by Allan Fish
(UK 1963 53m) not on DVD
d Joan Kemp-Welch w Harold Pinter m Denis Lopez art Frederick Pusey
Vivien Merchant (Sarah), Alan Badel (Richard), Michael Forrest (milkman),
There are some playwrights who, while absolute masters of their form, just do not translate well to the screen. Some like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee or Lilian Hellman have transferred pretty seamlessly, but then again, they were all from across the pond. Think instead of the attempts to film John Osborne, Joe Orton or Alan Ayckbourn. All at best well-acted records and at worst pretty ghastly. Surely no-one, however, has proved as impenetrable to the camera’s gaze as Harold Pinter. The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Betrayal, all were later translated to film, but fell flat, exercises in cleverness or strong acting, but none would compare cinematically to say Wyler’s The Little Foxes or Kazan’s Baby Doll.
So we come to the crux, and what in the end seems a paradox. While thinking in my head that perhaps Pinter on screen is best digested in small portions, it may seem as no surprise that my choice of Pinter for the selection is his one act play from 1962, filmed for ITV in 1963. I say paradox because, by the end credits of The Lover, one is left wanting something a little meatier than what tastes, in the end, like a glorious hors d’ouevre. Here then is a Pinter that is not enough for one who on film often finds him too much.
Take a seemingly respectable married couple, who we shall call Richard and Sarah, and who seem perfectly normal. It’s an assumption quickly eroded when Sarah arranges for Richard not to come home until around 6pm that night because she needs time to entertain her lover. Richard is very accommodating and the next time we see him after he leaves, it’s that evening. He asks questions about his wife’s paramour and she in turn asks him about his mistress. He admits to having a whore on a frequent basis, but not a mistress, and it seems that Sarah is indulging in a little jealousy. Cut to the following morning and Sarah again arranges for Richard to come home late, but when we see Sarah’s lover arrive we see that it is Richard. The next scene proceeds to show us that they roleplay adultery with each other, he playing her lover, she playing his whore. But this afternoon, Richard walks out in the guise of the lover after speaking what may be his true feelings, before returning as Richard that night as if nothing had happened. He then drops a bombshell, and demands Sarah end her affair.
The notion of games playing and make believe was a familiar one to Pinter, but perhaps has never been so beautifully distilled as this. From before the moment Richard is ‘revealed’ as the lover, we have come to the conclusion that it is all a game, but we find ourselves pulled in by the desire to see whose façade breaks first. Take the wonderful scene in the bedroom where the two are continuing the charade. Sarah asks Richard if he talks about her with his whore, and he responds; “we talk about you occasionally. It amuses her…we discuss you as we would play an antique music box we play for our titillation whenever desired.” Sarah, obviously miffed, retorts “I can’t pretend that picture gives me a very great pleasure.” “It wasn’t intended to”, Richard responds, “the pleasure is mine. Surely your own afternoon pleasures are sufficient for you, aren’t they? You don’t expect extra pleasure from my pastimes, do you?” We notice that he always responds with a question, refusing to let the playing draw to a close. By the last scene the notion of who instigated these games and who they serve most becomes irrelevant to the sense of one-upmanship in the couple. And as the protagonists, we are blessed with remarkable performances from Merchant, at once self-absorbed and insecure, and Badel, peerlessly haughty yet with an undercurrent of vulnerability. There are some brilliant pieces of camerawork, not least the suggestive positioning of the camera to watch Sarah dress for her lover at waist to knee height, while the final three words, as Richard tells Sarah “you lovely whore” are delivered perfectly. Yet the essence of the entire piece is perhaps best captured in four words, at the heart of all such roleplays and showing its playground mentality; “well, you started it!”