Through a white-painted gate, a picturesque red-brick English farmhouse sits behind an oval gravel drive – a scene of genteel comfort and peace. It’s only a matter of moments before an event, an accident in fact, breaks up this tranquil state of equilibrium.
Accident was the second of three collaborations between director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter, and was their best according to Losey’s biographer David Caute. The film stars Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker, the first of whom was in four other Losey films and the latter in two others.
The accident in question happens right at the start of the film which then flashes back to see how we got there. Just as it is debatable who exactly is serving whom in The Servant, the extent to which anything is an accidental in this film is unclear.
Dirk Bogarde is Stephen, a philosophy don at Oxford who lives in the house seen at the beginning of the film. His wife is pregnant with their third child, but he is infatuated by one of his students, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), who is an Austrian princess and very beautiful. Another of his students, the aristocratic William (Michael York in one of his earliest roles and at the peak of his handsomeness) also fancies her, but is a bit of a drip when it comes to doing anything about this. Then there is Charley, the electric Stanley Baker, as another, rival, don.
Early on in the film Stephen, Anna and William go on a punting trip on a sunny summer’s day. This scene captures three elements of the film: look and pacing and take on relationships. The boat glides down the river as the dappled light plays on the water, a vision made ineffably beautiful by Gerry Fisher working for the first time as a cinematographer. The film continues to proceed at this gentle, very pleasing pace. This apparent mellowness is undercut by Bogarde’s furtive glances at Sassard and Michael York’s apparent indifference to them both.
This sunlit balminess makes Accident very enjoyable to look at; it is a shimmering dream of a (dry) English summer. Apparently the film was shot between July and September of 1966 during some particularly dismal weather and Losey and his crew had to snatch moments to shoot before the sun went in or a cloud burst. He hid this very successfully however and the only thunder claps come courtesy of the suitably Pintereque emotional territories.
The real heat comes from the relationship between the two Oxford dons. Sassard’s Anna is largely an empty vessel for the lusts of the men and William is as dull as he is handsome. Stephen’s wife Rosalind, played by Vivien Merchant, Pinter’s wife at the time, is also given little to say. Being Pinter, the rivalry between the two men doesn’t come to outright blows, but hums with menace like a heat haze on a summer’s day.
Accident has the distinction of being Losey’s most formally experimental film. This is most obvious in the use of sound. Godardian discombobulation is created by jets that often seem to be flying over head. One scene is entirely told through a voice over recollecting the events, an approach that is completely at odds with the narrative technique used in the rest of the film and all the more thrilling for it. Even the flashbacks themselves may not be in chronological order.
Despite probably being the least well known of the Losey-Pinter collaborations, Accident is at least as interesting. The Servant may have plumbed the Zeitgeist of early Sixties Britain, but in some ways their second effort has more contemporary resonance. The exposure of the dissatisfactions and power struggles below the sunlit surface of prosperous middle class existence, remains a compelling subject today.
Accident is released on Blu Ray and DVD on 8 April, 2013. The Blu Ray contains a host of excellent extras to enhance your enjoyment of the film including an interview with Dirk Bogarde biographer John Coldstream, an interview with Harry Pinter expert Harry Burton, an interview with feminist author and academic Melanie Williams, an interview with film critic Tim Robey of The Telegraph, 1967 TV excerpt in which Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter discuss Accident, and a more modern interview with Harold Pinter about the film.