The Children Are Watching

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The term ‘auteur’ is rarely associated with Jack Clayton. When critics and film scholars refer to the British director by name they usually describe him as being a “talented craftsman” or “skilled technician.” Credit for the extraordinary look and feel of Clayton’s best work is too often attributed to the skilled cinematographers (Freddie Francis, Oswald Morris, Douglas Slocombe, etc.) or screenwriters (Truman Copote, Harold Pinter, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.) that he teamed-up with but the director’s own vision is paramount. Andrew Sarris famously said that, “The only Clayton constant is impersonality.” But with only a handful of films in Clayton’s oeuvre I find it easy to link them together through their literary ambitions, parallel themes and stylistic directing choices. And of course there’s the remarkable performances he was able to extract from his actors. Clayton was particularly adept at directing women. Under his watchful eye renowned talents like Simone Signoret, Deborah Kerr, Anne Bancroft, Mia Farrow and Maggie Smith gifted us with some of their most memorable roles.

But what appeals to me most about Clayton’s work is his obsession with the dark, unseen and concealed aspects of human nature that lesser directors often shy away from. Clayton’s films indicate that he was a man haunted by ghosts, a master at conjuring up psychological scares and a true purveyor of nightmares, both imagined and real. Few of his films besides THE INNOCENTS (1961) and OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE (1967), and to a lesser degree SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983) and his television production MOMENTO MORI (1992), have received the ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ label. But his entire body of work is littered with the skeletal remains of the mournful dead. The world that Clayton’s films occupy is one where unfulfilled dreams, broken promises and bitter betrayals take center stage. Clayton was an ex-Catholic but in his films the Cardinal Sins, particularly greed, envy and lust, threaten to destroy everyone and everything. Characters drink too much and weep often, always teetering on the brink of despair and madness. Clayton isn’t interested in making his viewing audience comfortable. His ambiguous films unsettle and unnerve and there are few happy endings to be found in the director’s brief filmography.

One of the most frightening aspects of Clayton’s work is the ways in which he makes monsters out of children. Adults in Clayton’s film procreate beyond reason and without responsibility. They give birth to babies they can’t financially or emotionally care for in some vain attempt to fend off their own mortality or fill some bottomless void. While it’s easy to see the children in Clayton’s films as victims of circumstance, it’s impossible to ignore the cruelty they often display towards adults and one another. Clayton began his career as a child actor and he often talked about how much he enjoyed working with kids. He was able to get some incredibly nuanced performances from the young actors in his care. But it’s wrong to assume that his films simply depict children who are corrupted by the adult world when their roles are much more complex and far reaching than that. In THE INNOCENTS and OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE, children aren’t just pliable blameless creatures. They’re menacing, malicious and bloodthirsty. They often display a viciousness that’s more organic than conditioned. Even in films like ROOM AT THE TOP (1959), THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) and THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE (1987) children act as barriers (or bad mistakes), blocking the adult’s road to happiness while depriving them of true love and financial security.

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Top: A scene from THE INNOCENTS (1961)
Bottom: A scene from OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE (1967)

Children play a particularly important and troubling role in THE PUMPKIN EATER (1964), which contains some of the director’s most horrifying moments. This dark family drama isn’t an outright thriller but Clayton’s film (along with Pinter’s script) singled out the most disturbing aspects of Penelope Mortimer’s original novel and honed in on them. Mortimer published The Pumpkin Eater in 1962, which told the autobiographical story of Jo Armitage, a woman struggling with motherhood, monogamy and a life of forced domesticity. In Clayton’s film Anne Bancroft is extraordinary as Jo and the centerpiece of her performance is an emotional breakdown she suffers while roaming around Harrods, a posh London department store.

“It is the afternoon and I have nothing to do. I’ll go and buy something for Dinah, to protect her: a possession to protect her. A petticoat, a pair of stockings. The Oxford Companion to French Literature. When I was fourteen I had the world at my feet but somebody didn’t do their job properly and allowed me to sin.” – Penelope Mortimer, The Pumpkin Eater

This brief passage from Mortimer’s original novel is part of the internal dialogue that triggers Jo Armitage‘s mental collapse. We don’t hear it in Clayton’s film but we don’t need to. Bancroft conveys every tortured aspect of Jo’s character to us with her eyes and body language. The passage indicates that Jo loves her eldest daughter (Dinah) but deeply resents her. Clayton was obviously well aware of that fact while he was filming THE PUMPKIN EATER and he does an incredible job of conveying Jo’s abundant love and silent fear of her offspring in the following scene illustrated below.

