to the emotional revelations on first encountering human sexuality. The chief change from page to screen, however, is in the relationship between past and present. In Hartley’s novel, the modern day manifests almost uniquely in the book’s prologue and epilogue. The older Leo finds paraphernalia that elicits his Proustian reminiscence. Subsequently, his reunion with Marian decades later concludes the book.
 
Though opening with the same modernity, the film becomes a cut-up of Hartley’s novel. The epilogue is spliced throughout. It’s an intriguing move, adding a sense of inevitability to Marian and Ted’s doomed affair. Their future is one of rain and loneliness. Hartley’s ending is edited abruptly too, with Leo’s choice to deliver Marian’s final message to her grandson denied the novel’s firmer confirmation. The formal experiments feel loose compared to, say, those seen in Pinter’s later play Betrayal (1978) and its screen adaptation in 1983. Yet, certainly, they germinated at Brandham Hall.
 
“I am fascinated by the concept of time,” Pinter suggested in an interview with Michel Ciment, “and by the power the cinema has to suddenly reveal the meaning of a whole life from the age of twelve to sixty.” This may have been what initially drew him to adapting The Go-Between but it doesn’t explain his changes to its temporal flow. The dialectic between time and memory became so intertwined in the film, and his subsequent screenplays, that it arguably had a greater influence over his writing than almost anything else besides politics. And cricket, perhaps.
 
After The Go-Between, Pinter worked on another telling project conceived again for Losey. With the success of their third collaboration, Pinter adapted Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It feels an ambitious yet logical progression from The Go-Between. The project was too large in scope, in spite of Losey calling it “the best screenplay I’ve ever seen or known of.” It never left the page and it wasn’t until the 1980s when Pinter again implemented on screen the temporal effects explored in The Go-Between.
 
 “What I find exciting about the subject is the role of time,” Pinter told John Russell Taylor, “the annihilation of time by the man’s return to the scene of his childhood experience.” This is widely quoted when discussing Pinter’s take on Hartley’s novel. He saw emotional destruction as the by-product of cinema’s shrinkage of time. It sets the tone for the playwright’s future adaptations. Pinter’s time corrodes rather than heals.




 
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John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman would present a challenge to any screenwriter. A deeply 19th-century tale of love affairs and pre-Raphaelite atmospheres, the inescapably anachronistic perspective of Fowles’s own epoch frames the story. Its prose tells of another doomed love affair, relying on everything from descriptive references to Henry Moore’s sculptures to its famous attempt at combining two distinctive endings. It was unsurprising that Fowles struggled to see his story put on screen.
 
The project was first earmarked by director Fred Zinnemann, still riding the success of another British period adaptation, Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons (1966). The script was initially reworked by noted screenwriter Dennis Potter, but the project floundered. Its challenge was somewhat unusual: how to maintain the duality of Fowles’s narrative without simply resorting to voice-over? Certainly, a narrative that skillfully suggests two different endings would strain most cinematic tricks. It wasn’t long before Pinter was approached and, seeing the novel as a technical challenge, started to work on the problem with Karel Reisz.
 
In a conversation with Mel Gussow, Pinter set out the conundrum. “The problems involved in transposing it to film are quite considerable,” he suggested. “It pretends to be a Victorian novel, but it isn’t. It’s a modern novel, and it’s made clear by the author that he’s writing it now.” The method used to solve this was a natural evolution from The Go-Between. The writer split the temporal aspects of the story into an interconnected pair, following the Victorian narrative of Sarah (Meryl Streep) and her affair with paleontologist Charles (Jeremy Irons) on the one hand, and on the other following the filming of Sarah’s story in the modern day, with Sarah being played by Anna (Streep) and Charles played by Mike (Irons).
 
The actors’ affair mimics the fictional one they film. Mike conflates his feelings with those of his fictional character. The two love stories cross when necessary and differ when the change in period arises. The structure also innovatively allows the double ending of the book to be played out in full. Mike even comments on how the book they’re adapting has both “a happy ending and a sad ending.” He is unfortunately stuck with the latter.
 
The film cleverly couples the period scenes with their modern rehearsal and filming. If the success of the Victorian romance is in spite of the circumstances of their society (honor-bound, confused, sexually ashamed), then the failure of the modern romance occurs in spite of the new freedoms. Sarah and Anna both share a radical spirit, the former continuing the relationship on her own terms, the latter choosing to leave in spite of Mike’s desperation to give up everything for her. Hindsight cannot save Mike’s feelings.
 
“I don’t just transcribe the novel; otherwise you might as well do the novel.” This was Pinter’s assessment of adapting The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He knew it was a huge achievement, even before the award nominations started to arrive. His radical scripts, from his own plays to adaptations of novels like Hartley’s and Fowles’s, put pay to the idea of note-for-note retelling being the only way to put novels on screen. The legacy can be seen everywhere today, from most BBC period adaptations to the immediate successors in British cinema, namely Merchant Ivory’s literary dramas.
 
Augmenting literature for the screen is something most filmmakers understand as necessary, in spite of still-regular cries from the literary world fearing the sanctity of the novel to be sullied. With Pinter’s unparalleled successes, it became an inevitable tool in doing novels justice. A different form required change in order to avoid mere transcription. Time in these adaptations may have been fragmented, annihilating even, but it was also emotionally regained.
 
 
 
How Harold Pinter Revolutionized the Cinematic Period Piece. By  Adam Scovell, LitHub, June 10, 2021.



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 WORTHY
 
 
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.
 
SKIP IT
 
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.



 
The Criterion Shelf: Written By Harold Pinter. By Bil Antoniou. That Shelf, January 23, 2021.
 


