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This book explores why Jack Clayton had made so few films and why most of them failed to find a large audience. It examines the kind of criticism they generated, sometimes adulatory but sometimes dismissive and even condescending. The book hopes to throw light on certain tendencies and developments within the film industry and of film criticism, the British film industry and film criticism in particular. The fact that Clayton's films fit David Bordwell's paradigm of the art film is one explanation why producers had difficulty with him and why mainstream cinema found his work hard to place and assimilate. Clayton's pictorial eye has sometimes antagonised critics: they often take exception to some aspect of his mise-en-scene. Clayton had come to prominence with Room at the Top, around the time of the British 'Free Cinema' movement and immediately prior to the so-called British 'new-wave' films of the early 1960s from directors such as Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger. Thorold Dickinson's evocation of the Russian atmosphere and, in particular, his use of suspenseful soundtrack to suggest ghostly visitation undoubtedly had an influence on Jack Clayton's style in both The Bespoke Overcoat and The Innocents. The critical controversy concerning the status of Jack Clayton as director and artist is probably at its most intense over The Pumpkin Eater. Clayton stressed the importance of an opening that established right away the situation of 'a woman in crisis' but wanted to delay the Harrods scene so as to build up an atmosphere of suspense.
Jack Clayton would have been the first to acknowledge the cinema as a collaborative medium and to pay tribute to his cast and crew. Writing about Clayton, Roy Armes claimed that 'good intentions in no way compensate for lack of real passion or concern'. The fact that Clayton's films fit David Bordwell's paradigm of the art film is one explanation why producers had difficulty with him and why mainstream cinema found his work hard to place and assimilate. Bordwell writes of narratives that drift rather than are goal-oriented, that are dissections of feeling and emphasise reaction more than action, and have a hero or heroine 'shuddering on the edge of breakdown'. Again that can be applied directly to Clayton's films such as The Innocents, The Pumpkin Eater and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.
Thorold Dickinson's evocation of the Russian atmosphere and, in particular, his use of suspenseful soundtrack to suggest ghostly visitation undoubtedly had an influence on Jack Clayton's style in both The Bespoke Overcoat and The Innocents. After volunteering for the Royal Air Force in 1940 and being recruited as a flight mechanic, Clayton was assigned to the RAF Film Unit in the capacity of cameraman, editor and director and eventually became a commanding officer. He directed one film during that time, Naples is a Battlefield for the Ministry of Information. The turning point in Clayton's career came in the 1950s, when the brothers John and James Woolf, who owned Romulus Films, were looking for a good production manager and associate producer for their new film, Moulin Rouge, to be directed by John Huston.
Jack Clayton's film of Room at the Top has been widely credited with launching the 'new wave' in British film, bringing realism, the working class and sex to the national cinema. Room at the Top was only part of a tide of change in art and society that was pushing so hard against the British Establishment that something eventually had to give. In film terms, it might be said that Clayton's Room at the Top had the same kind of impact at the end of the 1950s as David Lean's Great Expectations in 1946, both debating the promise of class mobility and social change. The X certificate was an issue partly because at the time Room at the Top was made the Rank Organisation had a policy of not screening X-certificate films, associated in some eyes with sleaziness and horror.
In his obituary notice in the Guardian, John Clayton's fellow director and close friend Karel Reisz, who thought The Innocents the greatest of Clayton's films, also relates the power of the film to the chord the material struck in Clayton's memory of childhood. For the ability to locate the precise moment of maximum tension in a scene, Clayton's direction has a mastery comparable to that of another great director of domestic tension, William Wyler. Interestingly, Clayton was less happy with Quint's ghost than with Miss Jessel's: it was altogether cruder, he thought, more obviously melodramatic and Gothic, less atmospheric. Miss Jessel provided the dimension of supernatural sadness, but Quint was necessary to give the weight of diabolical threat. Pauline Kael had a fine phrase for Miss Jessel's tear on the blotter: she called it 'that little pearl of ambiguity'.
The critical controversy concerning the status of Jack Clayton as a director is probably at its most intense over The Pumpkin Eater. Clayton stressed the importance of an opening that established right away the situation of 'a woman in crisis' but wanted to delay the Harrods scene so as to build up an atmosphere of suspense. Certainly if one compares, say, The Red Desert with The Pumpkin Eater, it is the Antonioni film rather than the Clayton one that seems to have more surface than substance. Actually The Pumpkin Eater was the third consecutive Clayton piece to be based on material narrated in the first person; and in each case, although the main character appears in just about every scene, the presentation is more objective. 'No viewer will ever forget the intercut close-ups of James Mason's mouth', wrote Tony Sloman in his tribute to Clayton for the National Film Theatre.
Jack Clayton described Our Mother's House as a story about children with no father and so religious that when their mother dies they decide to bury her in the garden. Our Mother's House could be seen as a continuation of The Innocents and The Pumpkin Eater. Our Mother's House feels like a personal, private battle with inner demons: flawed, obscure, old-fashioned in places it may be, but there are many more passages in it that seem touching, tender and true. The danger to adults of childhood innocence has been explored in other films, notably in those of Alexander Mackendrick, but Our Mother's House has an atmosphere all of its own. The nearest to it for its combination of the grotesque and the poignant in its depiction of childhood, is René Clément's great film, Jeux Interdits - Forbidden Games.
Jack Clayton was always a controversial director for so American a subject as The Great Gatsby. He was the preferred choice of Ali McGraw, who at that time was married to the head of Paramount, Robert Evans, and had suggested the idea of a film of Gatsby to him with her in the role of Daisy. The Great Gatsby is about the death of a particularly single-minded innocence and romanticism, the high price to be paid for, as Scott Fitzgerald put it, living too long with a single dream. The nine years between The Great Gatsby and Something Wicked This Way Comes were the most difficult of Clayton's career. Francis Ford Coppola undoubtedly saw Gatsby as a very American tale, one indeed with which he himself could identify, Gatsby possibly being a symbol of his own dreams of money and success.
Brian Moore's début novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, was published in 1955 to immediate acclaim. When screenwriter Peter Nelson acquired the rights of Judith Hearne in 1982, he had talked to Shirley MacLaine about doing it, with Mike Nichols directing. Jack Clayton tried to option the screen rights for the book in 1961, 1964, 1970 and 1973. Clayton sent a copy of Nelson's screenplay to Moore for comments. Judith Hearne is arguably Clayton's finest and most completely realised film since The Pumpkin Eater. The release of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne turned out to be something of a disaster. It was prémiered in Los Angeles in the Christmas week of 1987 in order to qualify for Oscar consideration. Like John Huston, Clayton is a tender chronicler of the courageous spiritual processes of lowly people whose hopes are defeated by destiny but who nevertheless endure.