In a career spanning most of the 20th century, Jack Clayton (1921-1995) straddled classical filmmaking, the British New Wave and the final overripe years of the Hollywood studio system, finding success in each of these worlds but never a true home. Celebrated for his gift for combining detailed realism and imaginative storytelling, Clayton was best known for his literary adaptations and tales with a touch of the supernatural. Seen as a whole, his films display an eclectic sensibility at work befitting someone who counted Maggie Smith, Georges Delerue and Ray Bradbury among his foremost collaborators.
Clayton launched his career in the British cinema in 1929 as a child actor before working for Alexander Korda while still in his teens. The war interrupted the apprenticeship but not his career path, with Clayton joining the Royal Air Force’s film division where he made a documentary about the liberation of Naples, Naples is a Battlefield (1944). At the war’s end Clayton became a producer, working on such films as The Queen of Spades (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952). His first screen credit as a director came with the short The Bespoke Overcoat (1955), which was immediately followed a few years later by his feature debut, Room at the Top. He continued to work slowly, particularly during the 1970s when producers were focused on younger filmmakers and when his version of The Great Gatsby was widely seen as a disappointment, despite its tremendous box office success.
Although he’s often remembered today for detailing the ambiguities of childhood (The Innocents, Our Mother’s House, Something Wicked This Way Comes), Clayton also deserves recognition for his sensitive portraits of women fighting for control of their lives: Simone Signoret in Room at the Top, Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater, Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.
With their keenly observed characterizations, Clayton’s films evince a remarkably detailed realism that is often disrupted either by the emergence of the supernatural or by expressionistic use of the camera, whether through handheld motion, extreme close-up or rapid jump cuts. It may be that Henry James is the writer closest to Clayton’s spirit. Indeed both men offer carefully crafted depictions of human behavior while also suggesting that their motivations to be mysterious and ultimately ungraspable.
Special thanks: Andrew Youdell – British Film Institute; Caitlin Robertson – Fox; Katie Fry, Christopher Lane, Jordan Press – Sony; Howard Green, Mike Chitwood – the Walt Disney Studios; Judy Nicaud – Paramount.
Directed by Jack Clayton. With Laurence Harvey, Heather Sears,
US 1959, 35mm, b/w, 115 min
Clayton’s feature debut not only established him as a filmmaker whose importance was internationally recognized, Room at the Top helped pave the way for the British New Wave and such filmmakers as Lindsay Anderson and John Schlesinger, thanks to its unsparing portrayal of the corrosive effects of the class system. Set in postwar Yorkshire, the film skillfully blends kitchen-sink realism with heartfelt melodrama to tell the story of a young man from the working class who courts the boss’s daughter while also becoming the lover of an unhappily married older woman. The “X” rating the film received from the British censors seems to stem as much from the work’s emotional rawness as from its frank sexual content. Print courtesy UCLA Film and Televsion Archive.
Directed by Jack Clayton. With Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde,
US/UK 1961, 35mm, b/w, 100 min
The Innocents is the screen adaptation of Henry James’ famous novella The Turn of the Screw. Deborah Kerr stars as the governess in charge of two children who becomes convinced they are possessed by the ghosts of past servants. The film remains a classic of psychological horror: are the ghosts real, or is she losing her mind – or perhaps the children aren’t as innocent as they seem? Without gore or special effects, Clayton derives real fright from taut editing and deep-focus composition for the widescreen image. He skillfully illustrates James’ basic premise: that childhood is so remote from the world of adults it can seem monstrous. Print courtesy 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Jack Clayton. With Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, James Mason
UK 1964, 35mm, b/w, 118 min
A portrait of a failing marriage, The Pumpkin Eater is probably the Clayton film most closely linked to the European art cinema of the 1960s. It was celebrated at the time for its sophistication and gripping drama, thanks to a screenplay by Harold Pinter and riveting performances by Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch. Bancroft is remarkable as a woman incapable of either denying or accepting her own sensuality. Having helped to spark the British New Wave five years earlier, Clayton here takes advantage of that movement’s visual inventiveness by using a number of handheld shots, as well as unusual close-ups and camera angles. Print courtesy Sony Pictures.
Directed by Jack Clayton. With Dirk Bogarde, Margaret Brooks,
UK 1967, 35mm, color, 104 min
Rarely seen in the US, this film marks Clayton’s return to the question of the innocence of children. Left to their own devices after the death of their mother, seven young siblings disguise her demise from the neighbors out of fear that they will be delivered into foster care. They turn to their father for help, but his irresponsibility throws their lives into further turmoil. Truly sui generis, the film is part a macabre look at childhood understandings of death, love and loyalty, part a tender portrayal of family ties. Print courtesy British Film Institute.
Directed by Jack Clayton. With Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce,
US 1983, 35mm, color, 95 min
Capturing the childhood fascination with the dark uncanny of carnival midways, Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes tells the story of a small Midwestern town challenged by the arrival of a mysterious travelling circus. Two boys notice that their neighbors are changed after visiting the strange carnival and its sinister ringmaster who promises to fulfill any heart’s desire. Bradbury collaborated with Clayton – whom he’d met when both worked on John Huston’s Moby Dick – on the screenplay, and together they create one of the darkest films ever released by the Walt Disney Studios. Print courtesy Walt Disney Studios.
Directed by Jack Clayton. With David Kossoff, Alfie Bass, Alan Tilvern
UK 1956, 35mm, b/w, 33 min
An adaptation of Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” this short is Clayton’s debut as a fiction filmmaker, and it immediately demonstrates his ability to combine incisive character study with the supernatural. It also launched his career, winning an Academy Award and a prize at the Venice film festival.
Directed by Jack Clayton. With Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, Wendy Hiller
UK 1988, 35mm, color, 116 min
Clayton’s final theatrical feature centers on a fearless performance by Maggie Smith as an Irish spinster facing a future of isolation and poverty, an increasing reliance on alcohol and a crisis in the religious faith that has both sustained and limited her life. Clayton – who once described himself as an ex-Catholic – vividly illustrates his protagonist’s fury and despair as she struggles with the attentions of a widowed suitor and with a past she is powerless to change. The film’s power stems from Clayton’s and Smith’s refusal to make Judith Hearne a figure of pity; she has clearly played a part in the making of her own predicament. Instead, she is powerfully recognizable.
Directed by Jack Clayton. With Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern
US/UK 1974, digital video, color, 144 min
This version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of love and infidelity among the rich on Long Island is remembered today as a disappointment, and its lukewarm reception doubtless contributed to the ensuing gap of nine years before Clayton’s next film. He adopts a languorous pace that was criticized as inappropriate for the Jazz Age setting, but seen today, this choice gives the film an almost Viscontian sense of people adrift in a doomed era. Credited to Francis Ford Coppola – who later distanced himself from the film – the screenplay remains remarkably faithful to the novel, often using much of Fitzgerald’s dialogue.