Based on a
Alan Bates: [The film version of The Caretaker] was essentially a piece of theatre. But I don't want to call it filmed theatre, because I think Clive Donner's direction got far beyond that. Nevertheless, the speeches and the conception of the characters are to a certain extent stylised, although the treatment was very simple and realistic.
Bates: Since I'd done it in the theatre, there was some necessary adjustment for the film, particularly in my part--because the scenes with Donald Pleasence can almost be music hall, the word play between them. In the theatre you can play it straight out like a revue. In the cinema you just can't do that. So it took on a different emphasis. Those scenes became more sinister than funny, I think. The character is sinister anyway, of course, but I think the closer you are the more sinister he is--because you see much more of his interior mind, whereas in the theatre the emphasis was on his funny lines.
Two above excerpts from "Reflections: Alan Bates interviewed by Gordon Gow," which was published in the June 1971 edition of FILMS AND FILMING. Excerpt © 1971 Hansom Books. All Rights Reserved.
Bates: The Caretaker was a deliberate translation of the play to film. It seemed to have enormous filming possibilities and it is an excellent film, perhaps somewhat exclusive in some ways, although the play was hugely popular. It was done out of pure love of the piece and to record it and make sure the people could see the cast that had done it, with one exception, absolutely from scratch. Peter Woodthorpe played it in the London theatre and Robert Shaw took it over in New York and for the film.
Excerpt from Bates' interview in AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BRITISH CINEMA. Excerpt © 1997 Brian McFarlane. All Rights Reserved.
Donald Pleasence: ...I'd already played [in The Caretaker] for a long time on the stage before we made the film and making the film was a luxury. I knew the character so well, I could improvise--I knew exactly what that character would do in any situation. In fact, when we were filming in Hackney, I used to walk about the streets in character.
Excerpt from Donald Pleasence's 1978 interview with Gordon Reid in CONTINENTAL FILM REVIEW. Excerpt © 1978 CONTINENTAL FILM REVIEW. All Rights Reserved.
Pleasence commenting on the film's financers: The first person to ring up was Noel Coward from the Savoy with £1,000; Elizabeth and Richard Burton put up £10,000--that was a third of our budget. It was nothing to them, but it was very kind. People were nicer then.
Excerpt from Pleasence's 1991 interview with Georgina Brown, DUSTING OFF THE TRAMP. Unidentified publication.
AMAZON UK: UK based seller offers the video in PAL format. A DVD is also offered in Region 2 format.
THE ALAN BATES ARCHIVE: Karen Rappaport's award-winning tribute to the acclaimed British stage and screen actor.
HAROLD PINTER.ORG: The official web site of the influential British playwright, director, and actor.
THE INTERNET MOVIE DATABASE: Cast and crew information is available at this popular film database.
One of the big theatrical successes of the last few years which one would not really expect to arouse much enthusiasm in the heart of the average film producer, in this country at any rate, is Mr. Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. Nevertheless, a film of it is being made, and in fact started shooting this week in a semi-derelict house in Hackney, rented for the purpose from the L.C.C.
The film will be shot in six weeks--after three weeks of rehearsal--with no studio work at all and only a few short exterior scenes. It will, therefore, be relatively inexpensive by present-day standards, but still expensive enough to pose considerable problems of financing, especially as the makers are eager to finish it to their own satisfaction before they make arrangements for its distribution. The money problems have been solved in a curious and encouraging fashion. It is being made by a company called Caretaker Films Ltd., which consists of the author, Mr. Harold Pinter (who has written his own screenplay), the director, Mr. Clive Donner, the producer, Lord Birkett, and the three stars, Mr. Donald Pleasence and Mr. Alan Bates, who were in the London production of the play, and Mr. Robert Shaw, who joined them on Broadway. None of these is taking any pay at all for his work on the film, and they will not in fact make anything from it until it is actually released and starts to make a profit.
The union technicians employed on the film are paid in the ordinary way, however, and for this of course money has had to be raised. It has been raised entirely from people in show business, nine in all: Mr. Harry Saltzman, producer of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Miss Leslie Caron and Mr. Peter Hall, Mr. Richard Burton, Mr. Peter Sellers, Miss Elizabeth Taylor, Mr. Charles Kasher, Mr. Peter Cadbury (this is the first time, apparently, that a theatrical ticket agency has put money into a film production) and Mr. Noel Coward.
Harold Pinter has been writing plays only since 1957, when he was 27, and one of the proofs of his validity, of the way his "note" fits into modern harmonics, is the speed with which he has become a fixed and recognizable point of reference. Those who have seen even one Pinter play know what is meant by the "Pinter quality," whether they like it or not. In fact, one proof of his validity is that (like Beckett, like Ionesco) one need not like his plays in order to perceive his artistic raison d'etre. One can say, with both truth and amusement, that "liking" a work has become a secondary criterion with much modern art. Pinter has quite evidently touched a contemporary nerve, but, more important, he has arisen like an urban Anglo-Jewish genie from a subconscious cavern in our society, simultaneously expressing and creating certain mysteries.
