The Pumpkin Eater (1964) ***

The reference point for Anne Bancroft in the 1960s is usually her cynical Mrs Robinson in The Graduate (1967) but she was Oscar-nominated here for a less ostentatious role as a woman who finds pregnancy – she has five kids by two husbands – almost a state of grace. Denied that role as a birth mother – husband number three (Peter Finch) wants an abortion – sees her tumble into depression.

This is more a character study than anything else and despite a whole bunch of marital confrontation, clever dialog from screenwriter Harold Pinter and some artistic black-and-white cinematography, it would have benefitted greatly from Bancroft actually explaining what ails her rather than everyone around her putting the words in her mouth. Hitchcock used to employ a subsidiary character to spell out the dangers of consequences for the leading actor, but that worked well in a thriller, and less so in a drama where you are desperate to get inside the mind of a woman who shows every signs of being neurotic.

While the unstated worked exceptionally well in director Jack Clayton’s previous picture The Innocents (1961), we really here need much more clarity. It is certainly richly atmospheric in places and the sequence prior to her nervous breakdown in Harrods where without dialog the camera shows her wandering around is very well done. But spending too much time on a self-obsessed person is less appealing.

Story has Finch (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1960) destroying her confidence by his philandering (although she dumped her previous husband for Finch) – but it is left to the woman (Yootha Joyce) setting next to her in the hairdresser to express the feeling that a woman needs to be desired by her husband and for a psychiatrist (Eric Porter) to suggest that for her “sex is sanctified by incessant reproduction.” To neither assessment does she respond. She clearly has a happy boisterous family, one to which Finch fits in, children lining up to wave him goodbye and rushing to greet his return.

Finch is on top form as the arrogant, competitive husband with Maggie Smith, delightfully kookie, among the notches on his bedpost. James Mason has a small role as a cuckold and Richard Johnson as a discarded husband. Adapting from a novel by film critic Penelope Mortimer, Pinter provides some distinctive Pinteresque moments, and, beyond the marital disputes, while most of the story is played out at a distance, there are excellent moments of spite, not least Mason choosing to read to Bancroft a love letter from his wife to Finch. In some respects it is a raw look at marriage, but in many ways it ducks out of proper examination of the principals, his character revealed by action, hers rarely explicated.

One particular aspect of the story is glossed over, with no reaction from Bancroft, which seems implausible given her previous attitude. Abortion was still illegal in the 1960s but permission could be granted were pregnancy to jeopardize a patient’s mental health. But to endorse such a sanction also involved sterilization to prevent future occurrence. Since Bancroft offers no insight one way or the other you are left with the impression she welcomes this which would run entirely against the character we have known.

I’ve no idea why the picture did not start at a point where Bancroft initiated action, when she dumped husband number two for Finch. At that point she was responsible for making a decision and clearly some kind of illicit affair had been taking place first. Unlike, for example, The Pawnbroker in which the main character has the same defeated attitude we are given access to his tortured past and he is forced into confrontation with the present. But here passivity is an obstacle to understanding.

Setting aside all my reservations which I guess are primarily structural, it is an absorbing film and Bancroft certainly deserved the Oscar recognition. Finch and Mason are also on top form and it’s worth a look if only to see what Maggie Smith could do with a part before people (perhaps herself) decided her career should go in a different direction.