The story of Accident is based on Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Nicholas Mosley’s 1965 novel of the same name, and it concerns the relationships of an Oxford don and his students. The Oxford setting of the story is important, but its presence seems to dominate the perspectives of some critics, particularly American. Thus many of these critics see Accident as mostly concerned with either (a) the British upper-class and associated class prejudices or (b) the peculiarities of the British intelligentsia [2,3,4,5,6]. However, while I believe those thematic elements may be present in this work, the true profundity of the film lies elsewhere. Of the reviews of the film that I did come across, though, I thought the most insightful one was that of Jugu Abraham .
Getting back to the story, itself, the film begins with a static, frontal shot of a stately home removed from the city, after a few seconds of which, the sounds are heard of a horrific auto accident offscreen. The home’s resident, Stephen (played by Dirk Bogarde), rushes out to the scene of the accident, which involved a single car that ran off the road into a tree. Stephen apparently knows the two battered young occupants of the car – the driver Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), who is dazed and barely conscious, and the passenger William (Michael York), who is dead. We will later learn that both of these people were Oxford students whom Stephen was tutoring.
These flashbacks do not appear in a linear narrative fashion and have the character of out-of-order, impressionistic psychological recollections, presumably those of Stephen. As the flashbacks unfold, we learn that Stephen is a fortyish Oxford don who is married with two kids. His wife Rosalind (Vivien Merchant, the real-life wife of Harold Pinter) is pregnant with their expected third child.
As part of the admirable Oxford tutoring system, which enables students to have regularly-scheduled tutorial sessions with the distinguished Oxford faculty members, Stephen has two tutorial philosophy students, William and Anna. William is an exuberant member of the upper-class and a graduate of Eton who seems to have a very close friendship with Stephen. The more taciturn Anna is a beautiful young Austrian woman who comes from a titled family. From Stephen’s perspective, the contrast between Anna and his wife Rosalind couldn’t be more marked. While Rosalind is a plain, down-to-earth mother and homemaker, Anna is exotically gorgeous and given to quietly giving him alluring glances.
In order to be a good guy (and also see more of Anna), Stephen invites both William and Anna to his stately home for an afternoon party. However, on the day, Charley shows up uninvited and crudely imposes himself on the others present. Anyway, Stephen does manage to take Anna on a private walk to a nearby orchard, but his timidity prevents him from drawing himself close to her. Stephen subsequently then invites everyone to stay for dinner, and all the men get very drunk, so they all have to stay over at Stephen’s home for the night. This get-together sequence is particularly interesting, because it shows all the key characters (Stephen, Anna, William, Charley, Rosalind) together and variously interacting.
When Stephen returns to his country home, he discovers that Charley has broken in while Stephen was away so that he could have a sexual tryst with Anna. Stephen is speechless at what has happened. This is because Anna, for Stephen, is an alluring, elegant princess who represents his romantic ideal. How could she succumb to such a crude, loathsome creature as Charley?
Numb with disappointment, Stephen goes off to the kitchen to make himself an omelette, followed by the embarrassed Charley and Anna. They apologetically try to talk to Stephen, but he remains silent. This highly charged scene of frustration and non-interaction is my favourite sequence in the film. Stephen is later further silently horrified to learn that Charley has been sleeping with Anna for some time.
Finally, Anna rather coldly tells Stephen that, despite her clandestine sexual affair with Charley, she nevertheless intends to marry William. This is a further disturbing thing for Stephen to learn about Anna’s previously idealized nature.
Then we come around to a flashback of the immediate events surrounding the opening crash scene. William, excited about his engagement with Anna, tells Stephen he would like to come over to Stephen’s home for a talk after first attending a party he has to go to. We know from earlier scenes that William tends to drink too much, and on this occasion after the party, he was too drunk to drive. So Anna had to take the wheel, and it was she who crashed the car in the opening scene.
We now return to that crash scene, at which Stephen found William dead and Anna in a daze. We now know that Rosalind is away tending to her newborn baby. After attending to the still-shocked Anna in the bed, Stephen, in an apparent moment of Charley-imitation, tries to force his affections on the woman. But Anna is unresponsive, and this is not what Stephen sought.
In the end, Anna returns to Austria, much to the frustrated consternation of Charley. There seems to be little sorrow expressed over William’s death. Stephen can only watch.
The final shot of the film again shows a frontal shot of Stephen’s country home. Things appear to have returned to normal. But the soundtrack reminds the viewer that the fatal accident will always be a part of Stephen’s memory.
- “McCarthyism”, Wikipedia, (16 February 2021).
- Jugu Abraham, “165. Self-exiled US director Joseph Losey’s British masterpiece “Accident” (1967): Atrophy and unhappiness of the educated upper crust”, Movies that make you think, (18 July 2014).
- Peter Keough, “In ‘Accident,’ a mystery and a movie masterpiece”, “The Boston Globe”, (2 October 2014).
- Richard T. Jameson, “Accident – ‘one of the great modern films’”, Parallax View, (28 March 2011).
- Tim Robey, “Eerie film about the skull beneath the skin of genteel English life”, The Telegraph, (5 June 2009).
- Penelope Houston, “Losey’s Hand in Pinter’s Glove”, The Spectator, (17 February 1967).
- “Myers Briggs Type Indicator”, Wikipedia, (27 January 2017).