MUBI's retrospective Outlaw Auteur: Joseph Losey is showing March 30 - May 26, 2020 in the United Kingdom.
The blacklist could be a death certificate or a plane ticket. Informers and suspects alike didn’t work after the United States government went around asking who was a communist and who wasn’t. The list of people who stood up to it is small, the number of people who survived the j’accuse smaller. Director Joseph Losey left the States when he learned his name had been given to House Un-American Activities Committee, to go finish Stranger on the Prowl (1952), when the original director Bernard Vorhaus was fired. Losey came home a year later to find himself radioactive. He left again, and he never came home. Not really.
He was an obviously skilled director in America but he was just hitting his stride. The crime films he directed in the States and when he first arrived in Europe speak to a man who knows the psychosexual purpose of the camera. It leers and leans like a smirking jungle cat in 1951’s The Prowler, like its deranged protagonist, a cop who decides he’s going to make himself a life in someone else’s house, whether the woman inside wants it or not. In his 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s M he turns Los Angeles into a Bauhaus prison from which the only true guilty man cannot flee the other inmates imprisoned with him. Stranger on the Prowl makes splendid use of noir shadow and it’s possible Losey would have become a noir specialist if he wasn’t forced to leave. One thing is obvious, however, that the European market and critical wing were more tolerant of Losey’s chosen direction as an artist than America would have been. Artists had their visions mangled all too frequently during this period. You could almost see Losey become a kind of Stanley Kubrick figure, waiting for taste to catch up with him and history to forgive him and then apologize.
In his adopted home he got right down to it making genre films wherever they’d have him, but his trials were far from over. He started a sci-fi film called X the Unknown in 1956 but he left the production near the start. Accounts vary as to why. He may have fallen ill, or Dean Jagger, the American star they flew in
, wouldn’t collaborate with a commie. Losey’s name was removed from the Howard Koch-scripted Finger of Guilt (1956). He directs the slightly tepid Eastmancolor romance The Gypsy and the Gentleman in 1958. He made good crime films on small budgets during this period but he was still in dire enough straights that he directed a spot for the Ford motor company in 1959 called First on the Road. He films the Ford Anglia like all of the art objects that clutter the frame in his mid-career films, a beautiful frivolity around which empty lives are lived. It’s one of the more strange car commercials you’ll ever see, set to the jazz music he so loved, no dialogue, all the laughter in a vacuum, a car full of people packed tightly and trying to project fun.
He first worked with Dirk Bogarde in 1954 the invasion thriller Sleeping Tiger and Stanley Baker in the class-conscious procedural Blind Date in 1959. These actors would become important allies and collaborators in the years to come. It was Baker (who also collaborated frequently with blacklisted émigré Cy Endfield) who finally settled Losey in the U.K. as a director worth trusting. In 1960 the burgeoning star was offered a film called The Criminal and hated the script and wouldn’t star in it (or let Losey direct it) unless the pair could write the film from scratch. They did, and the film was a smash. The time had come to spread their wings.
Eva (1962) was Losey’s first capital-A art film, his first film without cops and bad guys, rogues or fugitives since his debut, The Boy With The Green Hair in 1949. Losey complained that his producers meddled with the final cut, and critics were unkind. It was the first film to really engage with Losey’s life as an artist in exile. Baker plays a Welsh novelist who exploited his humble upbringing to produce gut-wrenching novels that have lately been sold to producers to make movies. We meet him at the Venice Film Festival engaged to a woman in public relations (Verna Lisi). When he stumbles onto a sweaty friend of his using his chic flat for a rendezvous, he kicks the man out and keeps the woman. Her name is Eva Olivier and she’s played by Jeanne Moreau. Thanks to Louis Malle, Jeanne Moreau’s sudden appearance in a black and white art movie in the 60s meant erotic trouble of the highest order. Naturally Baker falls under her sway and she keeps forcing him to prostrate and embarrass himself in elaborate ways. He keeps losing his new old life as Moreau co-opts every space he once inhabited until he’s hollow eyed on a funeral barge in the canals.
It’s undeniably huge, Eva, and subtlety is not in its vocabulary, though neither does it burst with purpose. A cut from Baker and Moreau finally consummating their infidelity comes to rest on a sculpture of a lobster, splitting the narrative between the phallic and the castrated. The film’s erection will deflate, ending in a broken marriage and an equally broken man. Lisi reads a big book of T.S. Eliot in bed, and presumably Portrait of a Lady’s in there with its Christopher Marlowe epigraph, “Thou hast committed fornication: but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.” The whole thing is just that loud, and persuasively so, indeed it seems to sweat with potential, not knowing how to fully express the inside of the carnal brain champing at the bit for a forbidden encounter. Losey’s artistry was still developing. He didn’t quite know how to make the grammar hum as loud as the sets and the faces, but the poor reviews of Eva seemed to have redoubled his efforts to taken seriously as an artist instead of an entertainer. No more half-measures.
