B&W, 1964, 119 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by Jack Clayton
Starring Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, James Mason, Janine Gray, Cedric Hardwicke, Richard Johnson, Maggie Smith, Eric Porter, Yootha Joyce
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Sony (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Though The Pumpkin Eaterhe only racked up seven The Pumpkin Eaterfeature film credits (two of them famously troubled) over the course of his near half-century career, producer-director Jack Clayton was one of the most distinctive movie voices of his era with at least three bona fide masterpieces to his credit: the Oscar-winning Room at the Top, the unforgettable Our Mother’s House, and of course, one of the scariest ghost stories ever filmed, The Innocents. Made in the wake of that chilling tale is one of his lesser known films, The Pumpkin Eater, a searing character study and powerful actors’ showcase dealing with some very touchy material that still incites heated debate today.

When married Jo (Bancroft) meets screenwriter Jake (Finch), she decides to break it off with her current husband, Giles (The Haunting’s Johnson) for what will become her third marriage. Her five children soon become six once she’s wedded to Jake and living a more comfortable lifestyle, but tensions simmer between them as she suspects him of being unfaithful and her psychological issues with sex come to the fore when she becomes pregnant again. Every possible solution seems to bring a new set of complications with it, forcing the couple to confront some very harsh truths about each other.

Though no one would likely call this a light viewing experience, The Pumpkin Eater is an impeccably mounted work of cinema with a stunning cast of current and upcoming acting giants The Pumpkin Eaterincluding Hammer vets like The Pumpkin EaterEric Porter and Yootha Joyce. The style here is obviously influenced by the British kitchen sink realism movement that had been brewing for a few years, though the film itself is too fractured and melodramatic to really fit under that label completely. The script by none other than Harold Pinter (adapting a book by Penelope Mortimer) does an expert job of navigating a flashback structure that could have easily turned into a soapy mush, and regular Clayton composer Georges Delerue offers a spare but effective musical accompaniment. Clayton’s earlier horror work bleeds through here as well with a very spooky ambiance at times, including a harrowing sequence with Joyce and some effective stylized lighting to convey Bancroft’s psychological unease in several key passages. You could actually program this with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion from the following year for a fascinating look at mid-‘60s probes into the female psyche.

Occasionally shown on television (often in later hours due to some plot developments in the second half), The Pumpkin Eater first popped up on VHS from RCA Columbia and then got a DVD-R edition from the studio’s Sony Select line in 2011. It has always fared quite well in each format thanks to its crisp lensing and the careful maintenance of the original negative, The Pumpkin Eaterwhich was sourced for The Pumpkin Eateran HD transfer that made its home video bow in 2017 from Indicator as a Blu-ray release. A generous and expert compression job manages to bring out every detail in the photography with everything from close-ups of Bancroft’s face to wide shots of city streets looking very natural and impressive, and the LPCM English mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also mint quality. As usual the label goes all out with the extras, starting off with a new selected scene audio commentary by author film historian Neil Sinyard that lasts for a bit over 51 minutes and offers a good thumbnail sketch of its major players in front of and behind the camera without going into anything scene specific, focusing instead of the film's social themes and its depiction of femininity at the time. In "Jeremy Mortimer on Penelope Mortimer" (32m1s), the author's son offers an intriguing account of his mother's life story and her journey to becoming a writer drawing on her own experiences (it's a pretty amazing document of the period), while a new interview with camera operator Brian West (3m20s) provides a brief sketch of his memories of Clayton and director of photography Oswald Morris as he had to cope with the demands of some very challenging shots (including a location soon used again in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). In "Dinah and Fergus" (12m4s), actors Frances White and Fergus McClelland share their own recollections of playing young children in the film, including the traits similar to Bancroft that Clayton was looking for, the "disturbing" age difference between them with White actually much older than she looked, and the director's perfectionism. Finally the disc closes out with the theatrical trailer and a gallery of over 30 stills and promotional items, plus an insert booklet with a new analysis by Melanie Williams and vintage press coverage and reviews of the film.

Reviewed on January 2, 2018.