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As Jo Armitage leaves home and makes her way to Harrods nameless, faceless children seem to guide or follow her there.

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Jo is greeted at Harrods by lifeless mannequins and women who resemble them.

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When she catches a glimpse of herself in one of the store’s mirrors she doesn’t seem to recognize her own face. Harrod’s is no longer a posh shopping mall. It’s been transformed into a carnival fun house.

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The fun house atmosphere grows stronger as Jo makes her way through rows of shiny kitchen appliances and pet cages illustrating that she feels trapped in her domesticity.

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Finally Jo stands perfectly still starring at her fellow shoppers, which include more children. The camera tilts up and it feels as if Jo is leaving her body and observing the scene from another place. She’s suddenly far above it all.

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A quick close-up of Jo’s face reveals she’s crying. She’s become completely disengaged with her surroundings and is lost in her own thoughts.

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As an endless parade of shoppers rush past her they begin to resemble ghosts. These ephemeral women seem to haunt the department store and their eyes judge and condemn Jo.

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One of them finally approaches Jo, who has been reduced to a sobbing, laughing mess. She’s hysterical. The domesticity being sold by Harrods has apparently driven Jo to the brink of despair.

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When she returns to her London flat Jo is greeted by her brood of children who silently guard the front door with their nanny. They appear particularly threatening and distant. And like the female apparitions that haunted Jo at Harrods, their eyes are judgmental and cold.

In another director’s hands it’s highly likely that this dramatic scene would have played out very differently. But Jack Clayton transformed it into something uncanny. The carnival-like atmosphere of Harrod’s and the phantom figures that stalk Jo Armitage are typical of Clayton and demonstrate why I think he was one of our best fantasy and horror directors. He can make the familiar and timid appear strange and threatening. While comparing Jack Clayton’s horror film THE INNOCENTS to Roman Polanski’s REPULSION in Horror In The Cinema, author Ivan Butler described both films as, “The girl’s interior world of terror is becoming composed on her external world” and that’s exactly what’s happening in THE PUMPKIN EATER. To some this domestic drama might seem rather mundane and typical of the kitchen sink films being produced in the UK during the ‘60s and in many ways it is. But it also contains moments of psychological horror and profound melancholy. There are ghosts and little monsters in THE PUMPKIN EATER. You just have to know where to look for them.

TCM recently aired THE PUMPKIN EATER during their British New Wave Mondays film series and the movie is also available on DVD from Columbia Classics

24 Responses The Children Are Watching
Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 29, 2012 6:54 pm

Hmmmm. I don’t agree with your view about The Pumpkin Eater. I viewed The Pumpkin Eater a while ago. TCM aired it a couple years ago and that’s when I watched it. I know I didn’t like the film, because to me, it was about a woman who didn’t know what she wanted in life, and she didn’t seem to make any good decisions to figure her life out. There are adults out there in this world, who have that problem, and as John Dunne wrote many years ago, No Man is an Island; the choices one make do impact those in our lives. I am coming at this from the viewpoint of a Mom of 7 kids, and I am glad I have such a large family,and that is a choice I and my husband made. When one is a parent, either with a lot of kids, or only 1 kid, one doesn’t have time to sit around and think about “Oh why didn’t I go on and get my masters, that sports car, that lake house,travel to Paris,” etc. Being a parent is a huge commitment and responsiblity, not something like a hobby, and Bancroft’s character, to me, acts like it’s a hobby. She loves being pregnant and having a baby, but after that, she seemed to lose interest in her kids. One can’t expect one’s children or spouse to bring them all the happiness one expects from life. I felt that Bancroft’s character was somewhat guilty of that attitude, also. That is an unreal expectation and unfair demand to put on the loved ones in one’s life. I didn’t view her kids in this film as threatening. Confused, yes, as they needed their mother and she wasn’t there for them. I felt more sorry for them due to her thinking a divorce from their father and marrying a new guy was going to solve all of her problems.
Now that I am done venting, I do love The Innocents, that Clayton directed. An eerie film that hits all of the right notes. Deborah Kerr gives one of her best performances in trying to stop the evil that is taking over the children in her care. The two child actors are also outstanding, and that supports what you found out about Clayton, as a former child actor, he knew how to get great performances from children.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 29, 2012 6:54 pm

