Friday, November 18, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Accident (1967)

Accident (1967) ****
Directed by: Joseph Losey.
Written by: Harold Pinter based on the novel by Nicholas Mosley.
Starring: Dirk Bogarde (Stephen), Stanley Baker (Charley), Jacqueline Sassard (Anna), Michael York (William), Vivien Merchant (Rosalind), Delphine Seyrig (Francesca), Alexander Knox (Provost), Ann Firbank (Laura).

Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s second collaboration following The Servant (1963) but before The Go-Between (1971) is probably the least remembered of the three films they made together. I haven’t seen The Go-Between yet, so I cannot comment on that one, but I think the reason why Accident isn’t quite as highly regarded as The Servant is because it’s more complex, more dense, less immediately satisfying than the previous film. This isn’t to say that it isn’t as good as The Servant – in some ways, it’s better, and is certainly more daring, just that Accident is a harder film to try and wrap your head around.

Like The Servant, Accident is essentially about people destroying each other while maintaining a mask of civility. I don’t think any of the characters in Accident – especially the male ones – like each other very much at all. Yet on the outside, they maintain a fa├žade of pleasantness to one another. No one gets into a fight during the course of Accident – I’m not sure anyone even raises their voice - but lives are certainly ruined.

The film stars Dirk Bogarde in another of his great performances, as Stephen, a seemingly happily married Oxford don, specializing in philosophy. He has been tutoring William (Michael York) for a while now, and they have a friendly student-teacher relationship. Stephen’s new pupil is Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), a beautiful Bulgarian “princess”, who William is enamored with – but then again so is Stephen. William wants Stephen to introduce the two of them, and although he doesn’t, William and Anna start dating anyway. Being nice, Stephen invites the two of them to his country house to meet his wife Rosalind (Vivien Merchant) and his two young children. Unexpectedly, Charley (Stanley Baker), another Oxford don – but a more famous and successful one – arrives to visit his “friends” Stephen and Rosalind. He hints at marital discord in his own relationship – and like Stephen and William, also “falls in love” with Anna.

Anna is a typical Harold Pinter creation – a blank slate of a character that everyone else projects their own vision upon. Other than her beauty, there is nothing at all that defines her as a character. We never get to know the real person that lies beyond that beauty. That is mainly because the movie is told from Stephen’s point of view – everything we see comes from him. And he never really bothers to get to know Anna – he simply falls in love with her beauty. Why she is with William, and later why she starts an affair with Charley, is never made clear. The reasons for her actions are often murky – so much so that we cannot even tell if her actions in the title accident are really an accident at all. She defies explanation. I do not mean this as an insult on the movie, because that is what her purpose is. Without her, the male characters who probably simply trade banal, meaningless pleasantries with each other for the whole movie. With her, those banal, pleasantries become loaded with resentment and contempt. I’m not sure when it becomes clear that Stephen and Charley truly hate each other – despite being lifelong “friends” – but it certainly become clear over the course of the movie. I think perhaps it’s in a scene where Stephen comes back to his house in London, which he believes to be empty – to find that it is in fact occupied by Anna and Stephen, having one of their rendezvous, that up until that point, Stephen did not know about. Watch that scene to see the way Stephen bends over backwards to be polite to the two of them, and yet how every phrase is dripping with hatred for Stephen, and regret for not having bed Anna himself. It is a masterful moment for Pinter, Losey and Bogarde.

With Accident, director Joseph Losey pushes himself beyond where he was with The Servant. He and Pinter play with time more in this film – events happen out of chronological order, and the end swoops back around to the beginning of the film, and gives everything in it an entirely different meaning. The strange, off kilter cinematography, that lingers in empty rooms after the characters have left, the editing which sets the tone, and sound design which is haunting, is all interesting and unique. Unlike many directors in the 1960s, whose experiments in style where largely meaningless and an attempt to be cool, Losey’s visual experiments are perfect for Pinter’s sparse screenplay.

The performances help a great deal as well. You will not a see a better performance of repressed sexuality than that given by Dirk Bogarde in this film. It easily matches his brilliant work in The Servant, yet could not be more different. He comes across as rather pathetic by the end, but at least we feel sympathy for him. Stanley Baker as Charley, on the other hand, is even more pathetic in the end, and there is no sympathy for him. He seems to have it all – or at least all that Stephen wants – but he is an empty shell. In his first major role, Michael York is fine as the handsome, young William – who again Stephen envies. Vivien Merchant gives her few scenes as Stephen’s wife, who knows what is going on, but wouldn’t dream of saying anything about it, a nice bite. Poor Jacqueline Sassard is cast more for her physical presence than anything else – but she does what she has been asked to do.

Accident is a complex film. Its mysteries don’t readily reveal themselves, and instead the movie trusts the audience to do the digging into what is on screen. The film is not as famous as The Servant – but it is every bit as good.

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