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United States copyright records list Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. as the copyright claimant for The Go-Between, although onscreen credits list E.M.I. Film Productions, Ltd. as the claimant. Just after the opening credits, actor Michael Redgrave recites, in voice-over, the following line, which is also the opening line of the L. P. Hartley novel on which the film was based: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Interspersed at various points throughout the film's main story, which is set in 1900, are brief shots of Redgrave as the middle-aged "Leo Colston" arriving at a train station, riding in a chauffeur-driven car, then being seated in a small drawing room. The flash-forwards, which take place circa 1950, gradually become more frequent and longer in the last third of the film, sometimes with dialogue between the elderly "Marian," now "Lady Trimingham," and Leo heard in voice-over to the main story, or, at other times, shown in partial scenes. At the end of the film, the emphasis between the two stories is reversed, with the main action taking place in 1950 interspersed with flashbacks to the 1900 story.
The film utilizes the flash-forwards as cinematic devices to convey reminiscences that are related in the novel as the older Leo reads through his diary for the year 1900, when he stayed with the Maudsley family at Brandham Hall. Although the film generally follows the development of the story within the novel, the novel fleshes out Leo's background and inner turmoil about life, class and sex. In the novel, it is stated that "Ted Burgess" went home and shot himself immediately after he and Marian were caught making love, whereas, in the film, his death is related through a brief shot of him, apparently dead, holding a revolver. Frequently throughout the film, Leo is called either "Mercury" or "Postman" by various characters, which is used as a plot device to illustrate Leo's increasing discomfort with his role as a go-between.
According to news items, M-G-M had originally planned to produce an adaptation of Hartley's novel in the mid-1950s. Filmfacts reported that British producer Alexander Korda purchased the rights to the novel shortly after it was published and planned to star Margaret Leighton, who portrayed "Mrs. Maudsley" in the released film, as Marian, and have Nancy Mitford adapt the novel for the screen. According to the pressbook for The Go-Between, Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter first talked about adapting Hartley's novel while making Accident because both men admired the book. The Go-Between marked the third and final screen collaboration between Losey and Pinter, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. Their previous collaborations were The Servant, released in 1964, and Accident, released in 1967 (see below and above).
The Go-Between was one of several films announced in June 1970 as part of a co-production arrangement between M-G-M and EMI. However, shortly before the film received the Grand International Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, where it was the official British entry, M-G-M sold the North American distribution rights to Columbia. As reported in many news items and reviews, M-G-M had little faith in the highly lyrical film's box-office appeal. According to a December 1974 Films and Filming article, an executive of M-G-M [identified in other sources as M-G-M president and CEO James T. Aubrey, Jr.] dismissed The Go-Between as "the greatest still picture ever made."
Although the onscreen credits state that the film was shot on location in Norfolk, England and at the EMI-MGM Elstree Studios, the studio work appears to have been confined to post-production. Various press releases and contemporary news items state that Melton Constable Hall, a derelict 17th century house twenty miles outside Norfolk, was renovated to become Brandham Hall for the film. Norfolk locations included Thornage, which served as the setting for the cricket match, and the village of Heydon.
Upon its release in North America, most critics praised the film, particularly citing Joseph Losey's lyrical direction and Michel Legrand's score. In its review of the film Variety erroneously credited the score to Richard Rodney Bennett, an error that the paper corrected a few days later. Leighton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The film received BAFTA awards for Best Screenplay (Harold Pinter); Best Supporting Actor (Edward Fox); Best Supporting Actress (Leighton) and Outstanding Newcomer (Dominic Guard). The picture marked the feature film debut of Guard, who previously had appeared in the British television series Dombey and Son.