The Caretaker (1963)

19 Sep

Donald Pleasence’s varied and daring career is now best remembered for its latter stages, which he spent much of engaged in all manner of folderol; from plotting world domination in the campest possible manner in ‘You Only Live Twice’ to being chased by a maniac in a rubber William Shatner mask in the increasingly preposterous ‘Halloween’ franchise. Ditto Robert Shaw, who shall forever be a grizzled Hemingwayesque mariner in the public’s eyes.

But if you’re keen to seek out examples of these most unique of British theatrical exports before they were snagged by Hollywood and its lucrative yet reductive charms, then ‘The Caretaker’ comes heartily recommended. Thanks to the patronage of numerous luminaries from the worlds of theatre and film – including Noel Coward, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Sellers – Pinter was able to bring his much-lauded play to the screen under the aegis of the newly formed Caretaker Productions, filming on a shoestring in the cramped confines of a house in Hackney.

Aston (Shaw) is a taciturn young man who befriends Mac (Pleasence), a garrulous derelict who has just been sacked from the latest in a long line of temporary menial jobs. Aston offers Mac a job as the caretaker of his dilapidated, cluttered house, which he shares with his glib brother, Mick (Alan Bates). Just relieved to have a roof over his head, Mac unwittingly steps into the middle of an unfolding battle of wits between the brothers, whose mercurial natures and terse exchanges only serve to befuddle and exasperate him. Mac becomes little more than a pawn in their twisted games, never fathoming their true intentions.

Granted, the role of Mac Davis is a classic Pleasence grotesque; a raving, wild-eyed, uncouth reprobate, lurching from combative to sycophantic with alarming regularity. The difference between Mac and the succession of over-the-top lunatics that lamentably became Pleasence’s métier is the power and pathos of the material and the finesse with which it is delivered. Shaw’s performance is mesmerizing in its economy, his strained body language and clipped delivery lending a deep foreboding to Aston’s aloof munificence, every gesture laden with insight. Bates exults in the subtle psychological cruelty he inflicts on the hapless Mac, bringing a creditable unpleasantness to the role without resorting to the overwrought trappings of the archetypal ‘bad guy’. Indeed, the willingness on the part of all three leads to take on such inherently unsympathetic roles exemplifies their standing as actors of serious intent.

The performance-driven dynamic of ‘The Caretaker’ obviously betrays its theatrical origins, but the complaint frequently leveled at stage-to-screen adaptations – that they are little more than filmed plays – is not applicable here. This is a deeply cinematic experience with a diverse filmic palette; thanks in large part to the decision to widen the scope of the play and the cinematography of auteur-in-waiting Nicolas Roeg.

Roeg provides evocative, noiresque photography, harnessing ominous blocks of shadow to create a rich chiaroscuro. Director Richard Donner puts the claustrophobia of the location to good use, fashioning arresting compositions and utilizing extreme angles to create a literal and figurative confinement that adds another layer of potency to the simmering tension at the heart of the interplay. The musical score is equally effective in ramping up the sense of incipient psychosis; consisting of a series of eerie bleeps and sustained chords that punctuates the sparseness of the diegetic soundtrack.

Thematically, ‘The Caretaker’ explores many of the concerns of the early ‘60s British Zeitgeist; the widely held concern over mass migration – Mac’s preoccupation with ‘the blacks’ as the root of all his problems – the burgeoning consumer culture and upward mobility of the age – Mick’s ambitious designs for the house, reeling off a list of furnishings in reverential tones, as though they are a panacea for everything that currently plagues the household – and Britain’s loss of standing in the post-colonial age – it could be argued that Mac himself represents the reduced circumstances of the erstwhile global superpower.

Of course, this being Pinter, none of this is ever explicitly addressed. Various theories have been promulgated; that the three characters represent the Holy Trinity or the workings of the subconscious mind, but the beauty of this and all of Pinter’s work is its ambiguity. The film is rife with symbolism – the crack in the ceiling dripping water into the overflowing bucket, Aston’s cherished Buddha statue, the unconstructed shed, the frozen pond. It is possible to interpret these in numerous ways, but to me they are potent signifiers of the film’s conceptual and narrative arc: the accumulation of grievances, frustrations destined to overflow in a torrent of recrimination, defiance in the face of manipulation and tenuous equilibrium stretched to its limits. In the world of Pinter, the most innocuous gesture, banal act or commonplace item can take on the deepest significance; there is a compelling synecdoche at play throughout.

‘The Caretaker’ is a bold, multi-layered meditation on the nature of power that still crackles with tension to this day; featuring sterling direction, bravura cinematography and Pinter’s renowned ear for dialogue. It’s gratifying to see Pleasence and Shaw practicing their craft in a milieu where they weren’t hamstrung by Hollywood’s inimical demands.

So THIS is what I'll be remembered for!?

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