 

‘In order that the film artist may create a work of art’, Rudolf Arnheim argued in his 1933 book, Film as Art, ‘it is important that he consciously stress the peculiarities of the medium’. When, in the early 1970s, Harold Pinter collaborated with Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray to write a screenplay of Marcel Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913-1927), they were keen to find a means of foregrounding the peculiarities of the film medium while in some way maintaining a fidelity to the original text. How could they condense and distil Proust’s great novel into a (commercially viable) feature-length film? One answer is, simply, that they could not: to this day, the film has never been made (although there has been a sound broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1995, adapted by Michael Bakewell, and a modified National Theatre production in 2000, directed by Di Trevis). To quote the resigned Pinter, who would remain in search of lost funding: ‘The money to make the film was never found’. With Pinter's what would have been Pinter's 90th birthday passing last weekend, however, Lady Antonia Fraser has recently spoken of her desire for his screenplays and films to be more widely known and appreciated. The prospect of producing the Proust film remains a tantalising one. Still, any attempt to bring the screenplay to filmic fruition would be a true labour of love. To give my two cents’ worth, I would welcome the unlikely extension of Luca Guadagnino’s beautiful ‘Desire Trilogy’ (into a ‘Desire Quadrilogy’) to incorporate a long-awaited cinematic realisation of Pinter’s Proust Screenplay (with, if you’re asking, Timothée Chalamet as the young and fragile Marcel, Ralph Fiennes as Charles Swann, Mia Goth as Albertine, and, à la Suspiria (2018), multiple roles for Tilda Swinton).
 
It would be misleading to call this work ‘Harold Pinter’s Proust Screenplay’ because it was, from the outset, a thoroughly collaborative project. In his 2015 article on The Proust Screenplay, Matt Harle explains how the first draft - now housed in the Harold Pinter Archive at the British Library - began to take shape:
 
    Working as a trio, they [Pinter, Losey and Bray] spent time in France visiting significant Proustian sites [Illiers, Cabourg and Paris] and planning the film before Pinter sat down to     write a draft of the script. The script was completed in just three months in November 1972, Pinter having adapted the entirety of Proust’s novel into a single four-hour script. This     was notably against the advice of Samuel Beckett, who suggested that the team start with Le temps retrouvé.
 
Both Losey and Bray made extensive comments on Pinter’s first draft in 1972. Losey, for instance, expressed his concerns about the practicalities of using a pure white screen (later replaced by the Vermeerian ‘yellow screen’), because of the likelihood of it becoming scratched and dirty. The archive shows that Bray, who was close friends with Beckett, and the project’s main authority on Proust, made a number of helpful suggestions relating to the structure of the film. The adaption also bears the imprint of Beckett’s own work, including his early essay on Proust, simply entitled Proust (1931). Pinter was surely under the spell of Beckett’s forays into film and television in the 1960s. The latter had made his own short film, entitled Film, in New York in the summer of 1964, while, with Eh Joe, a piece for television that was also completed in 1965, Beckett made use of filmic techniques by incorporating close-ups of the protagonist’s face (a device Pinter frequently uses in The Proust Screenplay). The ‘fresh and shrill’ garden gate bell that sounds at the beginning and end of Pinter’s screenplay, moreover, is reminiscent of the piercing bell in Beckett’s Happy Days (1961).
 
The drafts of the adaptation show how Pinter gradually selected the more distinctly filmic aspects of Proust’s novel and made them central to his screenplay: the patch of yellow wall in Jan Vermeer’s View of Delft (c.1559-1660), the romanticised visions of gondolas and palazzos in Venice, the dining room and sea at Balbec, and so on. For three months of 1972, Pinter read A la Recherche du temps perdu every day, taking ‘hundreds of notes’ along the way. When reading through these many notes and drafts, Pinter’s keen eye for detail becomes apparent: he draws attention to Albertine’s many rings, to the simple aigrette in the Duchesse de Guermantes hair, and, more broadly, displays a Proustian attentiveness to jewellery and clothing. ‘Clothes’, as Diana Festa-McCormick argues in her 1984 book Proustian Optics of Clothes, ‘act as the revealing factor for often unavowed psychological responses on the part of the narrator and as indications of the wearer’s social roles’. After all, Proust’s narrator ultimately resolves to construct his book, ‘not say ambitiously like a cathedral, but quite simply like a dress’. Comparably, Pinter tries to find the structural elements that are essential to the whole, the seams that join the carefully made garment together.
 
Proust’s own suspicion of the relation between the novel and the cinema is made clear in a parenthetical remark from the final volume, Time Regained:
 
    (Some critics now liked to regard the novel as a sort of procession of things upon the screen of a cinematograph. This comparison was absurd. Nothing is further from what we have     really perceived than the vision that the cinematograph presents.)
 
Correspondingly, Pinter writes about the difficulties of adapting Proust’s great novel, concluding that a fidelity to the text must be retained through the distillation of its essence. This is an understandable position given that the word count of Proust’s novel is somewhere in the region of 1,267,069 words. Despite the daunting challenges of radically condensing the original, Pinter found working on the adaptation ‘the best working year’ of his life, as he wrote in the introduction to the 1978 Metheun edition of the screenplay. Reading through Pinter’s reams of notes allows us to perceive the slow process of distillation. As one reviewer for the New Statesman put it, the finished screenplay is ‘a beautiful working model in which Proust’s million and a half words have been brought lucidly down to 455 shots’.
 