Hmmmm. I don’t agree with your view about The Pumpkin Eater. I viewed The Pumpkin Eater a while ago. TCM aired it a couple years ago and that’s when I watched it. I know I didn’t like the film, because to me, it was about a woman who didn’t know what she wanted in life, and she didn’t seem to make any good decisions to figure her life out. There are adults out there in this world, who have that problem, and as John Dunne wrote many years ago, No Man is an Island; the choices one make do impact those in our lives. I am coming at this from the viewpoint of a Mom of 7 kids, and I am glad I have such a large family,and that is a choice I and my husband made. When one is a parent, either with a lot of kids, or only 1 kid, one doesn’t have time to sit around and think about “Oh why didn’t I go on and get my masters, that sports car, that lake house,travel to Paris,” etc. Being a parent is a huge commitment and responsiblity, not something like a hobby, and Bancroft’s character, to me, acts like it’s a hobby. She loves being pregnant and having a baby, but after that, she seemed to lose interest in her kids. One can’t expect one’s children or spouse to bring them all the happiness one expects from life. I felt that Bancroft’s character was somewhat guilty of that attitude, also. That is an unreal expectation and unfair demand to put on the loved ones in one’s life. I didn’t view her kids in this film as threatening. Confused, yes, as they needed their mother and she wasn’t there for them. I felt more sorry for them due to her thinking a divorce from their father and marrying a new guy was going to solve all of her problems.
Now that I am done venting, I do love The Innocents, that Clayton directed. An eerie film that hits all of the right notes. Deborah Kerr gives one of her best performances in trying to stop the evil that is taking over the children in her care. The two child actors are also outstanding, and that supports what you found out about Clayton, as a former child actor, he knew how to get great performances from children.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 29, 2012 7:12 pm

I appreciate the comment jennifromrollamo even if we don’t agree about THE PUMPKIN EATER. I will say that I think you’re viewing the film through 2012 glasses when it takes place in 1964 (or ’62 to be more exact). Women didn’t have the same kind of opportunities and freedoms they have today. And as someone who suffered from a lack of parental supervision when I was 14, I sympathize with Jo. She was way too young and irresponsible to be having her first baby at that age and it set her on a course that wasn’t good for her or her kids. Her situation is troubling but I find it very easy to sympathize with her.

We do agree on something though, we both like THE INNOCENTS!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 29, 2012 7:12 pm

I appreciate the comment jennifromrollamo even if we don’t agree about THE PUMPKIN EATER. I will say that I think you’re viewing the film through 2012 glasses when it takes place in 1964 (or ’62 to be more exact). Women didn’t have the same kind of opportunities and freedoms they have today. And as someone who suffered from a lack of parental supervision when I was 14, I sympathize with Jo. She was way too young and irresponsible to be having her first baby at that age and it set her on a course that wasn’t good for her or her kids. Her situation is troubling but I find it very easy to sympathize with her.

We do agree on something though, we both like THE INNOCENTS!

Posted By Kingrat : March 29, 2012 7:55 pm

Kimberly, thank you for some very insightful comments about Jack Clayton, an underrated director. THE INNOCENTS and THE PUMPKIN EATER are very beautiful to look at, incredible B&W cinematography, and, like you, I find THE PUMPKIN EATER painful, hard to watch, and a much greater film than I’d thought on first viewing. The breakdown scene is superb, not just an actress playing a big scene, which is what you might expect, but a really painful moment where we have both an exterior view and an interior view of the way Jo feels.

I’m not sure that Harold Pinter was the best writer to adapt THE PUMPKIN EATER, but in spite of himself (he usually evades or displaces emotion, doesn’t he?), the strong emotions of the heroine come through.

