Harold Pinter’s plays were famous for their silences; his screenplay for Joseph Losey’s 1967 drama about sexual rivalry and corruption between university dons is untypically wordy, but still finds time to be cryptic. “All aristocrats deserve to be…’ says Dirk Bogarde as Stephen, an Oxford tutor. ‘What?’ says his student, William (Michael York) as they down some port in the afternoon. ‘…killed.’ says his master. ‘Of course, because they all want to die.’ comes the young man’s reply. Do aristocrats all want to die? That’s quite a jump, and yet there’s a self-destructiveness on show here amongst the elite class, their unstable mores captured in a screenplay that positively drips with malice and venom.
Stephen is a successful tutor, with a wife and kids, but he feels that he could do better; endless meeting with ‘the television people’ fail to create the big break he seeks. His colleague Charley (Stanley Baker) seems to have more success; extra-marital affairs seem to be as common as coursework. But when his student William takes up with a young Austrian princess Anna (Jaqueline Sassard), both older men seek her company, with tragic and deadly results.
Accident is framed by an unseen car accident, with the bloody aftermath shown in detail, a flailing foot crushing a dying man’s face. The film flashes back to the fractured relationships that led to the fatal accident, and then unexpectedly moves forward in time to show how death affects the group. This is a soap-opera, perhaps, but observed with a razor sharp wit; a scene of intellectual jibes is merciless cut short by a quick edit, and while these are witty, intelligent people, it’s clear that both Pinter and Losey see them as rotten to the core. An eye-opener for the MeToo generation, Accident mercilessly observes the awful behaviour of arrogant men who think that their status gives them free reign to behave as they want; it would be foolish to think that such men no longer exist, but rather that film-makers are now afraid to capture their excesses and preserve them in aspic.
Accident wasn’t a hit at the time, too cold, clever and callous for audiences to get behind; but Pinter’s script is one of his best, pinning down the social implications of the mystery rather than descending into self-parody. The playwright also appears, as do Freddie Jones, Daphne Seyrig, Alexander Knox and Nicholas Mosley, who wrote the book that this film was based on. Accident’s dreaming spires, gravel drives and ancient cars may seem quaint, but there’s no nostalgia or sentiment here. This posh package is classy, but does not celebrate class; it’s less of a kitchen sink drama than an Aga saga. Accident taps into a vein of hidden misogyny with intrepid verve; a sign glimpsed in the background of a restaurant scene reads ‘Have your meals here and treat your wife as a pet!.’ An image of some carefully-prepared party foods, with a cigarette stubbed out in the centre of the plate, reveals the ugly seam of vulgarity that runs through these outwardly respectable lives.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this title.