It's a testament to Simon Gray's skillful writing that he has produced a character so undeserving of sympathy, yet one who elicits so much.
Had we met Ben Butley the day before, we'd have him down as an embittered soak with nothing to offer but his (wasted) intellect. He's certainly that when we do, but on this day, what passes for his world is being dismantled before his eyes. It is his desperate effort to control things he so clearly can't that compels us.
Alan Bates is captivating as Butley, using so many guises to mask his pain. He is at once incredulous and childish, darkly funny, a wasted talent, viciously cruel, so very frail, frightened, pathetic and so utterly human.
The scenes are largely set in the office Butley shares with his ex- student and partner, Joey. Director Harold Pinter makes good use of this space; it is an unwelcoming, claustrophobic womb but it represents somewhere safe for Butley.
So much of what passes between Joey and Butley is of things - life! - outside that room. Like Joey, we want so much to leave it but we cannot unless Butley allows us to. Instead we remain with him, slowly suffocating. The only respite we get is when another character enters the room. We hope they bring new hope, some fresh air, but they only bring more disappointment.
For students of drama this is an excellent study in status and dramatic tension. For everyone else it is an expertly crafted and pared down film.
I was going to give this film four stars but I couldn't think of a reason not to give 5, so I have.