The Caretaker Review
London. Aston (Robert Shaw) lives in a house owned by his brother Mick (Alan Bates), who allows him to live there while doing the place up. One day, Aston brings home a homeless man, Davies (Donald Pleasence) and a battle of wills between the three begins.
Harold Pinter wrote The Caretaker in 1959. At the time, he was living in a Chiswick boarding house with his actress wife Vivien Merchant and their one-year-old son. One of the other residents was a mentally ill man who one day brought back a homeless man – the seed for Pinter’s play. Pinter’s first three-act play, The Birthday Party, had been greeted with some critical praise but more critical bewilderment and closed after eight nights. But The Caretaker was his breakthrough, premiering on 27 April 1960 at the Westminster Arts Theatre, transferring to the West End on 30 May. That production shared two of its cast of three with the film: Alan Bates and Donald Pleasence, with Peter Woodthorpe playing the role taken in the Broadway production and the film by Robert Shaw.
By 1962, Pinter had begun to work for the cinema, and had written his script for Joseph Losey’s film The Servant, which would be released the following year. All of Pinter’s film scripts were adaptations rather than originals, of others’ work as well as of his own, and he became part of a consortium of six to make a big-screen version of The Caretaker. The others were producer Michael Birkett, director Clive Donner and the three actors. The film was budgeted at £40,000 and financing was found, but shortly before shooting was due to begin, it fell through. The budget was cut by £10,000 and was raised by means of several famous friends of the production, who all donated at least £1000 each, Peter Sellers, Noel Coward, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor among them, all thanked in the opening credits. (Taylor was setting up her own film company, hence the “in association with Taylor Productions, Inc” in the final credits.)
The film was not shot in a studio but in a rented house in Hackney, near where Pinter grew up, with scenes in the back garden and local streets and a cafe. This was during the winter of 1962/3, the hardest in living memory, and you can see the snow on the ground. It’s actually falling during a scene where Davies tries to cadge money from passers-by. One of them is Pinter, with his back to the camera. The film was shot in black and white by Nicolas Roeg, then an in-demand cinematographer before becoming a director later in the decade. There is no music in the film, diegetic or non-diegetic, but there is a score as such, made up of electronically-treated sounds created by Ron Grainer with unofficial assistance from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This soundscape is mixed low, but not so low as not to have an effect, and each of the three characters are given recurring motifs.
The play runs over two hours on stage and this film runs an hour and three quarters. Pinter reduced the dialogue, often letting the greater naturalism of the cinema take the place of what his characters say on stage. The play is opened up a little, with material set outside the house. Pinter also wrote the scene where Aston and Davies meet after an altercation in a cafe, but this was cut before the film was shot. However detailed a stage design might be, a stage play is always an approximation of reality, but here the three characters are located in a real house in a real part of London.
As so often with Pinter, what happens is clear enough – a power-play between the three characters - even if motives and some aspects of meaning remain ambiguous. Some reviewers of the stage play saw religious allegory in it, or a dramatisation of Freudian concepts of the ego, superego and id. Davies’s background, his birthplace, and even his real name (he uses Bernard Jenkins as an alias) are all open to doubt. He’s always blaming his situation on others, blacks especially, and needs to go to find some man in Sidcup who has his papers. How true that is is up to you. Mick appears to be an entrepreneur of some kind, projecting a leather-jacketed toughness, but has his own ideas of gentility: interior design and listening of Tchaikovsky, it seems. Aston is the gentlest character, whose ambition is to build a shed in the garden so that he can work undisturbed, though there is a hardness to him underneath, helped by the casting of the most physically imposing of the three actors in the role. He’s had a mental breakdown of some kind, and in the long speech which ends Act Two on stage, he talks about that, and his experience of the electric-shock treatment he received. All three of the characters have dreams and aspirations, but you sense that that’s what they will remain.
This is ultimately a dialogue-driven film of a stage play, and Donner rightly is at the service of Pinter’s words. However, his direction enhances the material and makes this a more cinematic experience than many a filmed play. He was particularly proud of the conversation between Aston and Davies, filmed on a staircase, with Davies further up the stairs and in the dominant position, though Pleasence was four inches shorter than Shaw.
The film was completed in 1963 and premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, winning the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize. However, both main UK distribution chains of the time – Odeon and ABC – passed on the film. So it opened in the USA first, retitled The Guest, in January 1964 and didn’t show commercially in its own country until April, when it opened at the renowned, but now defunct, Academy Cinema in London’s Oxford Street.
