"Accident" (1967) is one strange little beast, with a simple set up and a spare plot, but rife with an alarming complexity of human emotions. Joseph Losey's second collaboration with Harold Pinter after the 1963 film "The Servant" is a moody, calculated psychological study of a midlife crisis, ethically forbidden relationships, one-upmanship and associated jealousies.
A deafening car crash breaks the silence of the night in an English countryside not very far from the Oxford University. Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), a 40-something professor of philosophy, reaches the crash site to find his student William (Michael York) dead and his beautiful friend and fellow student Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) disoriented and in a state of shock.
The film then goes in flashback mode, to the events leading to the crash, giving us a closer look at the relationships between these characters, especially Prof. Stephen's longing for the much younger Anna. As Stephen grapples with his increasing age, his own married life and a steadfast professional conduct, trying hard to keep his feelings under control, his more successful, unscrupulous friend and colleague, Charley (Stanley Baker) threatens to seduce Anna, further leaving Stephen in a state of dismay and seething jealousy.
Pinter's script is as minimal as it gets, and while soaking in the quiet nature of the proceedings, one may wonder where it's all headed. Losey spends a fair amount of time making us witness the character interactions; of Stephen and his pupils over their tutorials, or later at an elaborate, extended luncheon at his plush country home, primarily held for William and Anna, but gate-crashed by Charley!
Through these interactions, we get a glimpse at how competitive the men are. Everyone seems to be on an ego trip, in some kind of a contest of masculinity, owing to the presence of one young woman, the femme fatale, who seems to have captured their fancy. In order to make an impression, or make the most of their attractive company, the men indulge in excessive drinking, perhaps in an attempt to top each other in their liquor guzzling capacity, and exchange cryptic lines that may or may not be veiled taunts. Charley passes some drunken snide remarks which are promptly addressed by an equally tipsy Stephen, specifically with regard to the former's popularity on television.
William, the youngest of the three, seems considerably unconcerned, and very sorted out. He is perhaps very comfortable with his aristocratic background and the fact that he is young. A competition of this nature from his older professors is something that possibly hasn't even crossed his mind. And yet, he is clearly inexperienced, eventually even making a drunk spectacle of himself while trying to socially match steps with his older company, the only time when he ever snubs his revered professor Stephen.
Very casually holding the strings of all these men is the supremely cold and nonchalant Anna who loves the attention and plays a bit with the feelings of each man, almost effortlessly and without qualms. The warm center in the whole drama is Stephen's wife Rosalind (Vivien Merchant), the only person who seems to have any sense of morals left in her.
It is easy to see how Pinter's script is designed to portray Bogarde's character in a sympathetic light despite his straying emotionally as well as physically at one point of time. It is interesting to note that Stephen's moment of weakness, an amorous reunion with his beautiful ex-flame Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) is sandwiched between two massive blows to his ego, a double whammy of defeat against his arch rival, Charley.
By definition, Stephen is the happier of the two friends, married, with two kids and a third on the way. Charley's marriage seems to be on the rocks, but this ultimately becomes a matter of concern for Stephen, not because Charley's marriage is falling apart, but because it stands to give him an excuse to get closer to Anna! All the while, however, despite full knowledge of William's closeness with Anna, and a higher probability of them hooking up, Stephen makes every attempt to stay close to Anna whatever chance he gets, well aware that it wouldn't develop any further.
These complex psychological reactions are conveyed immaculately by Dirk Bogarde in a superlative act. He is a man who leads a perfectly content life, and yet is silently sad. Behold his nuanced change of expressions, his uneasiness at Charley's unwelcome presence at his luncheon, not to mention his frustrations resulting from an adherence to principles, despite an unmistakable love for his wife. His reactions are never outward but his angst is palpable in his body language and every move of his facial muscles. Noteworthy is his amazingly natural act of stammering when nervously trying to say something that he perhaps doesn't mean.
While Bogarde towers above the rest in the acting department, the others, mostly notably Stanley Baker and Vivien Merchant are almost as great. "Accident" is mostly a performance driven film; the performances make the film such as this, because with a narrative as sparse, strong performances are essential to convey the nature of the interpersonal equations between the characters. A sense of intrigue is always in the air however; an unhealthy tension constantly brewing, hidden within the superficially composed mannerisms, almost like a volcano bubbling beneath a calm exterior.
The culmination and return to the present from the flashback is not a neat wrap-up as one would expect. What happens in the final few minutes is most unpredictable; a conclusion that is more baffling than strictly satisfying. But by this time, having spent more than an hour and a half with these intriguing characters, Losey has us already prepared for such an outcome. With complicated individuals such as these, how could one expect easy answers anyway!