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 films is typically attributed to the skilled cinematographers (Freddie Francis, Oswald Morris, Douglas Slocombe, etc.) or accomplished screenwriters (Truman Capote, Harold Pinter, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.) that he worked with. Andrew Sarris even once famously said that “The only Clayton constant is impersonality.”

Despite these criticisms and with only a handful of films under his belt, I find it incredibly easy to link Clayton’s films together through their literary ambitions, parallel themes, and stylistic directing choices. And of course, there are the remarkable performances he was able to extract from his actors. Clayton was particularly adept at directing women. Under his watchful eye, renowned talents such as Simone Signoret, Deborah Kerr, Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith, and Anne Bancroft gifted us with some of their most memorable characters.

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 demonstrate that he was 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), OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE(1967), 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 a lapsed Catholic and the Cardinal Sins—lust, pride, greed, envy, wrath, gluttony, and sloth—permeate his cinematic worlds. Characters drink too much and weep often, always teetering on the brink of despair and madness while lusting after the unattainable and unseen. Clayton isn’t interested in making his viewing audience comfortable. His ambiguous films unsettle and unnerve and there are few happy endings found in the director’s oeuvre.

One of the most frightening aspects of the director’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 is easy to see the children in Clayton’s films as victims of circumstance, it is 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 children. As a result, he was able to get some incredibly nuanced performances from the young actors in his care that have sometimes been compared to the cartoonish child villains seen in films like THE BAD SEED (1956). But it’s wrong to assume that his films depict children who are simplistic monsters or innocent babes in the woods when their roles are much more complex and perverse than that.

In THE INNOCENTS and OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE, children are menacing, malicious and bloodthirsty creatures with a cryptic purpose. They often display a viciousness that’s more organic than conditioned. More elemental than imitation. Even in films such as ROOM AT THE TOP (1959), THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) and THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE (1987) were children, both born and unborn, are only peripheral figures they act as barriers or stumbling blocks. They, directly and indirectly, interfere with the adult’s desires for financial security, happiness, and unconditional love.

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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 or horror film like THE INNOCENTS and OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE but Clayton’s film (along with Pinter’s script) singled out the most disturbing aspects of Penelope Mortimer’s original novel and emphasized them.

Author Penelope Mortimer originally published The Pumpkin Eater in 1962 and it told the autobiographical story of Jo Armitage, a woman struggling with motherhood, monogamy and a life of forced domesticity. In Clayton’s film actress Anne Bancroft is extraordinary as the troubled Jo, who gave birth to her first child at the tender age of 14, and the centerpiece of her performance is an emotional breakdown suffered while she is wandering around Harrods.

“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 novel is part of the internal dialogue that triggers Jo’s mental collapse at the posh London department store. We don’t hear her voice 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 to her destination.

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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 funhouse.

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The funhouse atmosphere grows stronger as Jo makes her way through rows of shiny kitchen appliances and pet cages suggesting 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 has become completely disengaged from her surroundings and is lost in her own thoughts.

“What did I come here for? Why did I walk, in the spring, along a mile of pavement? Did I want a bed rest, a barbeque, a clock like a plate or a stain shawl or a pepper mill or a dozen Irish linen tea towels printed, most beautifully, with months of the year? April brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet. I am beginning to cry and cry quiet soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears. Oh what has happened to you, Mrs. Enterprise, dear? Are your productions limited, your trusts faithless, and what of the company you keep? Think of all those lovely children dear and don’t cry as the world turns round holding you on its shoulder like a mouse.” – Penelope Mortimer, The Pumpkin Eater

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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 driven Jo to the brink of despair.

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When Jo finally returns to her London flat she is greeted by her brood of children who silently guard the front door of their home 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.

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In another director’s hands, it’s highly likely that this dramatic scene would have played out very differently. But Clayton transformed it into something uncanny and horrific.

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 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 is also what is happening in THE PUMPKIN EATER. It is a skill that Clayton excelled at.

To some this domestic drama might seem rather mundane and typical of the kitchen sink films being produced in Britain during the 1960s and in many ways it is. But it also contains moments of chilling 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

– by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published March 29, 2012 in the Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies.