Playwright Harold Pinter is behind the austere screenplay, keeping things puzzling, an often silent script punctured with bursts of cryptic, hostile dialogue.
By Gerald Peary
Is it a consolation to us jealous outsiders? Being wealthy landed gentry doesn’t always make people happy. Take the case of Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), an Oxford don residing in a nearby country estate in Accident (1967), the Joseph Losey-directed classic playing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (October 3 through 16) in a restored print. Stephen owns this sublime brick house with a fine garden, he’s got a classy pregnant wife and two adorable children, and, from what we see of his university days, the lightest load as a pipe-smoking philosophy tutor. And yet he quietly stews. He wants more, or something else.
Stephen’s not going to burst out and express his deepest wishes. We’re in the land of the frigid and tight-lipped, upper-class Brits. And there’s another foil to speaking with an open voice. It’s playwright Harold Pinter behind the austere screenplay, keeping things puzzling, an often silent script punctured with bursts of cryptic, hostile dialogue. For instance, the movie’s most famous scene, after Stephen has caught two in his crowd screwing in his marital bed: three people – one jealous and angry, two anguished – saying practically nothing in the tension of one of them stirring up an omelet and then sitting at a table and eating it. It’s done in one perhaps five-minute take, allowing time for the eggs to cook in real time, and the trio quietly to boil.
Pinter in praise of Losey’s approach in Accident: “No elaborations, no odd angles, no darting about. Just a level intense look at people, at things. As though if you look at them long enough they will give up their secrets.”
The title, Accident, reveals itself quickly. As Losey’s camera slowly zooms in toward Stephen’s house, crossing his front lawn, there’s an off-screen sound of skidding and crashing and broken glass. No tranquility here. Cut to a badly wrecked car on its back, and two people trapped inside. One is dead, the other, a young woman, is pulled out of the auto by Stephen with this ghoulish warning: “You are stepping on his face!” The young woman is brought inside, hidden in a bedroom. When the police arrive, Stephen pretends that only the young man was in the car. He retreats to the bedroom, stares lustfully at the young woman’s bared loins. FLASHBACK.
Stephen at Oxford, sharing a sherry in his office with the living version of the dead young man above. He’s William (Michael York), a spry, athletic student, as incredibly rich as he’s good-natured. William confesses his love of another one of Stephen’s pupils, and we see her walking across the Oxford green. She’s royalty, some kind of Austrian princess. “How do you know she’s a princess?” Stephen’s wife will ask him. Stephen will reply, “Because she has a very long name.” Her first name is Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), and she’s the young woman whom Stephen rescued from the accident. And in flashback, it’s clear that not just William desires her. The three of them go rowing through the canals of Oxford, and Stephen uses his time on the water to stare up close at Anna’s legs.
Stephen’s sexual longing motivates the longest section of Accident, where he invites William and Anna to his home for lunch so that he can rub up against Anna. He’s too obsessed to care that his wife, Rosalind (Vivien Merchant), is forced to cook up one meal and then another, as everyone stays on for supper. There’s a funny scene with all playing amateurish tennis; and there’s what seems like a key step forward for Stephen’s amorous dream of bedding Anna. She agrees to take a walk with him into the countryside. They barely talk, Stephen’s cravings are palpable. They return to Stephen’s house. Do they now have a silent pact? Is consummation around the corner?
Enter Charley (Stanley Baker), another Oxford don and Stephen’s best friend, though there’s unspoken competitiveness. He appears at Stephen’s house without being asked. Why? Soon it’s clear that he also is chasing Anna, and perhaps successfully. The third panting male! Poor Rosalind, so ordinary. And, her sad self-image, that she’s already fatally old. (The word “old” is a constant in Pinter’s screenplay, a fear of everyone in the movie approaching 40.) And poor Laura, Charley’s abandoned wife.
When Accident was released in 1967, reviewers all praised the brilliant acting ensemble, including Pinter himself in a small droll role as a fast-talking BBC producer. There was one exception: the awkward, dreary acting of Sassard as Anna. I’m afraid that, almost half a century later, her performance hasn’t improved at all. And even Sassard’s supposed allure is stale and uninviting. But can a total negative be a sort of positive? Losey and Pinter seem united in the idea that Anna really is a big nothing, that it’s deluded men who give her value, a princess whom, hopefully, they can paw! Seeing Jacqueline Cossard that way, she is perfectly cast.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess