As night falls on an idyllic summer's day at his sprawling country estate, Oxford don Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) is disturbed by screeching tyres followed by a crash. He discovers two of his own students tangled in the wreckage. William (Michael York) is dead; his fiancée Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) is in shock, but is otherwise uninjured. Stephen contacts the police to report the accident but makes no mention of Anna. Married, with his wife expecting their third child, Stephen then reminisces, back to the time when he first met Anna and found that not only he but another married colleague Charley (Stanley Baker) were attracted to the young Austrian.
Review by Keith Lofthouse:
In 1961, director Basil Dearden brought an end to Dirk Bogarde's reign as the romantic Englishman when he cast the handsome star as a homosexual lawyer in Victim. "It's about a middle-aged married man with a yen for a bloke on a building site," Dearden explained at the time and Bogarde leapt at the ground-breaking role declaring it "the wisest decision I ever made in my cinematic life." The floodgates had seemingly been opened. In 1963, he was the sinister, sexually ambivalent valet you loved to hate in Joseph Losey's The Servant and in Accident, the last of five films he made with Losey, he is (in a role originally meant for Richard Burton), a stuffy pipe-smoking Oxford don, with an unseemly yen for one of his students. Shunned by the seat-warmers but acclaimed by critics, Bogarde reveres this rich but complex character study as "the most exhausting, exciting and valuable work (he and Losey) ever did together."
The story is a giddying roundabout of seething frustration, jealousy and betrayal, which turns anti-clockwise before rewinding to the tragedy from whence it came. The tangled webs Mosley's self-destructive characters weave are implicit in a boy's death. When Stephen arrives at the crash scene, it is too late to save William, whose lolling head is a bloodied and lifeless mess. Anna is slumped beside him in her petite white party dress, stained with oil and blood, and when she is pulled free by Stephen, dazed and in shock, she accidentally scrambles over her dead fiancée's face. On return to his mansion, Stephen calls the police, but fails to inform them of Anna's involvement in the accident. And then, in a series of meticulously structured flashbacks, we observe how lust, sorely tempted, leads to a psychological turmoil which finally puts honour to the sword.
In his nagging middle-aged frustration, Stephen becomes intoxicated by this wispy Austrian princess in the cotton finery that billows enticingly in the summer breeze. On the river, he seems impotent beside her, while the youthful and strikingly handsome William is in control as he propels the punt with a large pole. (Some metaphors are much less obvious!). After inviting the two students to share Sunday lunch with his family under the watchful eye of wife Rosalind (Vivien Merchant), Stephen is upstaged when Charley, his extrovert rival, arrives uninvited.
Compounding Stephen's mounting frustration is the fact that all his encounters with the implicitly willing Anna seem to end in humiliation...even, inevitably, the last. Harold Pinter, who was married to Merchant at the time and appears briefly as a boorish TV producer, made significant changes to Mosley's original after first disposing of the narrator. Charley became a composite of characters, hardening his relationship with Stephen, who in Pinter's version is reduced to a weak-willed and unscrupulous bounder. Pinter's script includes an unlikely exchange between Stephen and the improbably insolent William, who after quizzing his philosophy don on his thoughts about Anna, concludes with: "I thought thinking was your job! You're not past it, are you? Already?" Losey's direction, however, captures nuances that elevate the film from Mosley's pages.
Angered when he all but catches Anna and Charley in the act, he pushes a rocking horse into frenzied action and when he visits Charley's wife, after she learns of her husband's infidelity, she waters the garden in the rain, in abject distraction. For such sublime subtleties; for capturing the don's moral capitulation by catching him with bits of potato in the corners of his mouth; for Bogarde's superbly articulated performance and more, the film was awarded not only the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes but other international honours. Back home, in Britain, it was hailed as a masterpiece, but after a week in release it was relegated to double-billing with a wimpy Wendy Craig comedy (Just Like A Woman) and within three weeks it was "finished." Thank God for DVD and the glory of hindsight.
Published October 21, 2004
Email this article
ACCIDENT: DVD (M15+)
CAST: Dirk Bogarde, Stanley Baker, Jacqueline Sassard, Michael York
DIRECTOR: Joseph Losey
SCRIPT: Harold Pinter, based on the novel by Nicholas Mosley
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes
PRESENTATION: Widescreen; 2.0 mono
SPECIAL FEATURES: None
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
DVD RELEASE: August 15, 2004