At the early stage of the screenplay composition, the notes offer an accumulation of images and snatches of dialogue, as if Pinter were peering in through one of the windows of the Parisian drawing-rooms frequented by the narrator, half-hearing conversations and half-seeing figures from the world of fashion. Proust’s novel demands that the reader imagines themselves seeing, leaving space for the individual’s imagination to give the scenes and characters shape. We are invited to read the novel through the lens of our own experiences, comparing them with those recounted by the narrator. Yet, the difficulty for Pinter is representing through film the workings of the narrator’s mind. As Walter Benjamin suggested in his 1929 essay, ‘The Image of Proust’, ‘the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection’. For Michael Billington, Pinter’s official biographer, the ‘screenplay was based on a chain of visual and aural motifs, and interlocking images’. In this sense, the adaptation is true to the original in its attempt to foreground the workings of involuntary memory. As you read through Pinter’s many notes, the same images and impressions (the napkin, the sea, the steeples, etc.), familiar to any reader of Proust’s novel, appear and reappear throughout the drafts. These become the central images of the finished screenplay, the luminous fragments that disrupt the paralysing effects of habitual perception. 
 
The early notes show Pinter carefully working out the chronology and order of the book, including the ages of the characters at various stages in the narrative. Though onerous, plotting the ages of the characters at different stages of the narrative is an important task because, as Benjamin writes, ‘to observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution’. Pinter’s many lists of the narrative’s key events and images can be compared with Beckett’s incomplete cataloguing of the crucial, epiphanic moments of involuntary memory in his essay Proust:
 
1. The Madeleine steeped in an infusion of tea.
2. The steeples of Martinville, seen from Dr. Percepied’s trap.
3. A musty smell in a public lavatory in the Champs-Elysees.
4. The three trees, seen near Balbec from the carriage of Mme. de Villeparisis.
5. The hedge of hawthorn near Balbec.
6. He stoops to unbutton his boots on the occasion of his second visit to the Grand Hotel at Balbec.
7. Uneven cobbles in the courtyard of the Guermantes Hotel.
8. The noise of a spoon against a plate.
9. He wipes his mouth with a napkin.
10. The noise of water in the pipes.
11. George Sand’s François le Champi.
 
Many of these ‘fetishes’, as Beckett calls them, are central to Pinter’s adaptation, which foregrounds the narrator’s revelatory impressions and memories. Undoubtedly, Pinter would have been familiar with Beckett’s dazzling early reading of Proust’s epic, in which he points out that the narrator’s ‘eye functions with the cruel precision of a camera’ – an idea that seems to lurk behind the numerous close-ups of faces and the shots from Marcel’s point of view.
 
Pinter’s screenplay is an attempt to dislocate and reorder time, true to Proust’s project of immobilising and recovering fragments of lost time in their pure state. Pinter dislocates narrative time in order to focus on the connections between images and sounds. In so doing, Pinter is able to stress the peculiarities of the film medium while remaining true to the original text. Aware of the opportunities as well as the restrictions of adaptation, Pinter realises that film offers the possibility of cutting swiftly between, or even overlaying, some of the key motifs and artistic figures of Proust’s novel: namely music, as represented by the composer, Vinteuil, and literature, as represented by the writer, Bergotte. Shot 31, for instance, succinctly blends visual art, literature, and music (which Beckett called the ‘catalytic element’ in Proust): ‘Flash of yellow screen. Music of Vinteuil’. The opening montage provides an opportunity to cross-cut between the vital moments of involuntary memory in the novel: the Proustian epiphanies, though there are no famous madeleines or teacups in sight. It is a non-verbal sequence of thirty-four shots (some would argue thirty-five or more), resembling the symphonies of visual movement created by the montagist Slavko Vorkapich. Yet, as the many drafts indicate, a considerable number of words – read, written, rewritten, erased – were considered to create this iconic, though as yet unseen, wordless opening.
 
Harold Pinter’s Drafts of The Proust Screenplay. By Callum McKean. British Library blog, October 12, 2020



He was one of Britain’s most celebrated playwrights, whose work – including The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and Betrayal – transformed the theatre world in the 1960s and 1970s. But now, to mark what would have been Harold Pinter’s 90th birthday, his widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, has spoken of her desire to see wider recognition of her late husband’s impact on British cinema.
 
Pinter, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature 15 years ago, died three years later at 78, after a writing career spanning more than half a century.
 
“I now have the agreeable habit of showing his films, especially the ones people don’t know so well, in a little private cinema in Soho whenever I can,” she said in an interview staged by the Chiswick Book Festival. Among largely forgotten gems, Fraser lists the 1989 film Reunion, 1976’s The Last Tycoon and Langrishe, Go Down from 1978, starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons.
 
Fraser, 88, who was married to the playwright for 28 years, said she felt his screenwriting was regularly overshadowed and said she held out hope that his screen work might be celebrated in a season of films for the general public.
 
One of her favourite films, she explained, was The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which Pinter adapted from the novel by John Fowles. “It is the dialogue that makes it work so well. I love that film,” she said.
 
Pinter’s plays are often characterised as “menacing”. His commissioned adaptations of novels for the cinema are wider-ranging, though still often stamped with trademark curt and sinister exchanges. Among the best known are The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between, each directed by Joseph Losey, but he also wrote screenplays for the stylish 1960s thriller The Quiller Memorandum, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, starring Michael Gambon, Michael York and Patricia Hodge.
 
When Fraser showed this last, little-known, film, she said her audience were particularly impressed. “No one could understand why it is not better known,” she said.
 
Writing for the stage consumed Pinter’s imagination, but Fraser said he had another routine for screen work: “There was a great difference in his habits. If he was doing a commission, which would be a screenplay, as he never did a screenplay on spec, it was work. He sat down and did it. Whereas with a play, he might work all night. When he wrote his last play, Celebration, set in a restaurant, we were staying in a lovely house in Dorset we used to rent, and one night he swung out of bed. I asked what was the matter. He said: ‘It is that waiter. He won’t let me sleep.’ It was never like that with a film script.”
 
However, Pinter did spend a year working on a screen adaptation of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past that was never made.
 
Fraser met Pinter when they were both married and in their early 40s. The romance provoked media attention which Fraser said “would seem ridiculous now”.
 
“We were two middle-aged writers, not pop stars. We were not Beyoncé,” she said. “Though it is probably good for the soul to have the press flocking around your doorstep, asking you idiotic questions.”
 
Some of Pinter’s early work was for television and was shown by ITV after Sunday Night at the London Palladium. His second stage play, The Birthday Party, closed after a week following initial bad reviews, but he made his name with The Caretaker, first produced 60 years ago. It became the must-see West End show in a week that also saw Orson Welles directing Laurence Olivier on stage.



 
It is also one of two Pinter plays inspired by real London flats. Pinter lived in Chiswick in the late 1950s with his first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, and their son Daniel. On the way downstairs he spotted a homeless man talking to another resident. The two became The Caretaker’s stage characters Aston and Davies.
 
In 1975, Pinter left Merchant for Fraser, having previously had a long relationship with Joan Bakewell, an affair conducted in part in a flat in Kentish Town, London. The experience inspired Pinter’s best-known work, Betrayal, where the flat is moved to Kilburn.
 
Fraser, however, said there were “enormous” features of this play that were absent from real life, including “the non-homoerotic male friendship” at its centre. “He simply didn’t have that with Joan’s husband. It is irrelevant. We were very much together when he was writing it, and he felt it was his play. Not someone else’s,” she said.
 
Pinter, who was born and raised in Hackney, east London, was a keen sportsman and lifelong cricketer. Expressing her sorrow that he did not live longer, his widow said she felt “he would have enjoyed [lockdown] because of the chance it offered to read and write; all but for one thing: no cricket”.
 
The playwright had originally trained as an actor, first at Rada and then at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and continued to take acting work throughout his life.
 
“He had always felt, he told me, that if his career as a playwright had not taken off, his acting career would have grown and got better as he had become a character actor.”
 
Although in frail health after a cancer diagnosis in December 2001, Pinter continued to act on stage and screen, performing in Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court theatre in 2006.
 
He died on Christmas Eve two years later.
 
Why Harold Pinter’s widow feels his screenplays deserve greater recognition.  By  Vanessa Thorpe. The Guardian,  September 6, 2020.



Such was the primacy of cinema as a storytelling medium in the 20th century that many of the greatest writers in other media were drawn to it, from playwrights to poets, from novelists to non-fiction writers. Foremost among them was probably Harold Pinter, widely regarded as the greatest and most influential playwright in English in the second half of the 20th century. (His only real contender for that title, Samuel Beckett, originally wrote his greatest work, Waiting For Godot, in French.) And unlike many of these masters of other media, Pinter also excelled in writing for cinema, producing numerous screenplays over nearly five decades, from his first, superb forays into film writing in the early 1960s for director Joseph Losey to his final film script in 2007 (a rather less successful rewrite of the classic Sleuth), just a year before he died. Indeed, such was Pinter’s stature both as a writer and a screenwriter that even some of his unproduced and unfilmed screenplays, notably The Proust Screenplay (1972), have attained almost classic status.
 
A Genuine East Ender
 
Pinter was born in 1930 in Hackney, in east London, making him that rarest of things, a genuine “East Ender” (the term used to describe someone from what was notoriously the least salubrious part of London). His Jewish parents hailed from Eastern Europe, but mercifully had escaped to England before the mass destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis. Nevertheless, Pinter experienced World War II at first hand, living through the worst of the Nazi Blitz of London in 1940 and 1941 before he was evacuated, like so many other East End children, first to Cornwall and then to Reading.
 
However, the memory of the Blitz inevitably stayed with him, with one of his most eminent biographers, the Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, arguing that it left him with feelings of “loneliness, bewilderment, separation and loss: themes that are in all his works”. Certainly, when one thinks of the seven and eight-year-old Pinter cowering in bomb shelters alongside his parents and neighbors, wondering when or even if the aerial attack above would cease, it provides an insight into the kind of theatrical and screen writing that Pinter would specialize in, indeed make his own. In one way or another, his characters – from the titular Caretaker onward – were always under attack from unseen persons or even unseen forces. In fact, it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine that the famous “Pinter pauses” (the meticulously documented silences between lines in his plays) had their origin in Pinter’s own experience of being a little boy, huddled underground with others, desperately listening out for any sign that the latest aerial blitzkrieg had finally ended.
 
A Working Actor
 
After the war, Pinter, who had always loved reading and acting at school, became an actor, even though he dropped out of his course at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). For the next decade or so, he survived as a jobbing actor, touring the British and Irish Isles. At one point, he even worked for the company of the fabled Sir Donald Wolfit, the actor-manager who had spent the war touring Shakespeare and who would go on to be immortalized in both Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser (which was based on Harwood’s own experience of being the great man’s personal dresser) and Withnail and I (Withnail imagines changing his name to “Desmond Wolf”, in an obvious nod to the great man).
 
“Comedies of Menace”
 
All this time, however, Pinter dreamed of writing his own plays and after several false starts finally succeeded spectacularly. Indeed, he enjoyed something of a golden age as a playwright between 1957 and 1964, during which time he wrote many of his greatest plays, including The Room (1957), The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1964). These “Comedies of Menace”, as they were memorably called by the critic Irving Wardle, established not only Pinter’s name but his style as a playwright: undeniably menacing; occasionally comedic (albeit comedy of the blackest, darkest kind); and always enigmatic, as his plays appeared to be set in undefined locales and indeterminate periods of time.
 
