“I felt annoyed. I could not remember being in love. That pain. Defencelessness. I thought – We wish their destruction” – Nicholas Mosley, Accident (1965)1
Following his foray into big-budget commercial filmmaking with the pop-camp messiness of Modesty Blaise (1966), director Joseph Losey returned to the more familiar and certain territory of dysfunctional masculinity with Accident (1967), reuniting him with writer Harold Pinter with whom he’d enjoyed critical success on The Servant (1963). Having been enthralled by Accident since first encountering it on late night television over thirty years ago, later viewings left me with the sense that the film was a precursor to a second British New Wave, one that broke from the adherence to realism and instead employed a European formalist approach. Tony Richardson was also attempting a career reinvention at the time with a pair of European-set arthouse features starring Jeanne Moreau.2 Unfortunately, the financial failure of both directors’ films coupled with instability within the local industry scuppered the notion of a modernist, middlebrow British arthouse cycle. However, recently experiencing Accident had me revising my thoughts; rather than the promise of the wave that did not eventuate, Accident is Losey’s confessional, a self-examination of his own contradictions, his place in British cinema and of the medium at that time. Accident was not a step in a new direction; instead it is slamming of the door on his British cottage industry.
Nicholas Mosley’s 1963 novel Accident is a free association, first person account of a fateful summer in which Oxford philosophy tutor Stephen falls for Anna, a student from Austria. Anna’s charms also beguile William, another of Stephen’s students and Charley, Stephen’s best friend. Stephen – who is married to Rosalind with two children and a third due – is wracked with guilt over the potential affair, but is unable to extricate himself from the unspoken competition with William and Charley. The novel (and the film) begins with the ‘accident’ of the title, with Anna surviving a car crash that kills William as they are on their way to Stephen’s house. It is the events that led to the fateful moment, when individual and collective actions spun out of control that forms the narrative.
In adapting the novel, Pinter dispensed with the first person narrative to provide an objective Stephen (as played by Dirk Bogarde in his fifth film with the director) and in the process lost the stream of consciousness meanderings that explain his motivations. The character of Charley (Stanley Baker) is no longer an old friend, but an Oxford colleague who enjoys a lucrative second career as a social commentator on television. Pinter’s Charley does the things Stephen cannot: achieving celebrity status, having sex with a student and leaving his wife and family. What Stephen most despises in Charley is that which he most desires. With these alterations, Pinter aligns Mosley’s narrative into material more suited to Losey’s interests: a cloistered, comfortable middle- class males conflicted by their own senses of entitlement and responsibility and their desperate attempts to assert their masculinity. The other major change to the novel is that as filmed, Stephen attempts to sexually assault a near-catatonic Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) after the accident. Mosley was dismayed at this inclusion: “It was a false note to insist that he was such a shit as to sleep with Anna under the circumstances”.3 However, for Pinter and Losey the men of Accident are such shits. Stephen is complicit is Anna’s misery and, knowing that the he may not have another opportunity he pathetically tries to extract the sexual favour to which he believes he is entitled.
Whereas the monochrome The Servant tends to suffer through baroque asphyxiation, Losey allows Accident to breathe in the humid English summer with a palette of muted reds and lush greenery as the natural order of existence dominate the protagonists. This is most evident in the film’s centrepiece sequence in which Stephen asks William (Michael York) and Anna to join him and his family for lunch at his countryside home. Charley also arrives, uninvited and usurping Stephen’s dominant hand. As the day progresses and the booze flows, the power plays become uglier and more transparent in their loathing and envy. Within this sequence is a scene set on the lawn of Stephen’s garden in which Charley tosses out some thinly disguised taunts to Stephen, ensuring they are overhead by all. The summer warmth provides a languid atmosphere, one that masks the complexity of Pinter’s detailed character placement and proximity, complemented by Losey’s precise coverage and Reginald Beck’s editing. Actions, reactions and their composition speak what the dialogue is contorted to not reveal.