Thank you for writing about a neglected and undervalued director.

Posted By Kingrat : March 29, 2012 7:55 pm

Kimberly, thank you for some very insightful comments about Jack Clayton, an underrated director. THE INNOCENTS and THE PUMPKIN EATER are very beautiful to look at, incredible B&W cinematography, and, like you, I find THE PUMPKIN EATER painful, hard to watch, and a much greater film than I’d thought on first viewing. The breakdown scene is superb, not just an actress playing a big scene, which is what you might expect, but a really painful moment where we have both an exterior view and an interior view of the way Jo feels.

I’m not sure that Harold Pinter was the best writer to adapt THE PUMPKIN EATER, but in spite of himself (he usually evades or displaces emotion, doesn’t he?), the strong emotions of the heroine come through.

Thank you for writing about a neglected and undervalued director.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 29, 2012 9:20 pm

Thanks Kingrat. I’m glad others appreciate Clayton as much as I do. And I can understand where you’re coming from in regards to Pinter. I absolutely love Pinter’s work but Penelope Mortimer was also a great writer with a very distinct voice and she occasionally gets a little lost in the Clayton/Pinter production. But I think THE PUMPKIN EATER is a great movie and stands on it’s own two feet. And of course it’s helped by Anne Bancroft’s incredible performance.

Peter Finch was terrific in this too. You can’t dislike him even though you (or at least I) want to. And of course there’s also James Mason, Maggie Smith, Rosalind Atkinson & Yootha Joyce who all play extremely unlikable characters here. Just an awful, awful bunch of people that you love to hate. An all-around wonderful cast, including those darn kids!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 29, 2012 9:20 pm

Thanks Kingrat. I’m glad others appreciate Clayton as much as I do. And I can understand where you’re coming from in regards to Pinter. I absolutely love Pinter’s work but Penelope Mortimer was also a great writer with a very distinct voice and she occasionally gets a little lost in the Clayton/Pinter production. But I think THE PUMPKIN EATER is a great movie and stands on it’s own two feet. And of course it’s helped by Anne Bancroft’s incredible performance.

Peter Finch was terrific in this too. You can’t dislike him even though you (or at least I) want to. And of course there’s also James Mason, Maggie Smith, Rosalind Atkinson & Yootha Joyce who all play extremely unlikable characters here. Just an awful, awful bunch of people that you love to hate. An all-around wonderful cast, including those darn kids!

Posted By morlockjeff : March 29, 2012 9:37 pm

Kimberly, thanks for spotlighting THE PUMPKIN EATER. This is a film that becomes more impressive as time goes on when you consider the year it was made. Released as a commercial film to theatres, it is often raw, disturbing, exhilarating and occasionally pretentious at times but probably one of the few films of the early sixties to challenge the status quo view of the housewife or role of women in marriage. It doesn’t matter if you can’t relate to Anne Bancroft’s anxieties and procreative urges – how many other films in 1964 were even confronting moviegoers’ perceptions of roles in marriage in the guise of a film at your local cinema? I also love the photographic framing device in your post which says so much without words.

Posted By morlockjeff : March 29, 2012 9:37 pm

Kimberly, thanks for spotlighting THE PUMPKIN EATER. This is a film that becomes more impressive as time goes on when you consider the year it was made. Released as a commercial film to theatres, it is often raw, disturbing, exhilarating and occasionally pretentious at times but probably one of the few films of the early sixties to challenge the status quo view of the housewife or role of women in marriage. It doesn’t matter if you can’t relate to Anne Bancroft’s anxieties and procreative urges – how many other films in 1964 were even confronting moviegoers’ perceptions of roles in marriage in the guise of a film at your local cinema? I also love the photographic framing device in your post which says so much without words.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 29, 2012 10:36 pm

Thanks, Jeff. I hadn’t seen the film in a long, long time but after catching it on TCM the other night I just had to write something about it. It’s really a remarkable movie when you think about the period it was made and the way other films were approaching the topic of motherhood, childbearing, monogamy, etc.

