Mick (Alan Bates) sits outside this rundown urban building in his car, smoking, until he decides to get out and enter through the front door, then climbs the stairs to reach the upper floor. Meanwhile, elsewhere tonight is Jenkins (Donald Pleasence), a tramp who has failed to find a place to sleep, a sorry state of affairs when the winter is gripping the land, but he appears to have made a new friend with Aston (Robert Shaw) who allows Jenkins to follow him back to the same building, up those stairs, and into a cluttered room at the top. Now they are talking together, rather than the down and out doing all the speaking, and it seems Aston is giving him somewhere to sleep...
The Caretaker was one of playwright Harold Pinter's early successes, transferring from the London stage to Broadway where the next logical step was to make a film out of the material, this being an age when the theatre was raided by producers to craft recreations for the movies. That word "stagebound", often used as a pejorative in the cinema, could have been applied to many of those efforts, especially the ones that took place on a single location, but some made a virtue of this and here was an example of how to do so: create claustrophobia. This is largely set in one house, with occasional excursions outside, but in the main you were stuck in these fusty rooms.
Pinter was not about to explain what he precisely intended in this drama, aware that had he spilled the beans on any of his works it would have robbed them of considerable power, and The Caretaker was no exception. If what he was getting at was obliquely muddled in a barrage of dialogue that often did nothing to further the plot, then there was a benefit in noting the way these three men interacted, and the way the balance of their relationships altered over the course of a few days. Jenkins is assuredly kept on the lowest rung of the ladder no matter which of the brothers he is talking to, though occasionally he gets what may or may not be the upper hand.
He does this by threatening the man he's talking to, and if this was about anything it was about the thrill of being intimidating, knowing full well that by imposing yourself on the other person through the warning of violence you are gaining some hold over them. But this was under no illusions: that sort of power game can leave you just as pathetic as those who bow under your will, however briefly, and there was a sense of looking down on the three characters from a great height rather than generating sympathy for what was to all appearances an existence spent in squalor. Having essayed their roles on the stage, the trio of thespians knew their roles inside out, leaving this film a record of their performances, perhaps more that than something truly opened out and cinematic.
But by creating a virtue out of the location - a real place, not a constructed set - and Nicolas Roeg's masterfully atmospheric black and white cinematography, it was what they would go on to term an immersive experience, even if you would not wish to spend any time there with these people if you could help it. Some cannot help existing in that lowly position, was partly the point, yet any charity was presented with a wariness: like Aston, you may want to help the disadvantaged, but you would also prefer not to deal with them face to face, that social class or snobbery inherent in how we saw Jenkins in particular, with his racist asides and lack of personal hygiene born out of dire circumstances. If Bates' aptitude with the mind games impressed, Shaw's sinister stillness and politeness was even harder to read, though you had to say Pleasence was aware he had a peach of a role and ran with it as only he could. Backed by acting and producing notables, this was valuable simply for capturing three excellent studies in personality.
[The BFI have released this on Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD, looking better than it ever has, and here are the features:
Newly restored from the original camera negative by the BFI, and presented here in High Definition and Standard Definition
Audio commentary by actor Alan Bates, director Clive Donner and producer Michael Birkett (2002)
Introduction by critic and author Michael Billington (2002, 6 mins)
On Location with The Caretaker (1962, 4 mins): an extract from the TV series This Week in Britain
The Caretaker: From Play Into Film (2002, 17 mins): a video essay by Michael Billington using materials donated by Clive Donner to the BFI National Archive
US opening titles (1963, 2 mins): the opening title sequence from the US where the film was released as The Guest
Last To Go (1969, 6 mins): the last of five animated shorts directed by Gerald Potterton for Pinter People voiced by Harold Pinter and Donald Pleasence
Harold Pinter's Play Discussed by Clive Donner (1973, 47 mins): the BAFTA-winning director discusses his adaptation of The Caretaker
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new essay by critic author Amy Simmons, writing by Michael Billington and full film credits.]