The formalism of that scene does not call undue attention to itself, however Losey chances his arm again with a much more overt display when Stephen visits London to meet with a dismissive television producer. Humiliated, he calls upon Francesca, an old flame. Delphine Seyrig’s cameo and the meshing of their disembodied small-talk and John Dankworth’s saxophone-and-plucked-string score over images of their evening of rekindled romance has this sequence teetering towards a Resnais parody: one almost waits for Stephen to ask her if their last meeting was in Karlstadt. Within the context of the narrative the sequence integrates well – the polite reacquaintance being Stephen’s accepted (and retold) version of the evening, rather than the sexual encounter that occurred. The sequence also serves as an (overly obvious) homage to European arthouse cinema and its influence upon the director, the near stunt casting of Seyrig drawing the knowing viewer from the narrative and to the secondary layer as Losey’s exploration of his place in cinema in 1967.
Seyrig is not the only casting choice that adds to this secondary, fascinating layer. Stanley Baker as Charley is a crucial component to the consideration of Accident as both a text and its position in Losey’s canon. Baker had acted in three previous films for the director who utilised the Welshman’s hawk-like features and controlled aggression to convey working class surety under stress. As Charley, Baker gives occasional winks to other characters, winks that may be at the viewer telling us that Charley/Baker are aware of the pseudo-intellectual on screen. Contrast this with Stephen/Bogarde (the actor then beginning in his arthouse phase of project choices)4 who is earnest in his desire to be taken seriously by the critical establishment. The components of each actor and persona combine to create the contradictions of Losey himself: the leftist outsider working among the cultural elite, the sensitive bully, the ladies’ man with a concealed homosexuality.
As each of these actors5 prowl cautiously around the other, they not only inhabit Stephen and Charley, they project the conflicted duality of the director himself. This secondary layer of text as filmmakers’ confession is also found in the casting of Vivien Merchant as Rosalind. With her constantly sad expression and the impression that she is aware of her husband’s thoughts of infidelity, Merchant in her few scenes of significance provides the female response as the consequence the film otherwise lacks. That Merchant was then married to Pinter – she suffered through his affairs and their eventual divorce that exacerbated her alcoholism, causing her early death – is today a post-meta moment in a film in which the casting of the performers is as crucial as the parts they play. Significantly, Pinter himself plays the television executive and it is he who reminds Stephen of Francesca: thinking they are still friendly, her spurs Stephen to meet with her. Pinter is dismissive of Bogarde’s character, the writer complicit in the fling in the film that would destroy Rosalind (played by his wife Merchant) were she was aware of it happening. Are these taunts self-confessional? Accident is a narrative in which performance is the task undertaken by all of the main characters. The audience shares the gaze of the protagonists as they observe each other through windows and doorways, the frame’s proscenium arches through which they enact their role and are studied in turn. Who will break first, the viewed or the viewer?
Accident ends with a static, presumably later view of Stephen’s home. As family business occurs, from outside we hear the audio of the crash that opened the film. For Stephen, it is a tragedy that he can never escape. The film and characters remain locked on a hermetically sealed loop. This would be the last time Losey would work with either Baker or Bogarde as the director closed that chapter on his career. Accident would be his confessional and an exemplar of that moment, in 1967, when British cinema could mesh so smoothly with the European arthouse; beginning a New Wave that never arrived, from a filmmaker (and perhaps also a writer) who was already finished with it.
- Nicholas Mosley, Accident, (London: Hodder & Staunton, 1965), p.25. ↩
- These European excursions were Mademoiselle (1966) based on a Jean Genet screenplay and The Sailor From Gibraltar (1967), an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ novel. ↩
- Quoted in David Caute, Joseph Losey A Revenge on Life, (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p.185. ↩
- Other than the Losey films, Bogarde would work with directors Luchino Visconti on The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971), Liliana Cavani on The Night Porter (1974), Alain Resnais on Providence (1977) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder on Despair (1978). ↩
- Bogarde and Baker were previously on screen together as adversaries in Ralph Thomas’ ludicrous 1957 Canadian wilderness-set adventure Campbell’s Kingdom in which Bogarde is none-too convincing as a fighting man of action. ↩