Even today the film seems fresh in many ways. We’re still dealing with similar stuff in our culture but I think we like to tell ourselves we’re much more sophisticated now. We act as though we’ve got it all figured out but I’m not so sure about that.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 29, 2012 10:36 pm

Thanks, Jeff. I hadn’t seen the film in a long, long time but after catching it on TCM the other night I just had to write something about it. It’s really a remarkable movie when you think about the period it was made and the way other films were approaching the topic of motherhood, childbearing, monogamy, etc.

Even today the film seems fresh in many ways. We’re still dealing with similar stuff in our culture but I think we like to tell ourselves we’re much more sophisticated now. We act as though we’ve got it all figured out but I’m not so sure about that.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 30, 2012 12:09 am

If I had to go back to that house full of those kids I’d probably have a breakdown too.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 30, 2012 12:09 am

If I had to go back to that house full of those kids I’d probably have a breakdown too.

Posted By Pamela Porter : March 30, 2012 10:13 am

Yet another on “The List” of films I’ve been dying to see and have not been able to track down. Thanks for the review!

Posted By Pamela Porter : March 30, 2012 10:13 am

Yet another on “The List” of films I’ve been dying to see and have not been able to track down. Thanks for the review!

Posted By Susan Doll : March 31, 2012 3:14 pm

Excellent interpretation of Pumpkin Eater, a film I saw as a kid, and it frightened me for reasons I didn’t understand at the time.It still makes me uncomfortable. You are on the money about Clayton’s unsettling depiction of children. Good post!

Posted By Susan Doll : March 31, 2012 3:14 pm

Excellent interpretation of Pumpkin Eater, a film I saw as a kid, and it frightened me for reasons I didn’t understand at the time.It still makes me uncomfortable. You are on the money about Clayton’s unsettling depiction of children. Good post!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 1, 2012 11:26 pm

dukeroberts – Ha!

Pamela – I’m glad you found it interesting and I hope enjoy the film when you get a chance to see it.

Susan – I can imagine the movie frightening me if I’d seen when I was a kid too. I saw THE INNOCENTS when I was really young and to this day it remains one of the most unnerving horror movies I’ve ever seen. Clayton’s films really get under your skin.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 1, 2012 11:26 pm

dukeroberts – Ha!

Pamela – I’m glad you found it interesting and I hope enjoy the film when you get a chance to see it.

Susan – I can imagine the movie frightening me if I’d seen when I was a kid too. I saw THE INNOCENTS when I was really young and to this day it remains one of the most unnerving horror movies I’ve ever seen. Clayton’s films really get under your skin.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 1, 2012 11:50 pm

What gets under my skin is the tarantula scene in Something Wicked This Way Comes. They creep me the hell out. And Clayton used that music that sounds like you would imagine a spider walking would sound like. The hairs on my arm and neck stand up just thinking about it. I watch that movie every October because “October is a magical time for boys”.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 1, 2012 11:50 pm

What gets under my skin is the tarantula scene in Something Wicked This Way Comes. They creep me the hell out. And Clayton used that music that sounds like you would imagine a spider walking would sound like. The hairs on my arm and neck stand up just thinking about it. I watch that movie every October because “October is a magical time for boys”.

Posted By Anonymous : April 14, 2012 8:28 pm

Thanks for mentioning Our Mother’s House. I saw that movie growing up and I’ve never been able to find it again (didn’t know the title). But once you mentioned the children, and Clayton’s work and I remembered that Pamela Franklin was in it then I could confirm that was the strange, haunting movie I’d seen so long ago.

There’s so much that’s right about Something Wicked This Way Comes (particularly Pryce), that I really wish the studio had let Clayton have his way with the film. I’m sure it would’ve been a masterpiece instead of the intriguing but compromised film that we have.

Posted By Anonymous : April 14, 2012 8:28 pm

Thanks for mentioning Our Mother’s House. I saw that movie growing up and I’ve never been able to find it again (didn’t know the title). But once you mentioned the children, and Clayton’s work and I remembered that Pamela Franklin was in it then I could confirm that was the strange, haunting movie I’d seen so long ago.

There’s so much that’s right about Something Wicked This Way Comes (particularly Pryce), that I really wish the studio had let Clayton have his way with the film. I’m sure it would’ve been a masterpiece instead of the intriguing but compromised film that we have.

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