(director: Jack Clayton; screenwriters: from the novel of Penelope Mortimer/Harold Pinter; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: James Clark; music: Georges Delerue; cast: Anne Bancroft (Jo Armitage), Peter Finch (Jake Armitage), James Mason (Bob Conway), Janine Gray (Beth Conway), Maggie Smith (Philpot), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. James, Jo’s father), Richard Johnson (Giles), Eric Porter (Psychiatrist), Yootha Joyce (Mad Woman); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: James Woolf; Columbia; 1964-UK)
“It’s a marvelously written piece of junk that no matter how brilliantly penned never rises above its shallow soap opera roots.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Harold Pinter does a first-rate job penning the screenplay from the novel of Penelope Mortimer. It’s a marvelously written piece of junk that no matter how brilliantly penned never rises above its shallow soap opera roots. Jack Clayton (“The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne”/”Our Mother’s House”/”Room at the Top”), without any missteps, intelligently directs this bleak psychological drama about a shattered marriage.

Jo (Anne Bancroft) is compulsively into child-bearing (she can’t have sex without children), and is the mother of seven children. She falls for promising screenwriter Jake Armitage (Peter Finch) and divorces Giles, loving hubby number 2 (hubby number 1 was killed in WW II), to marry for the third time. Jo has another child with Jake. But things soon sour when she learns hubby is a skirt chaser.

Jo has a nervous breakdown in Harrod’s Department Store, and has a scary experience with a mentally disturbed woman (Yootha Joyce) who goes into an enervating diatribe while they’re in the hairdressers under the dryer. Seeking psychiatric help, Jo agrees to become sterilized after another pregnancy is aborted. Jake’s career is on the rise and he goes to Morocco for a film shoot while she stays home to recover from her mental disorders. A cynical friend, Bob Conway (James Mason), relays that his wife Beth is having an affair with Jake. Later he tells her that Jake impregnated his wife. This leads to a spat with Jake, where she beats him out of despair. Seeking comfort, she returns to hubby number two. But after they make love, he tells her she has changed and he doesn’t love her any more. Jo goes off alone, without the kiddies, to live in an old mill country house. It ends on the unsettled note that Jo is unstable, but there’s a slim hope that she can learn from this bad experience and come to grips with her life for a fresh start (about as optimistic as things get for the lady). In the last shot there’s a thin smile on Jo’s face when Jake brings the kids to visit in her retreat.

Told in a series of flashbacks, it paints a grim picture of middle-class despair and alienation–making it seem somewhat like we’re watching an Antonioni film. Viewed today, it seems dated and the slice of life situation seems to have lost its shine like many things from London’s “swinging sixties.” Bancroft’s edgy performance earned her a Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress. The other stars gave solid performances, but couldn’t quite do with their superficial soap characters what she did with her character.

The Pumpkin Eater Poster