His success as a playwright inevitably brought Pinter to the attention of film directors and producers. In particular, he captured the imagination of Joseph Losey, an American director who had been blacklisted for his supposed Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era of the 1950s and was subsequently forced to make his living outside of America. In an irony that Pinter himself might have enjoyed, Losey’s enforced exile may just have been the making of him, as he had been a fairly undistinguished film director in America (where his most memorable film was a 1951 remake of the 1931 Fritz Lang classic M) but in Britain, especially working alongside Pinter on their trilogy of movies, he became a great one.
 
 
The Servant

 The first Losey-Pinter collaboration was The Servant (1963), which Pinter adapted for the screen from a 1948 novella of the same name by Robin Maugham (a nephew of the world-famous Somerset Maugham). By this stage of his career, with several successful plays to his name, Pinter could make even works by other writers appear “Pinter-esque”, and so it was with The Servant, in which Dirk Bogarde’s manservant eventually replaces his supposed master, played by James Fox, just as so many of Pinter’s stage creations ended up usurping their supposed betters. It was a theme that could not have been more timely or topical in 1960s Britain, when, for the first (and, tragically, so far only) time in English history, numerous members of the working classes – from The Beatles to Michael Caine to Pinter himself – were proving themselves to be effortlessly superior to their supposed betters.

 The Servant was a success, both critically and commercially, and it enabled Losey and Pinter not only to continue their own work individually (Pinter wrote both his own plays and screenplays for other directors, notably The Quiller Memorandum (1966), a spy thriller investigating the rise of neo-Nazis) but to continue their loose trilogy of films that forensically examined England and in particular its notorious class system. The second of the trilogy was Accident (1967), which again showed the brutality that often lay behind the supposed gentility of the English gentleman (a theme that is becoming ever-more-topical as 21st century Britain topples acrimoniously towards Brexit).

 Accident

 Accident was another adaptation of a novel by a minor English aristocrat, Nicholas Mosley. More importantly, it again starred Dirk Bogarde, who by now had fully cast off his youthful image as a matinee idol to become a genuinely serious actor (a process that would culminate in his remarkable, ruined performance in Luschino Visconti’s Death In Venice (1971)). Bogarde played Stephen, a married Oxford don who secretly desires Anna, a young Austrian woman who is his student. Unfortunately, he is not alone in his admiration of Anna, as she is also desired by another of Stephen’s students, William, and one of Stephen’s colleagues, Charley. In what is almost a cinematic cousin of Pinter’s play The Homecoming, in which a young man brings his wife home to meet his family, only to find that his father and brothers also desire her, Accident shows how all three men compete for Anna’s affections. Finally, Stephen takes advantage of the accident that gives the film its title (Anna crashes William’s car, killing him, outside Stephen’s home) by hiding Anna in an upstairs room, explaining the accident away to the police and then effectively raping her. Like The Servant and so many of Pinter’s plays, Accident was dark, nasty and absolutely unforgettable.

 The Go-Between

The third film that Pinter wrote and Losey directed was yet another adaptation of a novel, but this was not an obscure or relatively unknown work but an acknowledged masterpiece, The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, which had been published in 1953. Nearly 20 years after its publication, Pinter adapted it for the screen and it was truly the crowning achievement of his near decade-long collaboration with Losey. It is also the most formally inventive of his three screenplays for Losey, flashing back and forwards in keeping with the novel’s most celebrated line (which has now become a famous saying in its own right): “The past is a different country: they do things differently there”. They certainly did, as Pinter used Hartley’s novel as the basis and inspiration for his own marvelous screenplay, which told the story of a young boy who is unwittingly recruited by a couple engaged in an illicit affair – the beautiful daughter of a landowner (played by Julie Christie) and a tenant farmer (played by Alan Bates) – to carry messages between them. Finally, their affair is discovered, with genuinely tragic consequences that haunt the young “go-between” for the rest of his life.

 The Go-Between (1971) was a towering achievement and fittingly, given that it was undoubtedly his finest screenplay to that point, Pinter won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Given that Pinter would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, unlike most screenwriters the Oscar was not his crowning glory. Nevertheless, it did mark the end of his working relationship with Losey, which had been the most successful screen partnership between a great writer and a great director since that enjoyed by Graham Greene and Carol Reed in the aftermath of World War II (https://thescriptlab.com/features/main/3501-the-great-screenwriters-part-6-graham-greene/).

 As with Greene and Reed, it was as if Pinter and Losey had done all they could together, and as with Greene and Reed it was the younger writer who fared much better than the older director after their extraordinarily creative relationship came to an end. Certainly, Losey never made another film as good as the three that Pinter had written for him, and even if it can be argued that Pinter never quite matched the screenwriting heights he had reached with Losey, he still wrote a succession of superb plays, including Betrayal (1978), an anatomy of a relationship breakdown that was allegedly inspired by Pinter’s own extramarital affair with a TV presenter, Joan Bakewell, during the 1960s, and a number of fascinating screenplays.

 A Great Man Of Letters

 Probably the best of Pinter’s post-Losey screenplays was that for The Last Tycoon (1976), his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final (indeed unfinished) novel about his own creative dissipation and eventual death in Hollywood. The Last Tycoon was also the last film made by its illustrious director, Elia Kazan, the legendary director of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On The Waterfront (1954), but who was arguably even more famous for having given testimony in the 1950s against supposed Communist sympathizers like Joseph Losey. Indeed, Losey must have been appalled when he learned that Pinter was now working with his former enemy and although Pinter himself never wrote directly about his experience of working with Kazan it would surely have made a fascinating play or screenplay.

