The Pumpkin Eater (1964) Blu Ray (Indicator)
A crumbling marriage
Anne Bancroft plays Jo Armitage, the depressed wife of a wealthy film screenwriter named Jake (Peter Finch). The film starts with a flashback to the first time she met him: his then-second husband Giles (Richard Johnson) introduces him to her and their several children. We then see - sometime later - Jo introducing Jake to her father (Cedric Hardwicke) who gives his approval for their marriage provided that two of the children are sent away to boarding school to make it easier on him.
Things seem to be going very well for the couple until Jo begins to suspect that Jake is having affairs with a female friend named Philpott (Maggie Smith) and other women while he is away on various business soirées. Jake, who is clearly increasingly concerned about her weepy state and her continued insistence on having more and more children, arranges for her to see a psychiatrist (Eric Porter).
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A forgotten classic?
Despite being nominated for and winning a number of awards at the time (4 BAFTA wins out of 7 nominations, with Anne Bancroft getting an Oscar nomination as well as wins at The Golden Globes and the Cannes Film Festival) The Pumpkin Eater isn’t as well-remembered as his first two films Room at the Top (1959) and The Innocents (1961). While the film’s relative present-day obscurity is entirely unfair, it’s partially understandable because of its central plot thread - a disintegrating marriage - is one of those things that will hit too close to home for some viewers and sound rather tedious to others. The fact wasn’t a big commercial success at the time and received mixed critical notices from the British press didn’t help either.
The Pumpkin Eater isn’t exactly a feel-good watch but that doesn’t stop it from being a fantastic film. It’s a detailed and emotionally complex look at how a marriage goes from bliss one moment to teetering into nightmare territory the next. However, it’s played very subjectively from the POV of Anne Bancroft, thus sending it into the ambiguous psychological horror territory of The Innocents. There are all sorts of subtle hints that just might point to Jake not getting up to what he says he is during his numerous trips away from their home but it never goes beyond subtle pointers for a large part of the runtime.
A drama with strong psychological aspects
The film is primarily concerned with the visible effect of the faltering marriage on Jo’s psyche. A large part of this is conveyed via Anne Bancroft’s deservedly-lauded performance. Her considerable range is demonstrated right from the start as her sad, haggard face fades into one of lively joy as she plays with her children and meets Jake for the first time. She largely avoids histrionics in favour of a subtle and complex expressiveness, thus making the scenes when she does snap all the more jolting.
However, director Clayton also contributes a good deal to the film’s perspective with his flair for psychologically disturbing moments. The scene where Jo cracks up in a department store features a shot from her point of view as scores of shoppers stare at her as they walk past. A later moment involving a shocking revelation cuts between a series of ever-closer shots of the speaker’s mouth until it fills the entire frame. Writer Harold Pinter displays his usual naturalistic feel for dialogue: people talking at cross-purposes, having misunderstandings about the most trivial matters and monologuing away while another simply pauses to take in what they are saying.
While Bancroft’s performance is the main one here the cast surrounding her are consistently fantastic whether their parts are large or small. Peter Finch plays Jake as a man who can be wonderfully generous both in terms or resources and warmth one minute and coldly arrogant another. While too complex to be a pure antagonist there’s a clear sense of distance in him. Again, Clayton works well with this by showing Bancroft’s evident effortless chemistry with Finch during some scenes and then cleverly framing them emphasising their distance to imply the deterioration in their relationship.
Most of the other actors only get one or two (or, at most, a handful) of scenes each. Even James Mason is only in the film for a short while although he is on a memorable form when he does appear. Yootha Joyce also stands out as a woman whom Jo meets at a hair salon who is clearly in an even worse mental state than herself having had a hysterectomy. It’s another small moment that adds to the film’s eccentric and frequently nightmarish quality.
The Pumpkin Eater is another one of those real revelations from movie history which I’m glad Indicator has taken the time to uncover and present to a modern audience. It’s a superb drama presented with a singular directorial eye.
Runtime: 118 mins
Dir: Jack Clayton
Script: Harold Pinter, from a novel by Penelope Mortimer
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, James Mason, Janine Gray, Cedric Hardwicke, Rosalind Atkinson, Alan Webb, Richard Johnson, Maggie Smith, Eric Porter, Yootha Joyce
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Yet again, Indicator’s restoration is first-rate. Contrast is spot-on and details incredibly rich, right down to that cute family cat which can be seen in the background of some shots. The audio isn’t bad but the dialogue is a bit faint on occasion.
The first piece in the obligatory accompanying booklet is the essay “You see these claws? The Pumpkin Eater” by Melanie Williams. She examines the (in hindsight, quite ridiculous) negative contemporary reviews it got from a number of British critics. “Ted Marshall on Jack Clayton and The Pumpkin Eater” by Roger Hudson is an extract from a 1964 Sight & Sound article featuring an interview with the film’s art director. He talks about the challenges involved in production design on this film and a couple of others. “Keeping up with the Antonionis” is another 1964 Sight & Sound article by Penelope Houston about what she perceives as a self-conscious influence of European cinema on The Pumpkin Eater. The final section here - “The Pumpkin Eater Critical Response” looks at two other (somewhat negative) reviews of the film.
Selected Scenes Commentary with Neil Sinyard
Around 51 minutes’ worth of scenes from the film are discussed by Mr. Sinyard, who vocally disagrees with the film’s somewhat mixed contemporary reviews. He reveals that the title is a reference to an old nursery rhyme which goes as follows: “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater had a wife but couldn’t keep her”. He also talks about how Anne Bancroft got cast, some key differences with the novel as well as Clayton’s relationships with the film’s composer Georges Delerue and his own mentor John Huston. It’s a satisfying and intelligent critical dissection.
Jeremy Mortimer on Penelope Mortimer
Penelope Mortimer’s son Jeremy talks about his mother’s life and how it was reflected in her book The Pumpkin Eater. As with Jo in the book and film, she had several children to more than one husband (the second being John Mortimer - who was Jeremy’s father and who, himself, became a famous writer). John himself had a number of extramarital affairs while he was with Penelope and even wrote a play called The Lunch Hour about a man in such a predicament. Another occurrence reflected in the book was that Penelope was advised by both her husband and doctor to terminate a pregnancy and get sterilised.
He also tells the tale of Penelope’s meeting with the film’s director Jack Clayton. When he asked her what it was about she replied with just one word: “money”. With that, Jack decided against asking her to adapt the novel into a screenplay and instead offered the job to Harold Pinter!
Dinah and Fergus
Frances White and Fergus McClelland, who played two of the children in the film, talk about their experiences working on set with director Jack Clayton and stars Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch. Frances recalls that she was 25 at the time but looked right to play the part of the eldest daughter whose screen age was 14-17 during the course of the film’s story. She was so convincing that the crew was reportedly shocked to see her driving to the set in a car. A relatively short but enjoyable interview.
Brian West on “The Pumpkin Eater”
The film’s camera operator discusses working with Jack Clayton in this 3-minute interview. We learn that he shot the fight sequence by wrapping a handheld camera in blankets and asking Anne Bancroft to punch it. He also reveals that the windmill featured in the film was the same one which was used later in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
A theatrical trailer and image gallery round out the extras.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record Indicator, once again, gives us a fine release of a criminally overlooked film graced with an excellent restoration and very worthy extras.