In ‘Accident,’ a mystery and a movie masterpiece
Director Joseph Losey was doing well in Hollywood until his name came up during hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1952 he was blacklisted, and sought refuge in the United Kingdom.
There he eventually hooked up with Harold Pinter, the celebrated playwright and one of cinema's greatest adapters of difficult books (his 1972 version of Marcel Proust's seven volume "À la recherche du temps perdu," written for Losey but never produced, is a must-read, especially for those who would rather skip the long version).
This expertise came in handy in 1967, when Losey took on Nicholas Mosley's cryptic, epistemological mystery novel "Accident." Of Losey's three collaborations with Pinter (the other two are 1963's "The Servant" and 1970's "The Go-Between"), it is the most challenging and influential.
It opens with the title event, a car crash late at night, heard off-screen. It interrupts the sound of typing coming from the ivied house in the frame — the home of Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), a middle-aged Oxford philosophy professor. He rushes to the scene and finds an overturned car with two people in it, one dead and the other unconscious.
The victims are his students: the dead man is William (Michael York), a dilettantish aristocrat, and the survivor is Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), an Austrian princess. When the police arrive, Stephen hides the stunned and soused Anna in a bedroom to spare her from being arrested as the car's driver. "Don't worry," he tells her, and gives the police his account of what happened.
Then comes the inevitable flashback, except this one follows a logic more reminiscent of quantum physics than cause and effect. It is related in jagged puzzle pieces separated by ellipses, with scenes running at length and then cut abruptly, sometimes in mid-conversation. Bits of portentously inane dialogue are repeated (a Pinter touch), often in voice-over. But from this blur of incident and verbiage a story of sorts emerges.
This tale begins with William sipping whiskey in Stephen's Oxford office. He's inquiring about Anna, who has caught his fancy. Stephen fills him in, and soon William is punting with her on the Thames. Stephen, who has a wife and kids, refuses to acknowledge that he's also interested in Anna. Further complicating matters, Stephen's fellow faculty member Charley (Stanley Baker), a go-getter who writes novels and hosts a TV show, wants a go at the princess too. As for Anna, what she wants is anyone's guess.
In Mosley's novel, Stephen confers with Charley to figure out what story to tell the authorities. Here, Stephen is on his own. In one scene Charley explains to William — a would-be writer himself — how to turn life into fiction, a conversation followed by a game of tennis reminiscent of the imaginary one in Antonioni's "Blow-Up" (1966). But Charley's artful creativity gives way to Stephen's philosophy of cold calculation. "It's a process of inquiry," he says, "and not a way to find specific answers to specific questions."
It's also a process that can degenerate into self-serving invention, as Losey well knew from his experience with HUAC. That's when he faced just such a process of inquiry, one not intended to answer legitimate questions, but to intimidate people and aggrandize power. In a world where truth is relative and determined by those most adept at lying, when accidents happen, those who make up the best explanations win.