Harold Pinter: True star of the screen

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Rare among playwrights, Harold Pinter proved as adept at writing for the cinema as for the theatre, says Geoffrey MacNab

Great playwrights don't necessarily make good, or even proficient, screenwriters.

They may be in demand to adapt novels (as Tom Stoppard and Christopher Hampton have done with considerable success) or to oversee screen versions of their best-known stage works. However, whatever their fame or achievements in their own field, they tend to be regarded as hired hands when they venture into film-making. Even when they do deserve credit, they often fail to get it. Few, for example, remember that Clifford Odets, the writer of Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! and a key figure in 1930s New York theatre, also wrote the screenplay for the 1957 masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success.

Harold Pinter is unusual in that he had a substantial – and well-recognised – career in the cinema as well as in the theatre. As a character actor, Pinter popped up in unlikely places. Late in his career, he was seen in full costume garb as the booming voiced patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram in Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park (1998), as a low-life villain in Jez Butterworth's Mojo (1997) and as the mysterious, ghostlike Uncle Benny in John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama (2001). As this range of characters suggest, Pinter was surprisingly versatile. He could run the gamut from aristocrats to East End thugs.

Pinter was not an especially successful actor in his rep days in the 1950s. Nonetheless, he had many of the same qualities as performers such as Robert Shaw, Ian Holm and Michael Gambon who excelled in his own work: that mix of seediness, bombast, pathos and menace. When he appeared two years ago as an actor in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape at the Royal Court, critics picked up on the harshness and defiance in his performance. He may have been raddled with ill health, forced to perform from an electric wheelchair, yet that old ferocity was still there.

His writing for cinema covered a remarkably wide spectrum. He scripted thrillers, costume dramas and one very overwrought sci-fi yarn (the ill-starred adaptation of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale.) He even directed a film, a 1974 adaptation of Simon Gray's play Butley starring Alan Bates as an academic whose life is coming apart at the seams.

Arguably, as far as the film career was concerned, his key creative partnership was with Joseph Losey, the American director who had headed to Britain during the McCarthy era. By the early 1960s, Pinter was already revered as a playwright. Inevitably, movie producers were curious about how they could harness the talents of the writer of The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. The elliptical and menacing style of those plays had discomfited theatre audiences. However, on screen, those pauses, intimidating stares and lines of loaded dialogue could surely have an added resonance. For example, the inane but threatening chatter between the two thugs in The Dumb Waiter about stale eccles cakes and old men being run over by lorries read in hindsight like lines from some gangster movie.

David Caute's exhaustive biography of Losey, A Revenge on Life, begins with the American director seeking out Pinter. Losey had seen Pinter's TV play A Night Out (1960). "It has an intensity and inner truth both horrifying and purgative," he wrote to Pinter. He had put his finger on the quality that would later make his own collaborations with Pinter so distinctive: that jarring, queasy honesty they always seemed to have. The Servant (1963) was the first collaboration between Pinter and Losey. This was an adaptation of a 1947 story by Robin Maugham. Michael Anderson (of Dam Busters fame) had originally commissioned the screenplay, Pinter's first. When Anderson failed to raise financing, the actor Dirk Bogarde tried to interest Losey in the project. Pinter, Bogarde wrote in his autobiography Snakes and Ladders, had "the precision of a master jeweller... his pauses are merely the time-phases which he gives you so that you may develop the thought behind the line he has written".

As David Caute makes clear, Losey forced Pinter to make some changes to the screenplay. This wasn't a case of the lionised stage writer simply delivering a perfectly formed text that the director used as his blueprint. There is still debate as to where Pinter's influence ended and Losey's begun. Whatever the case, writer and director complemented one another. Losey, an American and an outsider, could never have made as trenchant and unsettling an attack as this on the British class system without Pinter as chief accomplice. Contemporary reviewers immediately picked up on Pinter's contribution. Critics recognised Pinter "as a vivid stylist with a flair for tensely ambiguous dialogue".

The Servant may have been Pinter's first screenplay but it was perfectly judged for the time in which it appeared. A few years before, Dirk Bogarde had been appearing as Simon Sparrow in the Doctor in the House comedies and British cinema had seemed horribly cost and complacent. Pinter's screenplay for The Servant gave Bogarde a very different kind of role, as the unctuous and sinister manservant Barrett. It also honed in on the way that old British certainties about class, sex and generation were being undermined. There was something forensic and vicious about the film's portrayal of an effete aristocrat (played by James Fox) ending up in thrall to the servant he ostensibly despises.

Pinter shared with Losey an interest in exploring sexual and social humiliation. Pinter's screenplay for Losey's Accident (1967) again probed such areas in the same relentless way. This time, the setting was Oxbridge academia. In adapting Nicholas Mosley's novel, Pinter honed in on the violence simmering away not so very far beneath the surface of the seemingly placid lives led by the academic protagonists (played by Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker). It's a film that begins in the aftermath of a car crash and then – in flashback – exposes the ambition, insecurity and infidelity of these highly educated middle-aged men. Again, Pinter transcended his source material. The screenplays for The Servant and Accident are recognised as being written in Pinter's voice. They are far better known today than the Maugham and Mosley stories on which they are based.

Sometimes, critics and audiences were so busy listening out for signs of Pinter's voice in his work for screen that they missed the craftsmanship with which his screenplays were put together. Marcel Proust wouldn't seem like a natural choice of author for Pinter (or anyone else) to bring to screen and yet he wrote a screenplay of A la recherche du temps perdu for Losey. The film was never made.

Nonetheless, he didn't regard it as time wasted. "Working on A la Recherche was the best working year of my life," the writer later claimed. He had researched the project assiduously, visiting the author's old haunts and taking copious notes while reading the book.

"For three months I read A la recherche every day ... but was left at the end quite baffled as to how to approach a task of such magnitude."

When his screenplay was eventually published, it was still acclaimed as a masterpiece, even if there wasn't a movie to accompany it. "I speak carefully when I say that it's incomparably the best screen adaptation ever made of a great work and that it is in itself a work of genius," proclaimed the influential American film critic Stanley Kauffman.

Pinter's adaptation of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, directed by Karel Reisz in 1981, was equally skilful: he realised that successful movies couldn't be created by slavishly following a novelist's original text. The screenwriter's skill was in condensing and reworking the text without muting the original author's voice.

Not all Pinter's forays into cinema turned out well. His screenplay for Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth (2007) seemed cold and mannered, too much a formal exercise and too short on the brio that galvanised Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1972 version of Anthony Schaffer's play (scripted by Schaffer himself). A Handmaid's Tale, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, teetered on the edge of preposterousness. Margaret Atwood's novel is a dystopian fable about a misogynistic, right-wing society. The film it spawned played like a cheesy B-movie.

These misfires were rare. Pinter's film career will always be regarded as secondary. It's his plays that matter most. Nonetheless, whether it's movie adaptations of his own works or screenplays he has written for others, the Pinter filmography is impressive enough in its own right. There are also plenty of film-makers – from David Mamet to Atom Egoyan and Neil LaBute – who acknowledge their debt to him.

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