It's not surprising that Harold Pinter discovered Elizabeth Bowen's novel "The Heat of the Day," as it's a perfect setting for one of the playwright's excursions into the meaning of the language that forms the primary substance of a relationship.
What is surprising is that Alfred Hitchcock never made a film of this tense psychological drama which Bowen published in 1949.
Adapted by Pinter for the small screen, this two-hour movie made by England's Granada Television kicks of the 20th season of Masterpiece Theatre Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.
It's 1941 in London. The Nazi bombings are in full force. In the opening scene, an elderly man goes to visit his wife in a nursing home. But before he sees her, he collapses and dies in the parlor. A widow named Stella Rodney attends his funeral because her husband was a cousin of the deceased.
After the funeral, she is stunned to learn that her teen-age son Roderick, currently serving in the army, is the prime beneficiary of the dead man's will, inheriting an estate in Ireland, though he never met the man.
Then Stella is approached by a strange, not at all attractive man named Harrison who tells her that her much younger, quite handsome lover Robert, a wounded veteran of Dunkirk who works for the war office, is a spy for the Germans. But, Harrison goes on, he'll keep this to himself if she will become his mistress on the side.
Add to this Robert's extremely eccentric family, the odd feeling at the Irish estate, Harrison's continued strange behavior, a variety of off-the-wall minor characters, and you've got an air of tense, understated mystery of the type that Hitchcock exploited so well in "Rebecca."
The cast, as one comes to expect in these British productions, is superb, with Patricia Hodge giving the brittle beauty Stella a strength that is being threatened for the first time in a long while.
Michael Gambon, the lead in "The Singing Detective," is appropriately mysterious and sinister as Harrison, while Michael York is his usual --ing self as Robert. The supporting players, including a cameo by Peggy Ashcroft, are all first rate.
The setting allows Pinter to display some Tom Stoppard-like verbal gymnastics, oblique conversations that hint at layers of meaning, and di- and tri-alogues that dance about the screen like some game of badminton played in four dimensions.
All the while, he moves the story along, slowly bringing it out of the morass of confusion as he examines questions of loyalty and disloyalty, of the appropriate response when social and personal obligations are in conflict, of exactly what it is that makes up the essential core of a person, that part of him that one comes to love or hate.
Directed by Christopher Morahan in a style that is reminiscent at times of David Lynch -- maybe it's just the focus on the traffic light -- all "The Heat of the Day" needs is a better ending from Bowen to make it a perfect piece of television.
As it is, this is exceptionally good, a wonderful start to a new season for this venerable PBS series.
"The Heat of the Day"
*** Harold Pinter adapted this Elizabeth Bowen novel set in London during the early days of World War II. An attractive widow is told by a mysterious stranger that her young, handsome lover, a British officer, is actually a German spy.
CAST: Patricia Hodge, Michael Gambon, Michael York
TIME: Sunday at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: PBS channels 22 and 67