Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on March 29, 2012
The term ‘auteur’ is rarely associated with Jack Clayton. When critics and film scholars refer to the British director by name they usually describe him as being a “talented craftsman” or “skilled technician.” Credit for the extraordinary look and feel of Clayton’s best work is too often attributed to the skilled cinematographers (Freddie Francis, Oswald Morris, Douglas Slocombe, etc.) or screenwriters (Truman Copote, Harold Pinter, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.) that he teamed-up with but the director’s own vision is paramount. Andrew Sarris famously said that, “The only Clayton constant is impersonality.” But with only a handful of films in Clayton’s oeuvre I find it easy to link them together through their literary ambitions, parallel themes and stylistic directing choices. And of course there’s the remarkable performances he was able to extract from his actors. Clayton was particularly adept at directing women. Under his watchful eye renowned talents like Simone Signoret, Deborah Kerr, Anne Bancroft, Mia Farrow and Maggie Smith gifted us with some of their most memorable roles.
But what appeals to me most about Clayton’s work is his obsession with the dark, unseen and concealed aspects of human nature that lesser directors often shy away from. Clayton’s films indicate that he was a man haunted by ghosts, a master at conjuring up psychological scares and a true purveyor of nightmares, both imagined and real. Few of his films besides THE INNOCENTS (1961) and OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE (1967), and to a lesser degree SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983) and his television production MOMENTO MORI (1992), have received the ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ label. But his entire body of work is littered with the skeletal remains of the mournful dead. The world that Clayton’s films occupy is one where unfulfilled dreams, broken promises and bitter betrayals take center stage. Clayton was an ex-Catholic but in his films the Cardinal Sins, particularly greed, envy and lust, threaten to destroy everyone and everything. Characters drink too much and weep often, always teetering on the brink of despair and madness. Clayton isn’t interested in making his viewing audience comfortable. His ambiguous films unsettle and unnerve and there are few happy endings to be found in the director’s brief filmography.
One of the most frightening aspects of Clayton’s work is the ways in which he makes monsters out of children. Adults in Clayton’s film procreate beyond reason and without responsibility. They give birth to babies they can’t financially or emotionally care for in some vain attempt to fend off their own mortality or fill some bottomless void. While it’s easy to see the children in Clayton’s films as victims of circumstance, it’s impossible to ignore the cruelty they often display towards adults and one another. Clayton began his career as a child actor and he often talked about how much he enjoyed working with kids. He was able to get some incredibly nuanced performances from the young actors in his care. But it’s wrong to assume that his films simply depict children who are corrupted by the adult world when their roles are much more complex and far reaching than that. In THE INNOCENTS and OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE, children aren’t just pliable blameless creatures. They’re menacing, malicious and bloodthirsty. They often display a viciousness that’s more organic than conditioned. Even in films like ROOM AT THE TOP (1959), THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) and THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE (1987) children act as barriers (or bad mistakes), blocking the adult’s road to happiness while depriving them of true love and financial security.
Top: A scene from THE INNOCENTS (1961)
Children play a particularly important and troubling role in THE PUMPKIN EATER (1964), which contains some of the director’s most horrifying moments. This dark family drama isn’t an outright thriller but Clayton’s film (along with Pinter’s script) singled out the most disturbing aspects of Penelope Mortimer’s original novel and honed in on them. Mortimer published The Pumpkin Eater in 1962, which told the autobiographical story of Jo Armitage, a woman struggling with motherhood, monogamy and a life of forced domesticity. In Clayton’s film Anne Bancroft is extraordinary as Jo and the centerpiece of her performance is an emotional breakdown she suffers while roaming around Harrods, a posh London department store.
“It is the afternoon and I have nothing to do. I’ll go and buy something for Dinah, to protect her: a possession to protect her. A petticoat, a pair of stockings. The Oxford Companion to French Literature. When I was fourteen I had the world at my feet but somebody didn’t do their job properly and allowed me to sin.” – Penelope Mortimer, The Pumpkin Eater
This brief passage from Mortimer’s original novel is part of the internal dialogue that triggers Jo Armitage‘s mental collapse. We don’t hear it in Clayton’s film but we don’t need to. Bancroft conveys every tortured aspect of Jo’s character to us with her eyes and body language. The passage indicates that Jo loves her eldest daughter (Dinah) but deeply resents her. Clayton was obviously well aware of that fact while he was filming THE PUMPKIN EATER and he does an incredible job of conveying Jo’s abundant love and silent fear of her offspring in the following scene illustrated below.
As Jo Armitage leaves home and makes her way to Harrods nameless, faceless children seem to guide or follow her there.
Jo is greeted at Harrods by lifeless mannequins and women who resemble them.
When she catches a glimpse of herself in one of the store’s mirrors she doesn’t seem to recognize her own face. Harrod’s is no longer a posh shopping mall. It’s been transformed into a carnival fun house.
This fun house atmosphere grows stronger as Jo makes her way through rows of shiny kitchen appliances and pet cages.
Finally Jo stands perfectly still starring at her fellow shoppers, which include more children. Then the camera tilts up and it feels as if Jo is leaving her body and observing the scene from another place. She’s suddenly far above it all.
A quick close-up of Jo’s face reveals she’s crying. She’s become completely disengaged with her surroundings and is lost in her own thoughts.
An endless parade of shoppers rush past her. They resemble ghosts. These ephemeral spirits haunt the department store and their eyes seem to judge and condemn Jo.
One of these ghosts finally approaches Jo, who has been reduced to a sobbing, laughing mess. She’s hysterical. The domesticity being sold by Harrods has apparently driven Jo to the brink.
When she returns to her London flat Jo is greeted by her brood of children who silently guard the front door with their nanny. They seem particularly threatening and distant. And like the female apparitions that haunted Jo at Harrods, their eyes are judgmental and cold.
In another director’s hands it’s highly likely that this dramatic scene would have played out very differently. But Jack Clayton transformed it into something uncanny. The carnival-like atmosphere of Harrod’s and the phantom figures that stalk Jo Armitage are typical of Clayton and demonstrate why I think he was one of our best fantasy and horror directors. He can make the familiar and timid appear strange and threatening. While comparing Jack Clayton’s horror film THE INNOCENTS to Roman Polanski’s REPULSION in Horror In The Cinema, author Ivan Butler described both films as, “The girl’s interior world of terror is becoming composed on her external world” and that’s exactly what’s happening in THE PUMPKIN EATER. To some this domestic drama might seem rather mundane and typical of the kitchen sink films being produced in the UK during the ‘60s and in many ways it is. But it also contains moments of psychological horror and profound melancholy. There are ghosts and little monsters in THE PUMPKIN EATER. You just have to know where to look for them.
TCM recently aired THE PUMPKIN EATER during their British New Wave Mondays film series and the movie is also available on DVD from Columbia Classics
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