Accident, directed by Joseph Losey, is Harold Pinter’s 1967 film adaptation an eponymous novel written two years prior by Nicholas Mosley. The film begins with an automobile accident outside the home of an Oxford professor named Stephen, played by Dirk Bogarde. He rushed to the aid of the victims, only to find that the driver, a student of his named William (Michael York), has died and that his fiancé, an Austrian exchange student named Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), has survived and is in a state of confusion. The story then cuts back to the events preceding the car crash, including Stephen’s growing attraction to Anna, William’s courting of Anna, and Charley (TV personality and a friend of Stephen’s played by Stanley Baker) suspicions of the whole ordeal as well as his own sexual advances toward the foreign exchange student.
The film is typical of Pinter’s work, relying on subtlety and nuance instead of overt drama, thereby arresting the viewer with the mere suggestion of ill will brewing amongst the characters. As Pinter himself noted, “In this film everything is buried, the drama goes on inside the characters.” A good example of this is when Stephen first realizes Charley’s designs for Anna. Instead of suspecting Anna of leading him on, which turns out to be something she is prone to do, Stephen becomes defensive about her and attempts to lead Charley away from her under the pretense that he is defending his pupil’s relationship. This, of course, is not completely true, since he himself has been harboring feelings for Anna, yet he seems to be more comfortable with the thought of William being with her as opposed to the older, more sex-driven Charley.
Nevertheless, Stephen is attempting to take the “creep” route into her heart; by being the voice of reason and neutrality (both sexually and in their scholarly dialogue), he believes his charm will persist long after the other suitors have fallen by the wayside, so to speak. It is never more apparent than when he joins Anna and William as the third-wheel in their romantic boat ride. He firmly places himself in Anna’s “friend zone,” if only to spend precious moments of nonthreatening proximity to her while an unsuspecting William works the paddle. Naturally, the arduous exercise William has undertaken in pushing the canoe upstream has garnered Anna’s undivided attention, at which point Stephen feels the urge to one-up his younger, more conditioned competitor and tries to cling to an overhead branch, failing miserably and falling into the river. This sequence highlights Anna’s effect on Stephen, who believes his masculinity has plateaued. Anna’s presence is a constant exacerbation of this fact, and his embattled suitor has no choice but to revert to childish courting strategies in order to remain competitive in the race for Anna’s affections.
Stephen continuously degrades himself for the sake of impressing Anna. He even partakes in a rude (for an Oxford scholar’s standards) game when presented with the contention that “only old me watch,” where upon Stephen springs into action and begins roughhousing with boys half his age. In fact, when discussing his a potential broadcast career at the dinner table and being undermined by his wife, who believes Stephen is not a good fit for television, he challenges her by asking, “What–you think I don’t suit the medium?” Although Anna sports an angelical smile at the married couple’s bickering, it stems from her devilish self-satisfaction at providing tension for a triumvirate of desirous men and being the object of envy of other women. Stephen seems to become privy to her nature, which only serves to inflame his passions further.
The fact that he has intuited each member of the love triangle’s secrets only adds to his anxiety and desire. Although Stephen will not act upon it initially, he is building up the idea of a romantic engagement with Anna as a solution for his mid-life crisis, yet due to the very nature of mid-life, he is forced into discretion for the sake of maintaining his otherwise healthy home and career. For the most part, he does an admirable job. Stephen is unremarkable in many respects, but too often does he put his friends’ and family’s best interests before his, perhaps as a response to the notion that his most pressing wants are immoral. It all comes to a head in the final scene which is, in truth, the continuation of the opening crash scene. It is here that both characters reveal the inner evils of their natures, as Anna, in her confusion, steps on her fiancés face in order to exit the overturned car, eliciting a haunting reproach from an appalled Stephen. Meanwhile, the latter takes in his dazed pupil and–there is really no other way to put it–forces himself upon her while still in shock, finally giving in to his lesser desires.
Director Joseph Losey stated that he “wanted to make a film about an accident in which there was no physical violence, only the violence that people feel,” yet he breaks this convictions during the film’s disjointed climax. The violence is sudden, and only later are we introduced to its victims and perpetrators. The narrative is rooted in friendly dialogue between selfish and frivolous individuals, who successfully veil their inner nastiness with an outward elegance of demeanor and proper British manners. However one may interpret the twisted dealings and flirtations of Anna and her suitors in the film, there is a silent agreement that enough evil has been done and the best course is to part, to which some comply hesitantly, some sensibly, and others by accident.
Palmer, James and Michael Riley. “The Inner Violence.” The Films of Joseph Losey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 64-89. Print.