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Caretaker, The (1963)

Courtesy of Judy Daish Associates Ltd

Main image of Caretaker, The (1963)
35mm, black and white, 105 mins
DirectorClive Donner
Production CompanyCaretaker Films
ProducerMichael Birkett
Screenplay/original playHarold Pinter
PhotographyNicolas Roeg

Cast: Alan Bates (Mick); Donald Pleasence (Davies); Robert Shaw (Aston)

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An elderly tramp is taken in as a lodger by a vulnerable young man, whose cynical older brother is less than keen on the arrangement. A power struggle ensues, during which the three characters reveal uncomfortable truths about themselves.

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After the near-universal bewilderment that greeted Harold Pinter's first play, The Birthday Party, in 1958, The Caretaker became the writer's first big critical and commercial success, and is still his most popular and frequently performed play. First staged at the Arts Theatre in London on 27 April 1960, with Alan Bates, Donald Pleasence and Peter Woodthorpe playing the three roles of Mick, Davies and Aston respectively, the play soon moved to Broadway, where a young Robert Shaw took over the role of the sensitive (and possibly brain-damaged) Aston.

It was in New York that Clive Donner and Donald Pleasence first discussed the idea of adapting the play into a film, and the six-man production company 'Caretaker Films', also including Bates, Shaw, Pinter and producer Michael Birkett, was born. Let down at the last minute by an American financier, they finally raised the money for the film from show-business friends, including Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Sellers and Noël Coward. Such was their faith in the film that all six members volunteered to forego any payments until it went into profit.

The Caretaker illustrates many of the dominant themes in Pinter's work, exploring ideas of identity, class, power and, above all, the elusiveness of language. On every level, Pinter's characters struggle to communicate, misinterpreting each other's words and actions, often to comic effect. But beneath the surface lurks a deep sense of menace. At first it is the tramp who seems to hold the balance of power and to manipulate the weaker brother, Aston, but a short way into the film he soon loses his foothold and becomes the bait of Aston's mercurial brother, Mick.

Donner's film also conveys the underlying bleakness and futility of empty lives, of people at odds with the rest of society. Each character believes in a dream that will change his life. For Davies, if he can only get to Sidcup and retrieve his identity papers his life will be restored, while Aston dreams of building a garden shed and Mick has bourgeois fantasies of transforming the derelict house into a smart penthouse. The issue of class is an underlying theme that runs throughout Pinter's work, through his prose, poetry, plays and the many scripts that he has adapted for film.

Caroline Millar

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. Davies' arrival (2:34)
2. Mick's proposition (4:06)
3. Aston's secret (5:02)
Bates, Alan (1934-2003)
Donner, Clive (1926-2010)
Pinter, Harold (1930-2008)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)
Shaw, Robert (1927-1978)
Film and Theatre: 1960s