The likeliest objection to The Caretaker is that it is too “theatrical,” which is hardly surprising given that it was adapted from a play by Harold Pinter. Still, theatrical adaptations can run the gamut from the overly reverential to the barely deferential, so the fact that we are acutely aware of the writing and performances suggests there is something unusually direct in the adaptation. Put simply, the film seems to have been made without concern for cinematic expectations in an effort to see how far stagey conventions could be pushed.
A three-character play set almost entirely in a shabby row-house, The Caretaker (aka “The Guest”) centers on mild-mannered Aston (Robert Shaw) who befriends a homeless crank, Mac Davies (Donald Pleasance). The latter quickly runs afoul of Aston’s brother Mick (Alan Bates), who seems to enjoy sadistic gamesmanship for its own sake and who has no patience with Mac.
When we learn that Aston’s mild manners result from an unspecified treatment for mental disturbance, he arouses some pity, though whether that or any of the other details about the characters are remotely believable is another matter. As if to convince of the real-world existence of the overwrought shouting, director Clive Donner mires the action in an all-too recognizable “kitchen sink” mess that anyone would be justified trying to escape. The row house registers as an unpleasant, objective fact to be sure, but Aston, Mac and Mick do not so much interact with it as rattle around in it.
The performances are so worked up that there is no way to react to them beyond their virtuosity. This is not bad acting, but it does involve a kind of self-conscious showiness of which only talented actors are capable. All three have proven elsewhere that they can shape their talents to cinematic contours, but here they seem to have been discouraged from doing so. Even Shaw’s reticence turns understatement into a form of broadcast.
Whatever development there may be results from dialog and shifts in behavior, with each character a set of mannered “characteristics” to be displayed with the subtlety of a passing parade. Their lightning fast shifts are dazzling but inexplicable to the point of abstract. There must be something going on for all the fireworks, but we have to be content with intermittent relief from the grimy surfaces with egregiously flashy verbal demonstrations (like Mick’s race through the history of Western decorative arts) that work more as Angry Young conceits than clarification.
The Caretaker was probably made to preserve the actors’ performances. Given that all three have already passed, we should be grateful for the record, but we are still left to ask exactly what is being preserved? There really is not all that much going on between these three. Presumably it is the total experience of their mutual sniping that matters, but awareness of the totality also lays bare the thinness of the material.