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The 1963 Film of Pinter’s The Caretaker

March 7, 2016


I revisited this film recently, for teaching purposes.  It was, perhaps, the least glitzy anglophone movie of 1963.  Indeed, the only Hollywoody thing about this movie is the list of donors at the very beginning.  Noel Coward, Peter Sellers, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton all coughed up some (but not that much) money to enable this film to be made.  A company was formed just to make it.  The principal stakeholders in this company agreed not to be paid anything up front just to enable it to be made.

It was filmed towards the end of one of the worst winters of the twentieth century.  There is snow on the ground, and you can feel cold just watching it.  The bitter weather only heightens the claustrophobia of the attic room.  The sense of white desolation, of nothingness beyond the squalid property, is fortuitously suggested by the climate conditions of the filming.  The cast is of course an absolute dream of a cast.  Two members of the original stage cast are supplemented by a member of the original Broadway production.

Alan Bates is Mick.  If my sense of theatrical gossip is in any way accurate then just about everyone working in the world of British stage and screen between 1960 and 1980 at some point had an affair with Alan Bates.  He exudes dangerous quick witted charm – the ability redirect and misdirect conversations strategically.

Donald Pleasence is (and always will be) Davies-Jenkins.  (We have no reason to believe that his “real” name is Davies rather than Jenkins or something else other than either Davies or Jenkins or indeed whether the concept of a “real” name is at all meaningful.)  On screen the sheer twitching, restless physicality of the role is aptly conveyed.  Davies may be a congenital parasite, incapable of any kind of work, but he cannot sit still either – cannot relax – not even when (especially when) he’s asleep.

Robert Shaw is Aston – the victim of a bodged electro-convulsive shock treatment.  Shaw would go on to play Stanley Webber on film, in William Friedkin’s 1968 version of The Birthday Party.   Everything Shaw does is charged with painfully slow deliberation.  Brain damage has the effect of forcing him to use his conscious mind to effect the slightest movement.  The muscle memory required for any kind of relaxation has been taken from him.

The cinematography is by Nicolas Roeg.  ‘Nough said.  The Caretaker, in its own way, is a perfect rehearsal for the film techniques that would, by the end of the decade, make Performance perhaps the most intoxicatingly depraved film of all time.

And then there’s the minimal score by Ron Grainer.  It reminds me a bit of Carter Burwell’s minimal score for No Country for Old Men.  You actually don’t notice any score, anything resembling music at all, while you’re watching it.   But the sounds are there and they impact invisibly.  If you were to sit down and decide you were going to consciously register every bit of score in the film, then of course you’d notice the score.  But you don’t have to register it for it to work, and in a way, it’s better if you don’t register it.  This is the most generous and unshowy bits of composition you can imagine – “thankless” almost.  But “thankfully” – the music for The Caretaker would not be the most celebrated music that Ron Grainer would showcase in 1963.

There are bits of the stage play that get cut from the film.  The delicious conversation about the handiness of different kinds of saw does not appear.  And then there are a few things that weren’t in the stage play.  The abortive attempt to drive Davies to Sidcup obviously did not appear on stage.  But for the most part, this is a very faithful adaptation.

And as the (very brief) credits rolled, I ended up being reminded of why The Caretaker is a far more optimistic play than The Birthday Party.   It is optimistic because the play ends up being the proving ground of fraternal love.  Aston, who finds talk so difficult (and is therefore given the longest speech in the play – a piece of acting by Shaw which anticipates his famous description of the crew of the USS Indianapolis being eaten by sharks) is saved by Mick, who finds talk so easy.

If Davies has done nothing else in his capacity as “Caretaker” (and he really hasn’t) it has been to demonstrate that in the face of an external threat – Mick loves Aston.   Indeed, in its own desolate way, The Caretaker, whether on stage or screen, offers perhaps the most poignant celebration of protective brotherly affection the twentieth century has to offer.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reposting on the occasion of what would have been Donald Pleasance’s 101st birthday.

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