Mason jaws

Another scene from THE PUMPKIN EATER (see previous post here). What a pleasure to see James Mason outfitted with Harold Pinter dialogue. Beats playing a Chinese gangster.

Again, Clayton’s approach is a standard one in dramatic scene construction — he starts by establishing the space with a  mixture of wide shots and details (opening on a detail can become a tired trope if overused — note how tyro director John Sayles does it in every damn scene of RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN — also, has any director ever resisted opening a zoo scene with an animal close-up to take the audience by surprise?) before moving progressively closer as the scene builds in tension.

The difference is, Clayton goes a little further than is usual, until we’re weaving amid Mason’s crooked teeth like druids cavorting round Stonehenge. It’s not a subtle technique, although in Clayton’s hands its rather less obvious than Leone’s use of it in DUCK YOU SUCKER. What it does, of course, is dehumanize Mason, converting him into a giant mouth, spitting venom and vitriol, while adding to his power — the mismatch in shot sizes violates a tradition of shot-countershot filming, where usually each close-up is of a matching scale. The effect, if taken literally, would suggest that Anne Bancroft has sat down to lemon tea with the cyclops from SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Metaphorically, that’s not so inaccurate.

Anytime you start on the path of moving closer (by cuts, or camera moves, or leaning the actors in towards the lens…) you eventually reach a point where you can’t get any closer, so you have to break the tension for a moment and allow us to back off, lest the camera plummet through a skin pore and end up circulating round the thespian metabolism like Martin Short in INNERSPACE. Such breaks can easily be triggered by having an actor move, which is a dying art in modern cinema (Oh, they wriggle around in action scenes, but dialogue two-handers tend to the inert) — here, Bancroft’s panicked exit, in a riot of wildlife dissonance, resolves the fight-or-flight dilemma and allows us to escape the snarling jaws of Mason.

12 Responses to “Mason jaws”

  1. What most impresses me about this scene and the Yootha Joyce scene is Bancroft’s reaction. It’s a very carefully calibrated rise from annoyance to upset to blind panicked flight.

    A great star and a truly lovely person.

  2. Yes, the minimalism of her performance anchors the directorial flourishes and the showiness of Pinter’s dialogue. She becomes the audience’s point of identification because everything else is so extreme and she’s utterly real.

  3. specterman Says:

    Love these two pieces on the Pumpkin Eater. Very insightful. Hope you do a few more. How about the Harrods scene ?

    Great scene picked here, I was struck too how Mason seemed to relish Pinter’s dialogue. He’s brilliant at creating a rhythm out of the dialogue (of course so is Clayton and his editor) and he feels so at home with it. Anne Bancroft’s performance is phenomenal, I really think it’s one of the best portrayals of a crack up I’ve seen, but maybe there isn’t always a perfect fit between Pinter’s approach and Bancroft’s; both her and Finch focus on straight psychological realism whereas Pinter’s dialogue can of course be a touch cubist. She’s great at Pinter pauses using her face to convey so much but some of Pinter’s repetitions seem to fall flat a bit. Occasionally I think there is a noticeable mismatch between dialogue and performance but I agree Bancroft’s more realistic approach does anchor and ground the films more Pinteresque performances. Hmm, I’m not sure why I’m trying to pick fault with a film and performance that I think is pretty exceptional.

    I wonder why this film got buried for so long ? I only saw it for the first time 4 years ago when the BBC showed a series of forgotten British films. No doubt the suspicion that book reviewers built up for the so called ‘Hampstead novel’ found its equivalent antipathy with film critics. The idea that the ennui of a particular privileged class just can’t be dramatically significant is quite an easy one to assimilate (definitely by the film critics of the 70s and 80s). That would also explain the neglect of the superb Sunday, Bloody, Sunday too (also another excellent Finch performance).

    Also should give a mention to Oswald Morris. Incredible cinematography. It’s got that sublime black and white look you only usually see in fashion photography of the 50s, the Norman Parkison and John French kind of look.

