Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
United Kingdom/Canada/USA, 1974. Cinévision Ltée, The American Film Theatre. Screenplay by Simon Gray, based on his play. Cinematography by Gerry Fisher. Produced by Ely A. Landau. Production Design by Carmen Dillon. Costume Design by Robin Fraser-Paye. Film Editing by Malcolm Cooke.
It’s a pretty harsh turn of fate when you get every piece of your comeuppance within one day at the office. Alan Bates plays Ben Butley, a once respected but now disillusioned and undeniably slovenly literature professor who has been phoning it in for years, aloof with his keen, ambitious students and cavalier with his co-workers. He shares his flat and an office with his assistant lecturer Joey (Richard O’Callaghan), their conversations mostly made of Butley’s rants which are frequently interrupted by his senior colleague, a traditional and, to his mind old-fashioned, professor Edna Shaft played by a riveting Jessica Tandy. She has published her monogram on Byron after working on it for twenty years, which only serves to remind Butley that he has not yet published his on T.S. Eliot (nor has he been working on it); she is also furious that one of her students has asked to be reassigned to Butley’s supervision on his own suggestion (which he made while drunk at a pub). Jerry, meanwhile, informs him that they will no longer be flatmates because he is moving in with his boyfriend Reg (Michael Byrne), news compounded with the unpleasant appearance of Butley’s wife (Susan Engel), who shows up to confirm that she plans to divorce him. One of the fourteen projects achieved by The American Film Theatre, who brought plays to the screen with very little alteration as a way to provide challenging, prestige theatre to the masses, this one allows Bates to put his Tony-winning performance on record for all time. Having already appeared on film enough to know the difference in technical style, his character’s emotional mania is not curtailed for the camera, the dialogue always feels like you’re watching a really good play, but his expression of the words shows his expertise with film acting, the close-ups give us an opportunity to not only hear the man’s words but see into his soul. Harold Pinter, here directing a feature film for the first time with a script he neither wrote nor adapted, daringly keeps the action to the one setting, Butley’s cramped office, with very few exceptions, relying on the performers to be the visually spectacular attraction and the conversations to be the exciting twists and turns. Pinter is wise to do so with so superb a cast and with Simon Gray’s terrific script, which captures both the lofty academic ambitions of higher learning while cherishing the fragile egos that populate the halls of the world’s top universities. As Butley gets one piece of bad news after another from the people who surround him, he reacts with the same devil-may-care sarcasm that he has brought into the top of the play, but the harsh truths that these revelations make him realize about himself close in on him more and more as the piece progresses, and by the end his humorous jabs become angry, pointed daggers.