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.

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

Stylish cat-and-mouse thriller that fits into the relatively small sub-genre of intelligent spy pictures. George Segal was a difficult actor to cast. He had a kind of shiftiness that lent credibility to a movie like King Rat (1965), a cockiness that found a good home in The Southern Star and an earnestness ideal for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). But Quiller fit his screen persona like a glove. The part called for charm to the point of smarminess and courage to the point of callousness. A lone wolf for whom relationships were a means to an end, he adopted identities – journalist, swimming coach etc– as the occasion suited.

Quiller’s undercover mission is to expose a neo-Nazi organisation. But just as he sought to discover the location of this secret enterprise, so his quarry was attempting to find out where his operation was based. 

Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters, 1955) had just finished his first spy effort, Operation Crossbow (1966) and that film’s documentary-style approach was carried on here but with a great deal more style. There is consistent use of the tracking shot, often from the point-of-view of one of the protagonists, that gives the film added tension, since you never know where a tracking shot will end. Although the film boasts one of John Barry’s best themes, Wednesday’s Child, there was a remarkable lack of music throughout. Many chase scenes begin in silence, with just natural sounds as a background, then spill out into music, and then back into silence.

But much of the heavy lifting was done by playwright Harold Pinter (The Servant, 1963) in adapting Adam Hall’s prize-winning novel. Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by Trevor Dudley-Smith who wrote The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) under the name Elleston Trevor. The Quiller Memorandum involved wholesale change, from the title (the book was called The Berlin Memorandum) onwards. The book is set against the background of war crime trials; Quiller a British wartime rescuer of Jews now tracking down war criminals; the main female character (played in the film by Senta Berger) had, as a child, been in Hitler’s bunker; and there is a subplot concerning  a bubonic plague; there was a preponderance of obscure (though interesting for a reader) tradecraft; plus the Nazi organisation was named “Phoenix.”

Book jacket for film tie-in for what was originally entitled “The Berlin Memorandum.”

While retaining the harsh realities of the spy business, Pinter junks most of this in favour of a more contemporary approach. Instead of meeting his superior (Alec Guinness) in a theatre, this takes place in the Olympiad stadium. Guinness’s upper crust bosses, played by George Sanders and Robert Flemyng, are more interested in one-upmanship. Berlin still showed the after-effects of the war and Pinter exploited these locales. Senta Berger is an apparently innocent teacher in a school where a known war criminal had worked. And, of course, Segal is an American, not British, drafted in from the Middle East.

But the core remains the same, Segal prodding for weaknesses in the Nazi organisation, the Nazis hoping to reel him in and force a confession from him, Segal planning on roping them in by getting close to them. Despite receiving second-billing Alec Guinness has a minor role, but Max von Sydow as Segal’s adversary more than makes up.

There is still a lot of tradecraft: “do you smoke this brand” (of cigarettes) is the way spies identify themselves; Segal being followed on foot turning the tables on his quarry; Segal poisoned after being prodded by a suitcase; and the use of word associations Segal employs to avoid giving real information. Having flushed out his adversaries, Segal is now dangerously exposed. But that’s his job. He’s just a pawn to both sides. He’s virtually never on top unlike the fantasy espionage worlds inhabited by James Bond, Matt Helm and Derek Flint.

The structure is brilliant. Segal spends most of the picture in dogged bafflement. Guinness at his most supercilious flits in and out. Segal is stalked and stalks in return. There are exciting car chases but the foot chases (if they can be called that) are far more tense. But the core is a bold thirteen-minute interrogation scene where Segal is confronted by von Sydow, head of the shadowy neo-Nazis. And as an antidote to the thuggery and danger to which he is exposed, Segal becomes involved with Senta Berger.

Berger is hugely under-rated as an actress. She was in the second tier of the European sex bombs who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, the top league dominated by Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. On screen she is not as lively as those three, but the quiet intensity of her luminous beauty draws the camera in. Here, she is utterly believable as the innocent women who, in falling for Segal, is dragged into his dangerous world.  She was criminally under-used by Hollywood, often in over-glamourous roles such as The Ambushers (1967) or as the kind of leading lady whose role is often superfluous.

Segal is a revelation, grown vastly more mature as an actor after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) for which he was Oscar-nominated, confident enough to abandon the showy carapace of previous pictures. This is a picture where he sheds layers, from the opening brashness to the sense of defeat in surviving the interrogation ordeal, knowing the only reason he is still alive is to lead the enemy to his own headquarters, buoyed only by inner grit. He hangs on to his identity by his fingertips.

A must-see for collectors of the spy genre.