Fifty-five years later, and ten years after his death, Pinter’s reputation is secure, and he did indeed win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. The Caretaker was the play which made his reputation and it remains among his great works, and this film remains worthy of it.
The BFI’s release of The Caretaker is dual-format, encoded for Region B on Blu-ray and Region 2 on PAL-format DVD. A checkdisc of the former was received for review. An A certificate on its original cinema release, it now carries a PG (for “mild language, racist talk and mild threat”), though I suspect it won’t be of great interest to the very young.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1. The film was shot in 35mm black and white, using Kodak 4X stock, the fastest monochrome film then available, which was a plus for a film shot in a real house with not the space, nor indeed the budget, for a lot of lights. The tradeoff for this speed was of course grain. That’s certainly present on this transfer, but a feature not a glitch. Shooting on black and white 35mm stock is now rare, partly because shooting on colour stock or capturing digitally and draining the colour in post-production has its advantages, not least the possibility of producing a colour version if required. Yet it could be said that actual black and white film has its own character and that’s in the detail and the contrast and the shades of grey rather than actual blacks and whites, all present and correct in this transfer, scanned from the original negative at 2K resolution.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0. Dialogue and sound effects (including the treated sounds in lieu of a score) are clear and well-balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available on the feature only. I spotted no errors in them, which is a definite plus for a writer as precise in the rhythms of his dialogue as Pinter.
Michael Billington, longstanding theatre critic for The Guardian, and Pinter’s biographer, provides a short optional introduction to the film (6:23), which he begins by standing in the very house where Pinter wrote the play. Inevitably this overlaps somewhat with Billington’s other contribution to the disc, a video essay (17:00) which compares the film to the play, with the help of early drafts, featuring Pinter’s handwritten notes and crossings-out, from materials kept by Clive Donner and donated to the BFI National Archive. Also included are letters and a telegram from Jack Clayton wishing the film good luck at Berlin, and newspaper reviews. Specialists in Pinter will be freeze-framing this item in several places. Both of Billington’s items were produced in 2002 for the BFI’s previous DVD release.
As mentioned above, none of the cast are still with us, nor are the majority of the crew. However, thanks to archival sources and previous disc releases, some of them can be featured in the extras. These begin with the commentary, also from 2002, featuring Michael Birkett, Clive Donner and Alan Bates. There are some quiet spots, but otherwise this is a comprehensive talk covering the circumstances of the production and its making. Roeg, we find out, concerned himself primarily with lighting, leaving composition to Donner and camera operator Alex Thomson (spelled Thompson in the credits, and later to become a fine cinematographer in his own right).
Donner features again in an interview by Ian Cameron (47:26), shot on video at the University of London, in black and white, in 1973. With plenty of illustrative clips from the film itself, Donner – ten years after its making – talks about the choices involved in making a film of the stage play, not least in reducing its length to a sensible feature running time. One example he gives is the aftermath of Aston’s long speech. In the theatre, the curtain would fall and there would be an interval, giving time for the audience to regroup, but that wouldn’t be the case in the cinema. The solution was a short scene where Mick picks Davies up in his car with a promise to drive him to Sidcup, then drives him round in a circle (conveyed very simply with a 360-degree pan at a higher angle) before ending where he started and kicking Davies out of the car.
The BFI’s Pinter at the BBC set included Pinter’s People, short animated films directed by Gerald Potterton, based on five of the nine revue sketches written by Pinter in 1959, originally broadcast on the BBC Third Programme (Radio 3 as was) in 1964. Four out of the five were included in that set, but the fifth wasn’t available. Now it is, so we can see Last to Go (5:47). Like the other four, it’s a short dialogue exercise, but it features the voices of Pinter and Donald Pleasence.
Some shorter items complete the on-disc extras. The US title of the film was The Guest, and you can watch the amended opening credits (2:06). In 1962, the TV magazine show This Week in Britain visited the set of The Caretaker (4:02), with reporter Anne Forsyth observing that day’s shooting and the large amount of make-up time Donald Pleasence required, and ended by talking to Pinter. Finally on the disc is a stills gallery.
The BFI’s booklet runs to twenty-four pages and begins with an essay by Amy Simmons. (There is a spoiler warning here, but this isn’t a film you can spoil overmuch.) It’s a thorough overview of the play and the film, looking at the themes of both. More along these lines is provided by Michael Billington, in a one-page essay carried over from the DVD release. Also in the booklet are a personal reminiscence of Donald Pleasence by Clive Donner, after the former’s death in 1995, a biography of Donner by Jane Moat, full credits for the feature and credits and notes on the extras.