  4. Ossie Morris is a very underrated figure.

    I think Sunday, Bloody Sunday got a little more credit than this one, just as Schlesinger got a little more credit than Clayton, but agree it deserves more. I need to go on a Schlesinger spree soon and catch up with his movies I haven’t seen for years.

    Neil Sinyard’s excellent Clayton book suggests that Brit critics thought he was trying to be Antonioni or something, and they disapproved. While admiring European arthouse movies, they had a distrust of homegrown variants. All very silly.

    By the way, Clayton’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is even more devastating.

    I think I will post a couple more pieces. The Harrods scene is exquisite, a tour de force stylistically and extremely moving. And there’s a Finch-Bancroft dialogue that’s extremely interesting as an exercise in blocking: I often use it in classes.

  5. Schlesnger is definitely deserving of “Shadowplay” tribute. A Kind of Loving is the film Look Back in Anger should have been. Billy Liar was a gobsmacking experience for me back in ’63 as I longed to get on that train with Julie Christie, yet understood why Tom Couteney simply couldn’t. Darling overhwelmed me. Its the film that taught me more about presence as acting than any other. And it made Julie Christie my favoirite movie star. Far From the Madding Crowd is sadly underrated — especially Terry Stamp’s super-gorgeousness, and the very fine score by Sir Richard Rodney Piece-of-Work. Sunday Bloody Sunday gets better as the years go on. It was ahead of its time in 1971 and it’s STILL ahead. I’m wriitng a book on Polanski and I suspect Roman got Jon Finch to play the lead in his film of The Scottish Play because of his turn as a drunken, resentful trick in SBS. It also contains the greatest line of dialogue in the entire history of the cinema: “He come those tired old tits again!” (While Penelope Gilliat gets solo screeenplay creidt, David Sherwin was brought in for a rewrite as the Peter Finch character’s unhappy romance was based on one Schlesinger had with one of those naughty bisexuals that are so fashionable these days.) I’ve thought about Sunday Bloody Sunday a lot recently in light of a particularly brilliant new British film Weekend — whcih I reccomend to one and all.

    As for the rest Midnight Cowboy is more than OK. The Day of the Locust is utterly magnificent. And An Englishman Abroad is a minature masterpiece.

    Even the botch that is The Next Best Thing has its reward — a truly wonderful scene about a young man barred from going to his lover’s funeral by said lover’s family. The young man is played by the currrent Supreme Ruler of The Universe, Neil Patrick Harris

  6. By coincidence, I’m writing a little essay on Polanski myself, and am fresh from a viewing of Pirates, one of the most beautiful failures ever and kind of a key text in its ramshackle way.

    Polanski has a strange relationship to Hammer just as Kubrick did, so although Finch’s casting makes sense (from one Scottish psycho to another) it’s The Vampire Lovers I always heard was responsible for landing him the role. Barbara Jefford in The Ninth Gate comes from Lust for a Vampire and Damien Thomas in Pirates was in Twins of Evil, so RP’s worked with somebody from each of the “Karnstein trilogy.”

    Nerdy or what?

  7. Not at all. The Fearless Vampire Killers is entirely about Hammer — paying it tibute and sednign it up at the same time.

    Have to take a look at Pirates again as it failed to impress me the first time. But The Ninth Gate is his most seriosuly underrated film.

  8. What Vampire Killers adds to Hammer is an authentic Mitteleuropean folkloric sensibility. Plus an idiosyncratic sense of humour.

    Pirates is tricky — genuinely unfunny for the most part, but stunningly designed and shot. It’s interesting partly because much of the humour is so unpleasant, even to modern post-gross-out eyes.

  9. Thanks mate! I blame you for the ravenous hunger that has led me to devouring hordes of James Mason films after reading this days ago. =8-)

  10. He never disappoints, does he? Unless we’re talking The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go.

  11. I haven’t seen it yet… however, I did sit through “The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel” last night. He was pretty in the outfit; yet the film in general was terrible! They used footage and music from the original production and made Chauvelin the comic relief?

  12. Bizarre. Haven’t seen that one.

    Did just watch The High Command, which I’ll be writing about in a few days.

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