 Pinter continued to write for the stage and screen virtually right up until his death in 2008. Although he wrote scripts for such memorable films as The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), an adaptation of the John Fowles novel in which he intercut between past and present as he had done in The Go-Between 10 years earlier, probably his finest screenplays were ultimately unproduced and never filmed, which must have been almost as chastening for a great writer like Pinter as it is for any unknown or aspiring screenwriter. Nevertheless, such was Pinter’s status as a truly great man of letters (he also wrote poetry as well as scripts for stage, screen, TV and radio) that, unlike the works of unknown or aspiring screenwriters, his unproduced screenplays were often published and adapted for other media.

 Foremost among them is The Proust Screenplay (1972), which Pinter wrote just after completing the final script for The Go-Between. It was meant to be the basis for a screen adaptation of Marcel Proust’s great novel (in the opinion of many the greatest novel ever written), À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, which was traditionally translated (or rather mistranslated) into English as “In Remembrance Of Things Past”, after the Shakespeare sonnet (No.30) featuring that line, but which is now more usually (and accurately) translated as, “In Search Of Lost Time”. Pinter had written the script for Losey and given their earlier triumphs it is both perplexing and genuinely tragic (at least in artistic terms) that Losey was never able to raise the financing to make it. Nevertheless, in condensing a truly epic seven-volume novel into a film script of about 200 pages, Pinter produced probably his greatest screenplay. And even if it has never actually been filmed in full (parts of it were the basis of Swann In Love (1984), a film by Volker Schlöndorff, and it was later adapted for both stage and radio) it remains an absolute masterclass in editing and excision.

 Harold Pinter was a great playwright but he was also a great screenwriter. His work with Joseph Losey alone would have elevated him to that status, but other, later scripts, especially The Last Tycoon and even The Proust Screenplay, also showed that he was a master of cinematic adaptation. The only shame is that he never wrote an original screenplay to go alongside his ultra-original, indeed inimitable (though many have tried) stage plays. If such a thing exists and is eventually discovered, then there is absolutely no doubt that it will be filmed, perhaps by a 21st century equivalent of a Losey or Kazan, the two very different directors for whom Pinter wrote his greatest works for the screen.

 The Great Screenwriters: Part 24 – Harold Pinter. By Martin Keady. The Script Lab,  March 31, 2020

 


“For god’s sake!”, exclaims Susan when Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) the servant intrudes on an intimate moment. “Restrict him to his quarters”,  she adds after the servant leaves. “Can’t he live outside?” -“No he can’t”, replies Tony (James Fox) brusquely.

 
Something begins to crack – sexual tension has already altered the so much established order of things. Things don’t get any better when Barrett’s alleged sister, Vera (Sarah Miles) moves in and seduces Tony, who will then find her in bed with Barrett. Disconcerted, Tony fires him on the spot only to accept him back a while later – not as his servant any longer. After having first upset and then demolished the social and sexual divisions Tony and Susan hid behind, Barrett now seems to be the master of the house.
 
“I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground. The context has always been, for me, concrete and particular, and the characters concrete also. I’ve never started a play with any kind of abstract idea or theory. Apart from any other consideration, we are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility of verifying the past. I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened?” -Harold Pinter
 
 
So we have with The Servant (1963) a consequent imitative realism: the use of distancing devices or defamiliarization effects of the Brechtian Epic Theater, as well as the use of a similar comedy of distance on the part of Harold Pinter. We’re talking about the subject of realism and non-realism from the point of view of the theater’s ability to create not only the illusion of reality, but also the reality of illusion onstage (the reality, that is, of the unreal, or of the illusion-making capacity, illusion-projecting essence, or illusion-embracing tendency of the human mind) —as well as something in between the two. Brecht was primarily a social realist whose real objection to the theater of realism and naturalism was the psychologization of the human character, not its rendering of the surface of reality. Brecht created a drama that evolved into a mock-epic theater and faux-historical chronicle with his direct presentation of characters and episodic plotting, something we also find also in the forms of narrative cinema. It also involved a certain theatrical sensibility and vocabulary, grounded on the used language, its rhythm and pauses.
 
“Language, under these conditions, is a highly ambiguous business. So often, below the word spoken, is the thing known and unspoken. My characters tell me so much and no more, with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history. Between my lack of biographical data about them and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration, but which it is compulsory to explore.” -H.P.-
 
One could identify in the avant-garde a thematic preoccupation with the modern city and all its technologies, with the exhilaration of speed, energy, and rapid developments as well with the urban potential for physical, social, and emotional dislocation. That felt dislocation, of course, is nothing less than the fuel and spirit to create interesting and “real life” characters, either in the stage or the cinema. We meet here issues of class, emerging in a more or less enraged response to a postwar climate – when notions of a “truly classless British society” were promoted with a straight face by many of its leaders. “He may be a servant but he’s still a human being”, Tony says.
 
Back in 1963, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and when representing homosexuality on screen was forbidden, Tony and Barrett’s relationship must have seemed “peculiar”: today it is clearly charged with homoerotic attraction. But let us keep in mind that Harold Pinter’s film adaptation is the one of a 1948 novelette written by the British playwright and travel writer Robin Maugham, a nephew of Somerset Maugham. And the book had risen to the challenge of its literary contemporaries. Everyone adored Woodhouse’s “Jeeves and Wooster”. Readers understood how Jeeves had the upper hand. But Jeeves was entirely benign and discreet. He knew his place. So with Pinter they are not exactly having an affair, but more of a class action that sees Barrett manipulating Tony’s sexuality for his own perfidious ends. He knows his place but it is also a game whose rules and goals remain obscure to the audience. The light-blond Tony stares helpless as the dark Barrett follows his pure impulses. Moral corruption is part of the world Losey portrays, and a lucid, cold detachment prevails. “You have a dirty secret, you shall be caught”, Barrett whispers to his master, and even then there’s not one single reason to whisper. Bogarde’s performance accompanies his every ruthless move with a vicious grin. Sex and power seem to outflow. And violence its only the result.



