One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent Manchester By The Sea, we’re giving a standing ovation to other movies written and/or directed by playwrights.
Maybe it’s too large a claim for a nearly forgotten domestic drama, but there’s a scene in the Harold Pinter-scripted The Pumpkin Eater that by all rights should’ve been one of the iconic moments of ’60s cinema. A deeply unhappy, alienated housewife, Jo (Anne Bancroft), goes walking after confirming her husband’s infidelity. She walks to Harrods and stares at a fountain. She stares at refrigerators, exotic birds, and a man tuning pianos. Then, in the middle of the black-and-white tiled floor, she stops. The camera stays at her back and a subdued refrain by Georges Delerue fades suddenly to nothing. For a good while, there are just the faces of fellow shoppers streaming past, looking alternately irritated or alarmed by her intransigence. Then, finally, there’s a cut to her face and we see that she’s crying, soundlessly. Not just crying―sobbing. Bancroft is so nakedly desolate here that, for a moment, she’s as piercing and transcendent a camera subject as Maria Falconetti in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.
The Pumpkin Eater is about an older, simpler, more traditional world crashing up against the shoals of a newer, freer, more complex one. Jo, somewhat unexpectedly, is not the usual feminist heroine burdened by the demands of wifehood and motherhood; rather, she’s an eager wife and mother burdened by the demands of modernity. She is, as one character puts it, enormously fertile; producing a new child year after year is as natural to her as it presumably was to her own mother, and she presides over her rapidly multiplying brood happily. But her screenwriter husband, Jake (Peter Finch), feels stifled, and he pushes Jo to change with the times. They move from their rural farmhouse to a modern urban apartment; the eldest boys are sent away to boarding school; a nanny is brought in to do the bulk of the child rearing; a potential ninth child is aborted at Jake’s insistence. This is all done in the name of greater personal freedom and mobility, but it leaves Jo unmoored. Meanwhile, Jake pursues his own version of the new freedoms: namely, straying unapologetically with whomever he pleases.
Working from a novel of the same name by Penelope Mortimer, Pinter wasn’t fashioning some conservative backlash to the counterculture. The movie’s sympathies are clearly feminist, and if the movie has a message it’s that women need to be able to decide their own lives free of whatever historical/societal pressures come to bear on them, “conservative” or “progressive.” (The title is a reference to the nursery rhyme: “Peter, Peter pumpkin eater, had a wife but couldn’t keep her. He put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.”)
In the hands of director Jack Clayton (who was coming off the classics Room At The Top and The Innocents), The Pumpkin Eater is also a masterclass in unassuming style. Though every bit as cinematic and lush as, say, the recent Carol, it doesn’t make a move that isn’t fully in service of the material. And when the material calls for heightening, the impact is enormous. That shopping scene is just the first of many indelible moments, including a harrowing beauty shop encounter and a late-film tea date between Bancroft and James Mason. And if all that wasn’t enough, there’s Bancroft herself, one of the most underrated actresses of any era giving what may be her finest performance. (She won Best Actress at Cannes for it and was nominated for the Academy Award as well.) Viewers who know her chiefly as Mrs. Robinson have only scratched the surface.
Availability: The Pumpkin Eater is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.