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Peter Finch and James Mason were "the two best screen actors of the English 1960s, even when they work in rubbish," according to the gifted Alan Bates, who appeared in films with both of them. There's much support for that statement in The Pumpkin Eater, a spellbinding 1964 drama that's the opposite of rubbish, thanks to Jack Clayton's remarkably creative directing and Harold Pinter's boldly intelligent screenplay. And as marvelous as Finch and Mason are, Anne Bancroft, who scored an Oscar® nomination for the film, outshines them both as the central character, an emotionally troubled woman caught in psychological traps set by herself as well as the highly unsatisfactory men in her life.
Her name is Jo Armitage, and at the beginning of the movie she's wandering aimlessly around her comfortable London house, dressed to go shopping but too moody and distracted to make it out the door. Flashbacks reveal some of her history. Years earlier she lived in a ramshackle barn with her second husband, a violinist named Giles, and their five rambunctious children. One day Giles invited his friend Jake to visit, and amid all the tumult in the crowded, noisy home, Jo and Jake fell instantly in love. Typically for the film, which moves at a leisurely pace but doesn't waste a moment on unnecessary material, we skip over the dissolution of Jo's marriage to Giles and pick up her story as she and Jake get ready to tie the knot. Jake is a screenwriter trying to establish his career, and while he's obviously crazy about Jo, it's not clear he's equipped to handle the five energetic kids who come along with her. Sure enough, he starts finding reasons for working away from home, and when a friend-of-a-friend named Philpot needs a place to stay, Jake not only lets her move in but has an affair with her. Jo grows so depressed that when she finally does go shopping on that gloomy day, she breaks down in the middle of a posh department store and winds up in a mental hospital.
Unhappy marriages don't always keep going downhill, but in the movies it's a good bet that the bad situation will soon get even worse. Jo's mental health improves, thanks partly to a no-nonsense psychiatrist who doses her with therapy and pills, and Jake is still quite fond of her. But that riotous gang of kids is still a problem now there are even more, since Jo and Jake have had a couple as they chase around the house, interrupt Jake's work, and eat up hard-earned money he'd rather spend on having fun. A tipping point comes when Jo learns she's pregnant yet again, and Jake prevails on the family doctor to recommend an abortion (they're in the UK, remember, where mid-1960s laws were more lenient than in the US) plus a sterilization procedure to prevent such "problems" in the future. Jo comforts herself with the thought that Jake will now be a loving and contented husband. But after he returns from a movie shoot in Morocco she discovers that he's been sleeping with the star of the picture, Beth Conway, and Beth's aggrieved husband Bob reveals that Jake insisted on the abortion only because Beth would have dumped him if he had a new baby to look after. On top of this, Jake has now gotten Beth pregnant, and far from pushing her into an abortion, Bob plans on using the kid for revenge on his faithless wife, forcing her to trade her movie-star career for years of household drudgery. This so enrages Jo that she lashes out violently at Jake, returns to Giles for a fling, and then hides away in the country house that she and Jake have been fixing up throughout their marriage. In the last scene Jake and the children pay a visit, and Jo welcomes them in, suggesting that their long travails may finally be coming to a close. But it's hard to imagine a happy ending for this deeply conflicted couple, and The Pumpkin Eater's muted conclusion leaves us to draw our own conclusions about what their futures may hold.
