Director: Clive Donner
Screenplay: Harold Pinter
Based on a Play by: Harold Pinter
Starring: Alan Bates, Donald Pleasence, Robert Shaw
Country: UK
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: PG

Harold Pinter is one of Britain’s most respected modern playwrights, but he wasn’t an instant overnight success. His first few plays were either shelved or failed to garner enough commercial or critical interest to make a name for the young writer. However, success did come with his sixth play, The Caretaker, which enjoyed a lengthy run in theatres, helping kick start a long and much-loved career. The Caretaker was also the first of Pinter’s plays to be adapted into a feature film (though a few became TV movies prior to that). Director Clive Donner and producer Michael Birkett brought Pinter himself on to write the screenplay and they made the film on a tight budget, roping in a group of big names as financial backers, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Harry Saltzman, Noël Coward and Peter Sellers. Donner, Birkett and the three actors Alan Bates, Donald Pleasence, Robert Shaw all chose to work on it without payment (taking a percentage of profits later on instead), so on paper it sounds a bit cobbled together on the cheap, but the final results are anything but. The BFI seem to hold it in high regard as they’ve deemed it worthy of a polished up dual format Blu-Ray and DVD release, which I cast my critical eye over.

The Caretaker (a.k.a. The Guest) sees Aston (Robert Shaw) put up an old homeless man, Mac Davies (Donald Pleasence), in his house to help him get back on his feet. Aston’s brother Mick (Alan Bates), who also lives there, is suspicious of this stranger though and doesn’t understand why Aston chose to let him stay. So Mick harasses Mac with questions. Both brothers later offer Mac a position as caretaker to the house, Aston seemingly in an effort to help and Mick to stir up trouble. As Mac becomes ever more distrustful and annoying however, the brothers grow weary of their guest.

I’ve seen a couple of Pinter plays in the past and I must admit I found them compelling but couldn’t quite get my head around them. This is no different. Pinter is not interested in telling a straightforward narrative with clear arcs, motivations and dramatic stakes, etc. Instead he sets up an unusual situation with little explanation and lets the characters verbally duel it out. As such, it’s hard to glean a clear intention behind the film. This was a bit of a worry coming into the film after my previous experiences with Pinter, but actually I didn’t mind so much this time around. In fact, in the special features, Alan Bates himself professes to not knowing what the play was ‘about’ when he first read the script and signed up to perform it on stage (both he and Pleasence had played their roles in theatre before being in the film). I think that’s actually one of the strengths of Pinter’s work, that it can be dissected for numerous readings. You could see it as a statement on the class system perhaps, or a study of fraternal bonds, or as a fairly straightforward power struggle.

Regardless of what I made of the source material, it’s hard to criticise as a piece of filmmaking. Donner does a great job of translating it to the screen, aided by some magnificent cinematography from the late, great Nicolas Roeg. The film is largely set in one single, cramped room, but it’s mined for every conceivable angle to create imagery that never feels repetitive or flat. This is all the more impressive when you consider it was shot on location in an actual small, cramped room (well, utilising 2 rooms as one – but it’s still a great accomplishment). The often high contrast lighting adds mood too and great use is made of foreground and background objects to create depth in-frame.

Sound is well utilised too. Rather than score the film with orchestral cues, Donner and Birkett hired Ron Grainer to turn natural sounds shot on location into an extremely minimalist soundscape that quietly adds to the sense of unease inherent in the film.

The main reason to recommend the film though is to witness the performances. Bates, Pleasence and Shaw are nothing short of astonishing here, each portraying markedly different characters. Bates is sadistically menacing, his character constantly needling Mac with a wicked grin often on his face. Pleasence is a barrel of nervous energy, attempting to put on airs despite clearly being destitute. Shaw is cool and calm, seemingly hiding dark secrets as he quietly tinkers with unfinished repairs and other household jobs. The trio are impossible to look away from and each actor gets a particularly lengthy monologue at some point, shot in (almost) unbroken takes, to get a chance to really prove their worth.

So, although it’s more than a little cryptic, with no clear narrative drive to make for easy viewing, the film is impressively well made, strangely compelling and quietly unsettling. Bolstered by three incredible performances and striking cinematography, it’s a finely honed piece of work that’s well worth watching.

The Caretaker is released on 15th April on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by the BFI. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks detailed with a nice dynamic range. There’s a slight bit of damage in one corner though that looks like a cobweb running through most of the film, but I imagine on smaller screens (I watched using a projector) it wouldn’t be too noticeable as it’s quite subtle. Audio is solid.

There are plenty of extra features included:

– Newly restored from the original camera negative by the BFI, and presented here in High Definition and Standard Definition
– Audio commentary by actor Alan Bates, director Clive Donner and producer Michael Birkett (2002)
– Introduction by critic and author Michael Billington (2002, 6 mins)
– On Location with The Caretaker (1962, 4 mins): an extract from the TV series This Week in Britain
– The Caretaker: From Play Into Film (2002, 17 mins): a video essay by Michael Billington using materials donated by Clive Donner to the BFI National Archive
– US opening titles (1963, 2 mins): the opening title sequence from the US where the film was released as The Guest
– Last To Go (1969, 6 mins): the last of five animated shorts directed by Gerald Potterton for Pinter People voiced by Harold Pinter and Donald Pleasence
– Harold Pinter’s Play Discussed by Clive Donner (1973, 47 mins): the BAFTA-winning director discusses his adaptation of The Caretaker
– Stills Gallery
– **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new essay by critic author Amy Simmons, writing by Michael Billington and full film credits

The commentary starts well, but there’s a lot of dead air as it goes on. It’s still worth sticking with it as there are plenty of interesting and entertaining anecdotes, but you need patience to get past the numerous gaps. The introduction is short, but valuable. Billington’s longer essay offers a deeper insight. The Donner interview is probably the best piece though, offering much of the production information from the commentary in a more digestible format. The animated short is a nice addition albeit a very brief one. Unfortunately I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to review.

* Please note – the stills used in this review are not indicative of the picture quality of the Blu-Ray.

The Caretaker (a.k.a. The Guest) - BFI
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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