The Go-Between was the grand prizewinner at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and highly regarded in its day. In the last thirty-plus years, however, it seems to have fallen beneath the radar of even most dedicated film fans. Only rarely does the picture turn up on cable andas far as I knowit’s never been released on video in the States.
Director Joseph Losey, who was blacklisted in the early 1950s and spent the rest of his career in Europe, made his most acclaimed films in collaboration with playwright/screenwriter Harold Pinter: The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), and The Go-Between. The director’s impeccable sense craftsmanship and Pinter’s concise, evocative way with words were perfectly suited to one another. Not to mention their mutual interest in plumbing the psychology and sociology of their characters. But these qualities, admired by serious film buffs of the past, do not necessarily make the movies easily accessible to contemporary filmgoers, trained to be impressed by superficial dazzle. The Losey/Pinter pictures require one to consider what’s going on beneath the surface of what’s said and shown.
Based on an L. P. Hartley novel, both book and film open with the famous line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The Go-Between tells the story of a poor boy, Leo Colston, who’s invited to spend a summer vacation at the country home of a privileged schoolmate. There, he becomes the unwitting letter-bearer in a secret love affair between the pretty mistress of the manor, Marian Maudsley (played by Julie Christie in the film), and a roughly attractive local farmer, Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). Leo (Dominic Guard), who is pointedly on the cusp of sexual awakening, fancies himself a successful caster of spells and initially delights in the special world he’s been given entrance to. But in the end, he finds himself coolly used by the person he’s most trusted and loved.
Typical of Pinter’s spare but telling prose is the scene in which Leo tries to comprehend Marion’s predicament. Why, he wants to know, doesn’t she marry Farmer Burgess? “Because I can’t,” she replies simply. And why is she marrying Lord Trimingham, who she clearly doesn’t love? “Because I must,” she insists. What Leo doesn’t understand is that Marion feels she has no choice in the matter. Losey compliments Pinter’s words with subtly suggestive symbolism that makes a deconstruction of almost any scene in the movie revealing. Leo is dubbed “messenger of the Gods” by the gentry and his suit is appropriately colored green. Herds of deer and flocks of birds visit the estate, reminding us of the natural order. Leo gets a nasty surprise, sliding down Farmer Burgess’s straw stack. The old outhouse behind the manor is home to a poisonous “Deadly Nightshade.”
It could be said that The Go-Between is about many things, including the loss of childhood innocence, the bankruptcy of the class system, the destructiveness of suppressing sexual desire, and the influence youthful experience has on our adult personality. In other words, it’s a dense, thought-provoking filmwhich is exactly why I like it. Should you have the chance, I do hope you’ll give it a serious look.
The photo at right perfectly captures Leo and Marion’s relationshipthe seductive smile of the woman, the simple adoration of the boy. She’s about to send him on another of her private errands. Other artifacts from the Teegarden/Nash Collection include a mini lobby card, program, and newspaper ad.
“The film is a triumph of meticulously intelligent collaboration and formal calculation, and for those who favor British reticence over Gothic mood, The Go-Between as a literary adaptation makes its main competitor of 1971, Death In Venice, look like amateur night on the Grand Canal.”Andrew Sarris
This article originally appeared in Audience Magazine (AudienceMag.com).