The Caretaker Review
The Caretaker starts as it means to go on. Its opening credits, written in a simple unassuming typeface, unfold over a static shot of a rundown old house. The winter chill is especially apparent, even more so owing to the stark black and white photography and the complete lack of music. The bleakness is undeniably disquieting, but then also reassuring; the viewer can tell that this isn’t going to be another of the kitchen sink dramas that Britain was producing at the time (many of which now come across as poorly dated), but rather a film that is going to perfectly capture the tone of the Harold Pinter play it is adapting. Indeed, the person behind the adaptation is the playwright himself, here receiving his first big screen credit (The Servant following almost immediately after).
Those who have read, or seen in the theatre, the original play, one which concerns the mind games and power struggles that play out between two brothers, Mick (Alan Bates) and Aston (Robert Shaw), and a tramp (Donald Pleasence) who has been invited into their flat, will notice a change in this opening. By beginning in an outside location the play is effectively “opened out” from its one-room setting. Yet rather than appearing to be a simple case of breaking away from the “filmed theatre” tag, the decision is actually a very astute one. Whereas before The Caretaker could be seen as existing in some absurdist limbo, the fact that the comings and goings are now occurring in a very real London makes the plights of the characters all the more real, and therefore all the more affecting.
Elsewhere, the play the remains essentially untouched - save for the odd occasion of paring down - to the point that even director Clive Donner never ascribes his own interpretations onto the material. This isn’t to say that The Caretaker is directionless, but rather that Donner understands that Pinter works best with the ambiguities attached. His main focus instead settles on creating the atmosphere within which the trademark dialogue, at once cryptic and comical, can take place.
The chosen location, therefore, is of huge importance. Having selected a building near to where Pinter has initially conceived of the play, Donner never feels the need to resort to additional studio set-ups (the extras, however, also reveal that this decision was partially governed by budgetary limitations). From the opening sequence it is perfectly clear that the building is in a less than perfect state, though this never quite prepares the viewer for the conditions inside. As shot by famed cinematographer (and later famed director) Nicolas Roeg in deep focus, every crack in the plaster, crumbling brick and damp patch feels as much a character of the film as the individuals they surround. Indeed, the occasional shot is left running for a beat or two too long, resulting in the only visible on-screen “participant” being one of these signs of dilapidation. Moreover, the size of the attic flat wherein many of the confrontations take place is cramped in the extreme, with the claustrophobia further enhanced not only by Aston’s collection of clutter but also by the realisation that the camera is surely residing in the only possible space that it could fit.
With the atmosphere in place, Donner essentially leaves the film in his actors’ hands, and it’s somewhat odd to find a piece of cinema that relies so heavily on its performers yet remains such a watchable experience (cf. many of the American Film Theatre efforts). Of course, when the actors are Bates, Shaw and Pleasence, all of whom had played the roles on stage prior to the film’s production and all of whom are arguably given their finest big screen performances of their respective careers, then perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised.
From a modern perspective, the true revelation is Pleasence. Before his death in the late nineties, the actor has become increasingly typecast in horror roles, primarily due to his recurring part as Dr. Loomis in Halloween and its multitude of sequels. However, this is to forget the collection of often outstanding, and always diverse, performances he produced throughout the sixties; from the blind ornithologist in The Great Escape to a Bond villain in You Only Live Twice via Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac and Dr. Crippen. Hopefully, the DVD release of The Caretaker will provoke a reconsideration, although, that said, it remains difficult to single out one actor from the film as all three roles, and therefore all three portrayals, are intrinsically connected.
It’s the contrast, i.e. the clash, between the personalities that is important. In the most simple terms Pleasence is hyperactive and paranoid (incidentally many of the tramp’s tics resurfaced when Pleasence appeared in an episode of Columbo, especially as he got he increasingly harassed by the eponymous detective), Shaw appears to be working at a different speed to everyone else, almost in slow motion in fact, and Bates possesses a smoothness that more than once crosses over into utter smarminess. It also quickly dawns on the viewer that all three are quite capable of violence, Shaw especially so, primarily the result of being shot in a manner which emphasises his size, but also because some residue seems to have remained from the Bond villain he had played the previous year in From Russia With Love (still Bond’s most terrifying foe). And yet each of the actors embodies their role to such a degree that their filmographies before and after never seem to be an issue - they are simply these characters, and that only serves to make the tension all the more unbearable.
Indeed, the only release comes courtesy of Pinter’s fine use of humour. Whilst never quite relieving his characters of any of their menace, his ability to interject a racist rant with a complaint about a drink of Guinness (something to do with a thick mug) is a pleasure to behold. The fact that any possible jokiness is downplayed, and as such serves to make the characters look that little bit more pathetic, only seems to make it more appealing. In fact it’s hard to see where the film puts a foot wrong, the only problem for me being - and I freely admit that this is being somewhat churlish - that The Caretaker doesn’t represent Pinter’s finest works. The Homecoming would follow in 1965, as would a superb film version in 1973.
For this DVD release the BFI have acquired a superb print. Fully doing justice to Roeg’s photography and retaining the original Academy ratio (a result, one presumes, of the film’s low budget; it was financed entirely by famous private investors), the only flaws are the tiny scratches that appear intermittently.
Soundwise, the original mono is preserved. Unsurprisingly, this sounds fine as all it has to compete with is the dialogue of the three main characters and the atmospheric sound design of dripping taps, et al.
In terms of extras, this is one of the BFI’s finest releases to date. The standout special feature is the commentary by director Clive Donner, producer Michael Birkett and the then only surviving actor Alan Bates. Though rarely scene specific, these three politely spoken gentlemen witter on in a pleasingly anecdotal manner. For the first hour the tales they exchange are undoubtedly worth listening to (Robert Shaw’s nerves and Noel Coward’s visits to the set are amongst the topics of discussion), but then the remaining forty minutes consist largely of dead air. Given the quality of this hour, however, it would be unfair to criticise too harshly.
Elsewhere, Michael Billington, Pinter’s official biographer, offers an introduction (which covers much the same ground as his sleeve notes) and a wonderful featurette in which he roots around the various bits of paperwork that resulted from the film’s production, ranging from drafts of scenes that were never filmed to letters of congratulation upon it winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
The second featurette is actually an excerpt from the sixties television programme This Week in Britain, and proves equally fascinating. Admittedly it’s in poor condition, but this brief five minute time capsule interests not only as a glimpse into early sixties TV reportage, but also for the behind the scenes footage it provides. Pinter fans should also note that the playwright also appears to give a shockingly quick interview.
The other supplementary material is of a more typical BFI nature: short biographies for Donner and Pinter, and link to their website.
All special features, including the commentary, offer English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:23:20