Where to begin with Harold Pinter on screen

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the bruising dramas of Harold Pinter

• Explore the Harold Pinter season at BFI Southbank

Adam Scovell

The Servant (1963)

The Servant (1963)

Why this might not seem so easy

Harold Pinter may be predominantly known as a playwright and poet, but – with extensive work in British film and TV – he’s one of our most successful screenwriters too.

Getting his start in television at a time when the medium was incredibly open to experimentation and new writers, he then worked his way into the upper echelons of 1960s British cinema too, his screen career running in parallel to his growing reputation as the backbone of postwar British drama.

Film was also an important aspect in his plays. He loved the cinema, listing movies by Luis Buñuel and Sergei Eisenstein alongside literary greats such as William Shakespeare and John Webster as early influences.

However, Pinter’s work may seem difficult to grasp in its full context at first, not least because he has screen credits in some surprising places, from period dramas to spy films. When not adapting his own work, he often added his own particular take to other, often left-field literary adaptations too. Major novels given the Pinter stamp on screen include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (filmed in 1976), John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (filmed in 1981), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers (both filmed in 1990).

Working out where these original works stop and Pinter begins is part of the challenge when exploring his career. Watch for infamously long pauses, obscure meanings and subtexts, and a fascination with how power is wielded and warped.

The best place to start – The Caretaker

The Caretaker (1963)

The Caretaker (1963)

Coming only a few years after Pinter’s original 1960 play, and using two of the original trio from its stage cast, Clive Donner’s adaptation of The Caretaker (1963) is the purest example of what’s called ‘Pinteresque’. The story follows two brothers, Aston (Robert Shaw) and Mick (Alan Bates), who live in a semi-derelict house in east London. They let a homeless man, Davies (Donald Pleasence), stay with them, though the three’s relationship quickly shifts to psychological torment as a series of past traumas are aired.

Donner’s film was made on a low budget, some of which was raised by a number of famous figures, including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Noël Coward. In fact, the meagreness of these funds brought the circumstances of the shoot close to the situation of the play. Pinter stayed with the cast and crew in the house in Downs Road, Hackney, during a brutal winter, filming and adapting the script as the shoot progressed.

The first cinema film made from his writing, The Caretaker presents the epitome of Pinter’s London, with the people and places he knew recreated with perfect precision – not least because the house was situated only a road away from where Pinter himself grew up.

What to watch next

Accident (1967)

Accident (1967)

1963 would also see the first of a number of collaborations between Pinter and the exiled American director Joseph Losey. Beginning with The Servant, an adaptation of Robin Maugham’s novel, the pair forged a relationship that resulted in some of the most formidable cinema Britain has ever produced. Centring on the power shift between a manservant (Dirk Bogarde) and his master (James Fox), The Servant is the high-point of this collaboration, a masterfully tense and unsettling drama that captures London in the moment just before it began to swing.

The second Losey-Pinter picture was 1967’s Accident, also starring Dirk Bogarde and another disturbing yet beautifully shot piece – this time in colour. It’s a film about the decade’s shifting sexual attitudes and increasing frankness, acknowledging the dark undertones that came with it and the control given to those in positions of social power (in this case, lecturers at Oxford).

Pinter himself crops up in both The Servant and Accident in small cameo roles too. His small role in Accident as an unconcerned BBC desk jockey fobbing off Bogarde’s desperate academic is one of his funniest inventions.

Although Losey and Pinter attempted later projects together, their final collaboration would be their adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-between. Starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Edward Fox, this hugely acclaimed drama won the Palme d’Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. We may think of Pinter as more of a city writer, but his screenplay here potently explores the fallout of an affair in rural Norfolk.

Betrayal (1983)

Betrayal (1983)

Taking similar themes to even greater heights, David Hugh Jones’ adaptation of Pinter’s autobiographical play Betrayal (1983) adventurously reverses the narrative, starting from the final break-up and concluding with the first sparks of dangerous liaisons. With superb roles for Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge, it’s one of the great underrated British films of the 1980s, filled with tense drama and raging digs at the publishing industry.

Most big-screen Pinter films are worth exploring, though his small-screen work is also of an incredibly high quality. In particular, The Lover, directed for television by Joan Kemp-Welch in 1963, is quintessential Pinter. His wife at the time, Vivien Merchant, co-stars with Alan Badel in a risqué, adult drama following two suburban lovers who appear to be having an open affair, though something more complex is happening under the surface. It’s a brilliant, uncompromising piece of television that questions desire and the performative nature of satisfaction.

Where not to start

Sleuth (2007)

Sleuth (2007)

Pinter seemed like the right choice on paper to adapt the second film version of Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth. After all, Shaffer was working within a postwar theatrical landscape that Pinter had helped to define, and Sleuth’s power-play between two men, resorting to brutal treatment of each other, is Pinter to a T. Under Kenneth Branagh’s direction in 2007, however, the resulting film lacks the lavish, creeping dread of the 1972 Michael Caine-Laurence Olivier version. Now teaming Caine with Jude Law, this Sleuth saw much of the original wordplay edited down and the story seemed off balance – more suited to the double-breasted dandyism of the early 1970s than the cool gleam of the 2000s.


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