Accident begins with a wide shot of an English mansion at night. The credits play over ambient sounds with no music. Tires screeching cuts through the silence; a crash is heard. The scene almost has a deadpan quality. No sooner does the titular accident occur than a stately professor slowly steps out of the front door, looking back and forth as if someone had just rung his doorbell. The understatement, here, encapsulates screenwriter Harold Pinter’s recurring style, emphatically displayed through the repressed demeanor of the story’s principal subjects atop shaky interpersonal ground.
The professor, Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), runs to the site of the crash and sees his two romantically linked pupils lying unconscious in the overturned car. They are the entrancing Austrian exchange student, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), and the boyish, aristocratic William (Michael York), whose vacant stare and head wound indicate he has not survived this collision. In a symbolic series of shots, an open whiskey bottle tips over and spills all over William’s face, and Anna’s heel digs into his cheek as Stephen lifts her out of the wreck. Via strangely jarring yet rhythmic montage, Stephen brings Anna into the house, puts her to bed, and calls the police, who disinterestedly get his statement as one blows his nose into a rag.
The unnatural restraint displayed by all involved in this incident denotes an absurd placidity on the surface of these characters’ lives, under which boils a medley of egos, insecurity, duplicity, and longing. Even the film’s title lacks embellishment, a perfect signifier of how unexpectedly loaded the most innocuous seeming things can be in this tragedy of manners. In a series of chronological flashbacks which constitute the rest of the film, we come to see Stephen as a bored family man awaiting an opportunity to carry out an affair. Young Michael expresses interest in Anna, and Stephen encourages him in his desire, covertly nursing a scheme to snatch Anna right out from under his eager and naive student. Meanwhile, the dorky and boorish Charley (Stanley Baker, returning to work with Losey after The Criminal), colleague of Stephen and also a family man, tags along on their social visits with romantic aspirations of his own.
Like The Criminal, the clinical atmosphere of Accident sometimes dilutes the intrigue of what would be an otherwise spellbinding drama. This is less of a drawback, however, because the frustrating tepidity of tone links thematically with the story, and Accident, too, contains wonderful cinematography, this time by Gerry Fisher. Where the narrative (albeit intentionally) belies the seriousness of two middle-aged scholars dipping into teenage transgression with an exotic beauty at the expense of her agency, their marital vows, and the confidence of an idealistic boy out of his depth, leading to his innocent demise, the Caravaggio-esque lighting and diagrammatic compositions more than compensate. Losey stages nearly every shot, in one way or another, to convey the ominousness of the older mens’ subtle machinations and the implicitly adversarial connection between everyone involved, in such a way as to imbue banal events with psychological depth in the spirit of Hemingway. Accident rewards close watching and revisiting. | Nic Champion
This release contains a commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger.