The second of director Joseph Losey's collaborations with playwright Harold Pinter opens with an unseen car crash, and lives skidding out of control is the subject of this quiet but unsparingly bitter film about personal, professional and mid-life crises hitting the intelligentsia where it hurts: in the head.
Accident is a film about a subject close to its makers' hearts: the pathological unhappiness of the English, and though the story is the stuff of maudlin melodrama, Losey, Pinter and Dirk Bogarde summon up a grimly authentic analysis of what Bogarde himself described as "the squalor of the male menopause".
Bogarde stars as Stephen, a 40-year-old Oxford philosophy lecturer, functionally drunk as often as possible and silently resentful of his colleague Charley (Stanley Baker), whose star is rising as a TV pundit. Among Stephen's students is the casually charming young aristocrat William (Michael York) who has his eye on another of Stephen's charges, Austrian princess Anna (Jacqueline Sassard).
Motivated by a dangerous mixture of admiration and envy, Stephen facilitates a meeting between William and Anna. But Stephen's gently magnanimous demeanour conceals a rising tide of anxiety, self-centredness and sexual desperation. Over the course of one drink-drenched summer afternoon in the rolling English countryside, Stephen and Charley's unspoken impulses - charged up by the seductive presence of Anna - break the veneer of English civility. It's a process that gives rise to adultery, death and then rape.
Bogarde, whose transformation from chirpy matinee idol to chippy arthouse star was almost complete by 1967, gives one of his most profoundly-felt performances. And that isn't just how it looks on screen. Bogarde subsequently described how difficult he found it to leave the character behind. By the time Accident arrives at its grim climax Stephen has been overtaken by all those long-suppressed and shameful instincts. Principle among the film's subjects is the pain of unrealised ambition and the sense that English propriety is a hair's breadth from emotional paralysis.
Though Harold Pinter wrote Accident's screenplay, the original novel was by Nicholas Moseley, son of the British fascist leader Oswald Moseley. The script comes loaded with wry little snipes at classism and snobbery. ("He writes novels, appears on the television," is Stephen's sarcastic assessment of Charley. "A very versatile man.") Pinter's own purposefully absurd cameo as a TV producer is an example of the playwright at his most Pinter-esque, but evident elsewhere is an understated European sensibility, suggestive of Antonioni's woozy excursions into existential angst. A sequence in which Stephen revisits - or perhaps just re-imagines - an adulterous affair with an old flame in London is exaggeratedly vivid and yet strangely blank, as were Antonioni's 1960s films about the alienated bourgeoisie as they drifted between nowhere and nothing.
Losey himself was a director who always understood the demands of the melodrama - rising emotion, sinking morals - but Accident avoids the stereotypes associated with a certain strain of shrill domestic storytelling. In the same year that The Beatles were insisting all you needed was love, Losey's film quietly notes that it's just as likely to tear you apart. Taut, dark, brilliantly acted - this autopsy on the emotional lives of the English intelligentsia is among Bogarde and Losey's greatest achievements.
The first of three collaborations between director Joseph Losey and writer Harold Pinter, The Servant shares with Accident and The Go-Between an extraordinarily bitter conception of Englishness. A deeply creepy psychodrama about power and propriety with a quasi-revolutionary subtext, it finds Bogarde, who by 1963 had sloughed off the heartthrob image and was wandering into much darker territory, oozing a queasy strain of mouldering, manipulative nastiness.
Back from Africa, upper class playboy Tony (Fox) is setting up home in Chelsea and hires Hugo Barrett (Bogarde) as his valet. But Tony's brittle fiancée Susan (Craig) takes against Barrett, and her dislike swells into an all encompassing hatred. Barrett arranges for the woman he claims is his sister (Miles) to be installed as housekeeper, and her seduction of Tony marks a shift in the balance of power between master and servant.
The social allegory is clear but the film's as much concerned with personal power as class conflict. When the increasingly boozy Tony tries to stop drinking, Barrett persuades him back onto the bottle with a gentle, "See, I can still find things to please you." Executed with great smoothness, the change in their positions begins with the odd gesture and culminates with Tony following his servant out of the room like a dog.
Bogarde's Barrett - cynical and insidious as he worms his way into his master's affections - invests the valet with the odd camp flourish and though it's never made explicit there is an undeniable homoerotic subtext to his nannying of the angel-faced Fox.
As the girlish maid Miles exhibits a quite filthy sex appeal and Craig, who'd go on to make her name playing quietly sad middle-Englanders, brings a tightly wound tension to the part of Susan, finally admitting that it's power above all else that turns her on. For Fox himself it's tempting to see this as an early rehearsal for the film where he lost his identity entirely: Performance.
Decades on from its original release this uneasy, unwholesome and faintly kinky vision of post-war English life has lost none of its startling, discomforting strangeness.