The Pumpkin Eater

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THE PUMPKIN EATER —–a penetrating and painful marital drama, a non-showy slice from the extravagant British Invasion of 1964.  Jostling for recognition among more spectacular entrants, its chilly intimacy only found a small audience, the receipts marking 87th place.  Industry peers recognized excellence by Oscar-nominating Anne Bancroft’s superior dissolve into despair for Best Actress. *

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‘Jo Armitage’ suffers a nervous breakdown (“in Harrod’s, of all places“) as her third marriage buckles, partially under infidelity, but also from the stress of her eight children. ‘Jake’ (Peter Finch) loves her, but can’t resist straying, and crisis-time arrives via a venomous cuckold (James Mason).

THE PUMPKIN EATER, Peter Finch, James Mason, 1964

Penelope Mortimer’s semi-autobiographical book was adapted by Harold Pinter, who provides these trapped adults with frank, frequently lacerating exchanges, and leaves enough spaces between the lines to deepen their precision impact. Excellently directed by Jack Clayton, its deliberate pacing takes a while to get going, and the flashback format could perhaps be easier to follow. Cheer is in short supply, and while the material concerning the adults is sharp-edged, the children are as poorly served by the script as they are by the psychologically askew mother.

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Cinematography from Oswald Morris gives Bancroft some stunningly effective close-ups (Mason and Yootha Joyce get their share as well, his gets pretty wild), and Georges Delerue’s elegiac score adds a lovelorn framework. Bancroft, 32, is pretty much flawless in a difficult role to pull off as much of her character’s inner suffering is conveyed through deeply hurt eyes and defeated body language rather than melodramatic dialogue, something Pinter didn’t do anyway—though she and Finch do have one heckuva explosive fight scene.  The civilized but cruel sparring between Finch and Mason is a quiet feast.

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Besides the high-caliber work from the leads, the supporting cast offers Richard Johnson, Maggie Smith and the final role for a visibly tired Cedric Hardwicke—he passed away at 71, three months before the film was released. Yootha Joyce has a field day in a smashing cameo as a quite disturbed beauty parlor customer (is she a figment of Bancroft’s imagination? If not, she needs to be in custody). Plus there’s Janine Gray, Eric Porter, Alan Webb and Gerald Sim. Frank Singuineau has a brief and somewhat eerie scene—is he another of Jo’s fractured conjures?   Not a happy viewing experience, by any stretch, but if you stick with it over a slow first act, it will stay with you afterwards. 110 minutes.

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* Bancroft was better than winner Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins), who should have received her statue the following year for The Sound Of Music. Bancroft could have split the trophy with Sophia Loren’s sterling job in Marriage Italian Style. Foreigners, chiefly Brits, dominated the Awards that year, many reflecting the tidal wave from England. Nine of the top-10 boxoffice hits were either set abroad or staffed with actors from outside the US—maybe the poor homegrown output that year was partially a mood reflecting artistic depression after the JFK assassination. At least two dozen movies were part of the energetic British Invasion, including A Hard Day’s Night, Goldfinger and From Russia With Love, Becket, Zulu, Dr. Strangelove, A Shot In The Dark, First Men In The Moon and The Chalk Garden. Add Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady and it was a regular revolution-in-reverse.

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