 
So can we still say that theater is seeking a different area of activity than cinema within its most “real” (representational or documentary) approach of the arts? Does theater frequently try to explore the ways of imitating the fantastic or visionary capability of the film form? Nevertheless, both forms highly depend on the written word, the script or screenplay. The written word needs the courage to deal and develop the trivial, and its banalities. The best stories in screenwriting seem to be made from the most banal material, and these banalities create a very own dynamic and rich, full story. The character is still the key to the complete story, and so you can say that stories are only as good as the characters within them. But these characters differ in their appreciation by the audience, depending whether they watch the actors on screen or if they have them right in front on a stage, in flesh and blood. Also the possibility of interacting with the audience changes the planned characters. While the audience simply has to accept everything that happens within the story and the characters on screen, there is a certain tickle left with the acceptance of the characters on stage. As a member of the audience in a theater there is a sort of interaction possible: the possibility of even talking to an actor during his work and maybe receive a response, whatever that could mean , changes the acceptance of a complete story.
 
“If I were to state any moral precept it might be: beware of the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt of his worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time, as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison of empty definition and cliche.” -H.P.-
 
But as theater is no longer only linked to the traditional objectivity and its bondage to continuous time and space, cinema gets richer and more vital in adopting exactly those two criteria. Within a formal self-consciousness, the avant-garde becomes an element in the imagination- that we call art- and can also be identified as an inspiring disorder for the purpose of creating, a somehow visionary chaos into the work of art itself. This chaos of realism and naturalism found it in the social-problem play seems based on conventional motivations and of course, moral designs. In The Servant we can say with no exaggeration that we see and hear the patriarchal relationship between God and the individual soul as it has been replaced by the more modern adversarial relationship between man and his own psychology.
 
In The Servant, Losey shows menservants as they were, indispensable to Britain’s upper classes in earlier decades of that country’s social history. They were essentially male nannies, quiet men whose tasks were to protect the interests of a gentleman, service his household needs with fixed devotion and most importantly, suggest no evidence of an independent will. But they were also largely obsolete by the latter half of the twentieth century, existing exclusively as a hangover from feudal traditions that were dead before the newly privileged were born. Tony (James Fox), being a freshly minted member of Britain’s slowly vanishing aristocracy, doesn’t seem to be aware of this. He sees the employment of a manservant as a positive necessity, a way of observing the forms so essential to his status. And Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) looks to be the best candidate for the job who’s ever drawn a breath. He’s well mannered and exudes competence from every pore. And most important, the man can cook.
 
The world is revealed, by the location inside the house, and by the actors and their personal use of the interieur, to be pure illusion and also symbolic. Just looking at the mirrors we find located all over the house, like with Alice in Wonderland: are they maybe hiding deeper truths? Deforming mirrors and oblique reflections litter Tony’s apartment, something that will soon turn into his trap.
 
After Barrett’s redecoration, Tony’s “chairs had been covered in a gay yellow chintz”. Tony is asked by his friend if he is at heart a roving bachelor or a “gay wolf”: “Moderately gay”, is how Tony replies. The word did not yet mean “homosexual” but was in the process of transition. It is all maybe buried within the psyche and concealed behind a mirror, a mirror that needs to be cleaned on and on again, a radical new drama proposed to explore. Barrett will continue to be the man’s servant. He will continue to cook the meals, to fix the drinks, answer the doorbell and lock up at night. Yes, he has attained an enduring power over Tony, but it is a limited power. A power achieved only by performing his duties and by pleasing his employer.
 
“I am not suggesting that no character in a play can ever say what he in fact means. Not at all. I have found that there invariably does come a moment when this happens, when he says something, perhaps, which he has never said before. And where this happens, what he says is irrevocable, and can never be taken back.” -H.P.-
 
Quotations: Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998, published by Faber.

Through Harold Pinter on Joseph Losey’s : The Servant. By Claudia Siefen-Leitich. Desistfilm, December 17, 2018.




Great playwrights don't necessarily make good, or even proficient, screenwriters.
 
They may be in demand to adapt novels (as Tom Stoppard and Christopher Hampton have done with considerable success) or to oversee screen versions of their best-known stage works. However, whatever their fame or achievements in their own field, they tend to be regarded as hired hands when they venture into film-making. Even when they do deserve credit, they often fail to get it. Few, for example, remember that Clifford Odets, the writer of Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! and a key figure in 1930s New York theatre, also wrote the screenplay for the 1957 masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success.
 
Harold Pinter is unusual in that he had a substantial – and well-recognised – career in the cinema as well as in the theatre. As a character actor, Pinter popped up in unlikely places. Late in his career, he was seen in full costume garb as the booming voiced patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram in Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park (1998), as a low-life villain in Jez Butterworth's Mojo (1997) and as the mysterious, ghostlike Uncle Benny in John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama (2001). As this range of characters suggest, Pinter was surprisingly versatile. He could run the gamut from aristocrats to East End thugs.



 
Pinter was not an especially successful actor in his rep days in the 1950s. Nonetheless, he had many of the same qualities as performers such as Robert Shaw, Ian Holm and Michael Gambon who excelled in his own work: that mix of seediness, bombast, pathos and menace. When he appeared two years ago as an actor in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape at the Royal Court, critics picked up on the harshness and defiance in his performance. He may have been raddled with ill health, forced to perform from an electric wheelchair, yet that old ferocity was still there.
 