Based on Penelope Mortimer's eponymous novel, The Pumpkin Eater is named after a nursery rhyme ("...had a wife and couldn't keep her...") that's never mentioned in the film. It was made during the celebrated heyday of English social-realist cinema, influenced by Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, that produced such brilliant pictures as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and This Sporting Life (1963). Although it's unaccountably less famous than those classics, The Pumpkin Eater is every bit as excellent, starting with the quality of its acting. Bancroft gives what may be the most subtle and sensitive performance of her career, painting a richly sympathetic portrait of Jo without lapsing into sentimentality for an instant. Finch is also at his best, making Jake selfish and snappish yet oddly appealing in his way; he came to this picture fresh from Girl with Green Eyes, also a 1964 release, so he was primed for another woman-centered story featuring a forty-something man whose life is no longer on the upswing. Mason didn't much like Pinter's screenplay, and his part is small despite his star billing, but his weaselly Bob Conway is one of the movie's strongest figures, stuck so totally in his own mean-spirited skull that you expect him to start gasping for air. In many of his films, Mason is the great master of the downward spiral think A Star Is Born (1954), or Lolita (1962), or Bigger Than Life (1956) but here his character is as spitefully self-defeating in his first scene as in his last. Mason might have drawn inspiration from the miserable divorce he was going through off-screen at the time; in any case, making this creep compulsively watchable is a challenging task that Mason ingeniously pulls off.
Other standouts in the cast are Eric Porter as the psychiatrist, Maggie Smith as Philpot, and Cedric Hardwicke as Jo's wealthy dad. But very special mention goes to Yootha Joyce and Frank Singuineau as the film's strangest, most enigmatic figures. Joyce plays a desperate housewife who starts chattering to Jo in a beauty parlor, poised on a razor-thin line between ordinary unhappiness and outright psychosis; and Singuineau plays a raggedly dressed black man who shows up at Jo's door, announces that he's the King of Israel, and hovers eerily in the background as she receives some shocking news in an unexpected phone call. Pinter's screenplays are generally less offbeat and elliptical than his stage plays, but in these scenes he injects a note of brooding mystery that adds immeasurably to the film's haunting power.
Credit for its high quality also goes to Oswald Morris's eloquent cinematography and Georges Delerue's atmospheric music, which is heard only at precisely chosen moments when it has a real contribution to make. But as important as all these contributions are, Clayton's directing style is what binds them into a unified, poetic whole. Clayton directed only nine theatrical films during the forty-plus years of his career, including the respected dramas Room at the Top (1959) and The Innocents (1961), and no film of his I've seen matches The Pumpkin Eater for originality and imagination. Scenes glide gracefully together through long, lingering dissolves; flashbacks commence with a character staring down the camera; in an unforgettable moment during Jo's final fling with Giles, they have an intimate conversation while only Jo is visible, stretched out on the bed, the smoke from her cigarette flowing backward through the darkened room. Touches like these add crowning luster to The Pumpkin Eater, a film that's mesmerizing to watch and hard to shake off afterward. If you've never seen it, a real discovery is waiting for you.
Producer: James Woolf
Director: Jack Clayton
Screenplay: Harold Pinter, based on Penelope Mortimer's novel
Cinematographer: Oswald Morris
Film Editing: James Clark
Art Direction: Edward Marshall
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Anne Bancroft (Jo), Peter Finch (Jake), James Mason (Conway), Janine Gray (Beth), Cedric Hardwicke (Jo's Father), Rosalind Atkinson (Jo's Mother), Alan Webb (Jake's Father), Richard Johnson (Giles), Maggie Smith (Philpot), Eric Porter (Psychiatrist), Cyril Luckham (Doctor), Anthony Nicholls (Surgeon), John Franklyn-Robbins (Parson), John Junkin (Undertaker), Yootha Joyce (Woman at Hairdressers), Leslie Nunnerly (Waitress at Zoo), Gerald Sim (Man at Party), Frank Singuineau (The King of Israel), Faith Kent (Nanny), Gregory Phillips (Pete), Rupert Osborne (Pete), Michael Ridgeway (Jack), Martin Norton (Jack), Frances White (Dinah), Kate Nicholls (Dinah), Fergus McClelland (Fergus), Christopher Ellis (Fergus), Elizabeth Dear (Elizabeth), Sarah Nicholls (Elizabeth), Sharon Maxwell (Sharon), Mimosa Annis (Sharon), Kash Dewar (Mark), Mark Crader (Youngest Child).
by David Sterritt