The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Harold Pinter’s Legacy in Cinema: The Homecoming

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The final curtain closed on master dramatist Harold Pinter, 78, on Christmas Eve, just a couple of weeks after the Nobel Prize–winning playwright, poet, stage director, and actor was awarded an honorary degree from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, the last in a lifelong series of impressive accolades, including the Légion d’honneur. Best known for the acerbic, black-comic plays of his early career, like The Birthday Party (1957) and The Homecoming (1964), Pinter developed a sensibility as distinctive as that of contemporaries like Samuel Beckett and Simon Gray, both of whom he admired.

For all his storied influence on late-20th-century drama (David Mamet is a disciple), a legacy that the cascade of English-language obituaries I’ve read have already thoroughly parsed, Pinter also left his mark on British and American cinema as a sharp-witted screenwriter. Apart from working on TV productions of his own plays, Pinter found a niche early on adapting plays and novels for genre flicks and indie dramas as well as Tinseltown prestige pictures. In 1963, he wrote the script for Joseph Losey’s The Servant, starring Dirk Bogarde, and teamed up with him again for Accident (1967), another Bogarde vehicle, and The Go-Between (1970), starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates. A few years later, Pinter adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1976) for Elia Kazan, who cast a young Robert De Niro in the leading role, alongside a who’s who of Old and New Hollywood including Tony Curtis, Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Jeanne Moreau, Dana Andrews, Ray Milland, and Theresa Russell.

By the 1980s, Pinter was a celebrated playwright and theater director. But the first mainstream acclaim he earned for his lucrative sideline gig as a teleplay and screenwriter came for his adaptation of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), starring Meryl Streep, for which he received an Oscar nomination. (He received another in 1983 for Betrayal, based on his own play.) Over the years, Pinter’s feel and talent for scripting movie dialogue made him an in-demand book-to-celluloid scribe, even if the resulting films were not always up to the par of his fertile collaborations with Losey. In later years, he penned adaptations of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, Kafka’s The Trial, and Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, often working with prestigious directors like Volker Schlöndorff and Paul Schrader.

What we’ve come to think of “Pinteresque,” however, resides very much in the sensibility of his plays: the dark irony, the atmosphere of menace, the ambiguity and silences that mark the linguistic tête-à-têtes of his bickering and benighted characters. Then there’s the lacerating gallows humor he inherited from his friend Beckett, always a presiding spirit in Pinter’s creative milieu. For me, these traits were best realized in Peter Hall’s nervy, studiously faithful adaptation of The Homecoming (1973), which Pinter scripted. One of the finest American Film Theatre productions of the 1970s, it’s also one of my all-time favorite stage-to-screen adaptations, as it seems both organically rooted in the squalid decay of Edward Heath’s Britain and, through Hall’s exquisite editing and shot composition, eminently cinematic too.

Watching it recently, I felt exactly what Vincent Canby said so eloquently in his review of the film for the New York Times: “One need not define life when one can point to it, which is what Pinter is doing in ‘The Homecoming,’ with marvelous control of exaggerated language and gesture that have the effect of a fluoroscope. Pinter keeps giving us glimpses of interior furies that most of us prefer not to acknowledge in the daytime.” Those night furies—wild, visceral, and somehow expressive of the human condition—are what made the experience of Hall’s film tonally unpredictable, and to be perfectly honest, kind of exhausting. But its success had a lot to do with the experience of the cast and director with the play, as well as David Watkins’s conscientiously filmic framing.

All of this can be glimpsed in the perfervidly Pinteresque scene I’ve embedded below. Small-time pimp Lenny (Ian Holm) plays out a tense, sexually charged game of nerves with his brother’s wife Ruth (Vivien Merchant) that’s oblique on a linguistic level and gesturally peculiar to Pinter, but communicates everything we need to know about these two characters: He’s smug, aggressive, and tortured in some opaque way. She’s intelligent, wily, and plays for keeps, even if self-abasement is the key to winning. It’s quintessential Pinter, masterfully handled by Hall, who directed the same actors in the stage play. Holm was rarely better (no, not even in Lord of the Rings, you geeks!), and Merchant, Pinter’s long-suffering and soon-to-be-estranged actress wife, hits just the right note of saucy challenge and enigmatic self-regard. Not to be missed. R.I.P. Harold.

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Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 5:01 pm

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