His writing for cinema covered a remarkably wide spectrum. He scripted thrillers, costume dramas and one very overwrought sci-fi yarn (the ill-starred adaptation of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale.) He even directed a film, a 1974 adaptation of Simon Gray's play Butley starring Alan Bates as an academic whose life is coming apart at the seams.
 
Arguably, as far as the film career was concerned, his key creative partnership was with Joseph Losey, the American director who had headed to Britain during the McCarthy era. By the early 1960s, Pinter was already revered as a playwright. Inevitably, movie producers were curious about how they could harness the talents of the writer of The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. The elliptical and menacing style of those plays had discomfited theatre audiences. However, on screen, those pauses, intimidating stares and lines of loaded dialogue could surely have an added resonance. For example, the inane but threatening chatter between the two thugs in The Dumb Waiter about stale eccles cakes and old men being run over by lorries read in hindsight like lines from some gangster movie.
 
David Caute's exhaustive biography of Losey, A Revenge on Life, begins with the American director seeking out Pinter. Losey had seen Pinter's TV play A Night Out (1960). "It has an intensity and inner truth both horrifying and purgative," he wrote to Pinter. He had put his finger on the quality that would later make his own collaborations with Pinter so distinctive: that jarring, queasy honesty they always seemed to have. The Servant (1963) was the first collaboration between Pinter and Losey. This was an adaptation of a 1947 story by Robin Maugham. Michael Anderson (of Dam Busters fame) had originally commissioned the screenplay, Pinter's first. When Anderson failed to raise financing, the actor Dirk Bogarde tried to interest Losey in the project. Pinter, Bogarde wrote in his autobiography Snakes and Ladders, had "the precision of a master jeweller... his pauses are merely the time-phases which he gives you so that you may develop the thought behind the line he has written".
 
As David Caute makes clear, Losey forced Pinter to make some changes to the screenplay. This wasn't a case of the lionised stage writer simply delivering a perfectly formed text that the director used as his blueprint. There is still debate as to where Pinter's influence ended and Losey's begun. Whatever the case, writer and director complemented one another. Losey, an American and an outsider, could never have made as trenchant and unsettling an attack as this on the British class system without Pinter as chief accomplice. Contemporary reviewers immediately picked up on Pinter's contribution. Critics recognised Pinter "as a vivid stylist with a flair for tensely ambiguous dialogue".
 
The Servant may have been Pinter's first screenplay but it was perfectly judged for the time in which it appeared. A few years before, Dirk Bogarde had been appearing as Simon Sparrow in the Doctor in the House comedies and British cinema had seemed horribly cost and complacent. Pinter's screenplay for The Servant gave Bogarde a very different kind of role, as the unctuous and sinister manservant Barrett. It also honed in on the way that old British certainties about class, sex and generation were being undermined. There was something forensic and vicious about the film's portrayal of an effete aristocrat (played by James Fox) ending up in thrall to the servant he ostensibly despises.
 
Pinter shared with Losey an interest in exploring sexual and social humiliation. Pinter's screenplay for Losey's Accident (1967) again probed such areas in the same relentless way. This time, the setting was Oxbridge academia. In adapting Nicholas Mosley's novel, Pinter honed in on the violence simmering away not so very far beneath the surface of the seemingly placid lives led by the academic protagonists (played by Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker). It's a film that begins in the aftermath of a car crash and then – in flashback – exposes the ambition, insecurity and infidelity of these highly educated middle-aged men. Again, Pinter transcended his source material. The screenplays for The Servant and Accident are recognised as being written in Pinter's voice. They are far better known today than the Maugham and Mosley stories on which they are based.
 
Sometimes, critics and audiences were so busy listening out for signs of Pinter's voice in his work for screen that they missed the craftsmanship with which his screenplays were put together. Marcel Proust wouldn't seem like a natural choice of author for Pinter (or anyone else) to bring to screen and yet he wrote a screenplay of A la recherche du temps perdu for Losey. The film was never made.
 
Nonetheless, he didn't regard it as time wasted. "Working on A la Recherche was the best working year of my life," the writer later claimed. He had researched the project assiduously, visiting the author's old haunts and taking copious notes while reading the book.
 
"For three months I read A la recherche every day ... but was left at the end quite baffled as to how to approach a task of such magnitude."
 
When his screenplay was eventually published, it was still acclaimed as a masterpiece, even if there wasn't a movie to accompany it. "I speak carefully when I say that it's incomparably the best screen adaptation ever made of a great work and that it is in itself a work of genius," proclaimed the influential American film critic Stanley Kauffman.
 
Pinter's adaptation of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, directed by Karel Reisz in 1981, was equally skilful: he realised that successful movies couldn't be created by slavishly following a novelist's original text. The screenwriter's skill was in condensing and reworking the text without muting the original author's voice.




 
Not all Pinter's forays into cinema turned out well. His screenplay for Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth (2007) seemed cold and mannered, too much a formal exercise and too short on the brio that galvanised Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1972 version of Anthony Schaffer's play (scripted by Schaffer himself). A Handmaid's Tale, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, teetered on the edge of preposterousness. Margaret Atwood's novel is a dystopian fable about a misogynistic, right-wing society. The film it spawned played like a cheesy B-movie.
 
These misfires were rare. Pinter's film career will always be regarded as secondary. It's his plays that matter most. Nonetheless, whether it's movie adaptations of his own works or screenplays he has written for others, the Pinter filmography is impressive enough in its own right. There are also plenty of film-makers – from David Mamet to Atom Egoyan and Neil LaBute – who acknowledge their debt to him.
 
Harold Pinter: True star of the screen.  By Geoffrey MacNab.  The Independent, December 27, 2008.


Films by Harold Pinter