The Guest is the first film made from a play of his--the best-known play, The Caretaker. It is a fascinating, funny, eerie film, a work of murky evocations boiling out of a grubby naturalistic minutiae. That is, of course, the Pinter method, but in this film we are seeing that method used at its best so far. This is not the usual--or unusual--good film version of a play, in which the problems imposed by the second medium have been "licked." One feels that, at last, the work has been fully revealed. Much of Pinter's writing has been done for radio and television and then reproduced on the stage. His plays show the (largely beneficial) marks of this. The Caretaker was written directly for the stage but now flowers in a closer form where the smallest subleties of expression can buttress his naturalistic mode, where magnified presence can lend greater implications to silences and hints and physical objects, where the skillful placement and shifting of the audience by camera movement and angle can underscore his intent to draw us into confined areas, literally and figuratively. Even the elimination of mechanical conventions like the act-break and the intermission helps; for those conventions have bred pat expectations in us--of the act "curtain," of progressive ascents of plot slopes, which The Caretaker does not fulfill nor try to fulfill. On film it becomes a flowing, engulfing, sometimes rightly claustrophobic work: slightly condensed but fully realized.
The events of the story are so simple that they are difficult to describe meaningfully. Aston, a reticent man, lives alone in a top-floor cluttered room of a small abandoned house in a poor London district. He befriends and takes in an old derelict who has been fired from a menial job in a cafe: in time Aston offers him a job as caretaker of the house. Aston's brother, Mick--a taunting quasi-sadist--harries the derelict when his brother is away, countermanding his orders. Eventually Aston, himself irritated by the cantankerous old man, puts him out. It is obviously thin plot material and such material is usually used by a good writer because he means to concentrate on plumbing depths of character. But virtually everything we know about these three people is revealed fairly early. After the first third or so, almost the only new important facet is that Aston has been in a mental hospital and has had shock treatment. Nor can I believe in any of the various symbolic programs that have been drawn from the play: Marxist, Freudian, Existential, Christian. Heavy alegorical weather has been made out of the fact that the derelict talks about getting down to Sidcup, a suburb, where his "things" are, including the papers that will prove who he is; and of Aston's frequent references to the shed he plans to build in the garden. Any attempt to define a schema in the play is futile, because I do not think it is a planned work in anything like the usual sense.
Pinter's method, I believe--which explains why small incidents or story organisms can serve him--is a kind of automatic writing, filtered through a temperament, a view of the world, and dominant needs and hopes: guided by technical skills and refined by talent. But basically the skills and talent are following a skein through forests of experience and memory. Obviously, in a large sense, that is what always happens in creative writing, but here it occurs in a much narrower sense. In Greenwich Village in the thirties lived a famous character named Joe Gould, who was setting down An Oral History of the World--hundreds of notebooks in which he had for years written everything he heard everywhere. That was pathology. Pinter's work is art but, essentially, it is Joe Gould marvelously distilled. Pinter's plays are overheard: snatches of conversations in pubs, on buses, in the streets: with the extra intensity that such sudden snatches have, with the frequent paradoxes of diction (the derelict's language is as formal as it is vernacular and vulgar), with the poignant questions raised by the fragment heard in a doorway as we pass. (What did she mean? Who are they? Why won't he go to Aunt Minnie's? Our own lives keep hurrying us past before we ever get the answers.) Pinter stitches the fragments together into a fabric full and thick enough to convert wispy pathos into central mystery. Thus his patchwork quilt of conversational tags, knitted both by his subconscious and his compassion, spells out grave questions: Who are we? Today, that is. And why?
It is much more stream of memory than so-called stream of consciousness: Pinter seems not to be mining his own life. Once he invents or remembers an initial situation, he then (I believe) lets his characters tell him about themselves. For example, I doubt that he planned Aston's shock treatment from the beginning; it occured to him, and it seemed to fit and enrich. Always The Caretaker is teased with humor, but as Pinter has written, it is "funny up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it."
When we admire him, we are really admiring his ability to look into a crystal ball of the humdrum and see, not the future or past, but the fantasy-cum-dread that runs parallel to the present reality. The danger of his style and temperament is repititiousness. So far, his plays have struck generally similar notes. But he is now only 34. The "Pinter play" has, as I have said, filled an evidently felt need, but that need is now, I should say, well filled. I hope that the Pinter of 40 or 50 or 70 will have found other resonances to sound in himself and in society, and perhaps even quite different techniques.
I have left scant room to praise the performances and direction, which merit much praising. The three actors of the original production are, like the play itself, even better in the film: Robert Shaw, Alan Bates, the younger brother, Donald Pleasence, who has the part of his life as the derelict and is, to put it in one pale word, perfect. As for Clive Donner, I hope that in the present craze for flash and filigree in direction, his quiet imagination, excellent perceptions, fine control will not be overlooked.
In London in June, 1971, shortly after the opening of Harold Pinter's Old Times, I gave a party for Harold at our rooms at the Savoy Hotel. As the guests gathered I suddenly realized that we had with us the cast of the New York and subsequent film production of Harold's first success, The Caretaker. Alan Bates, Donald Pleasence, and Robert Shaw, not to mention Harold himself, had been almost unknown to New York audiences when the play opened. I herded them out of the drawing room into my bedroom, removed the shade from the bedside reading lamp to get better light, and snapped this picture.
---L. Arnold Weissberger
Photos © 1964 CARETAKER FILMS LIMITED. All Rights Reserved.
Bates excerpts and Weissberger photo/information courtesy of Karen Rappaport
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