The Servant followed in 1963 and it cemented Losey’s U.K. reputation. Gone was the maker of crime pictures, here was the U.K.’s answer to Antonioni or Resnais. It won award after award and its scenarist, Harold Pinter, never again found himself without employment as a screenwriter. Pinter’s career took two years and a lot of heat before anyone treated him seriously as a playwright. It was only after The Caretaker in 1960 that people treated his writing seriously. The Servant helped as much as a 1964 revival of The Birthday Party to codify what it was that he brought to plot and dialogue. The Servant is about a rich and idle dandy, played by James Fox, who buys a house and decides that he might as well get himself a man servant too. The idea of having a vestigial butler to clean up after him seems like an absent-minded impulse, just one more way of announcing his wealth and position. He has no idea what to do with the man who comes with the job. His name is Hugo Barrett and he’s played by Bogarde in the role he’d play for the rest of his life: the effete manipulator, the man with the mile-wide libido buried beneath a hangdog expression of droll impatience & self-importance.
From the start the camera caresses the hallways to match the velvet gaze of Bogarde’s interloper. The place seems to move, even breathe. Losey blocks his leads with their enormous faces taking up a third or more of the screen, turning them to Greek statues more sturdy than the house itself with its elastic shadows and encroaching darkness. Losey was a keen student of architecture and interior design (he was among the first filmmakers to capture the Angels Flight Funicular and the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles) and the house in The Servant seems menacing, as twisted and mean-spirited as Bogarde and Fox. They quickly find themselves wrapped up in each other’s affairs. Fox wants a maid, Bogarde hires his fiancé but says she is his sister. Fox catches them and has a fit of moral panic thinking he’s caught them committing incest. Fox’s girlfriend (Wendy Craig) despises Bogarde, so he starts to envelope Fox until the two of them have no other relations but each other. The Servant’s final act finds them sharing the space like nervous animals, playing games with each other that expose their neuroses and dependence and of course border on the homoerotic. Fox upsets Bogarde and begs to serve him to keep the peace. Nothing ever erupts into violence the way it seems pitched to, restraint learned from Eva, which ends both conclusively and with the moral order clear. Here there are no good men or bad men, just rodents in a maze getting smaller and smaller.
The rest of the 60s for Losey ricocheted between drama and genre, high and low culture, camp and artistry, and the muddied waters produced some of his most exciting movies. These Are The Damned was shot in 1961 but only released in 1963, a kind of apologia from Hammer who fired the director from X the Unknown. It’s remarkably directed and perfectly bleak but shows Losey in his pre-Servant style—the photography and production design aren’t as precise, nor is the film as socially, sexually or politically complex as his later work. King & Country (1964) was the proper follow-up. It’s a story of a WWI deserter (Tom Courtenay) and his defender (Bogarde again) during his trial for cowardice. It’s a miserable thing, but brilliant, bright pained faces emerging from muddy battlefields and cramped hangers. David Cairns: It feels like death got dissolved into the celluloid. Understandably, Losey followed it up with the almost-too-chipper Modesty Blaise (1966), based on a comic book and so beautiful it hurts your eyes. People loathed it because it’s exactly what it promises to be: the most beautiful comic book of all time. Life and death mean nothing, which gets perverse at times, but the perversity is the point. Monica Vitti is here on loan from Antonioni and his magnificently stifling hellscapes playing a happy-go-lucky criminal cavorting with Terence Stamp. Nothing works the way it’s meant to, and so much the better. It’s even superior to Mario Bava’s take on the same subject.
The box office performance left a little to be desired, perhaps scaring Losey back into Pinter’s arms for Accident (1967), his least apologetically arch film, so breezy and quiet you could almost miss the infidelity, rape, and murder. Bogarde plays a tutor with everything: a lovely country house where he lives with his wife and two children. He’s tutoring both Michael York and Jacqueline Sassard, both rich and young and without a care in the world. Bogarde lusts after the girl privately but doesn’t mind her being aloof and out of his reach until his colleague Charley (Baker) arrives on the scene and seduces her. It’s the ease with which it happens that galls Bogarde, who believed in a set order of things, and in his own lies about being happy with his lot in life; and then Baker walks in and upends them like it was nothing. A camera operator on Modesty Blaise named Gerry Fisher was promoted to director of photographer for Accident and his work with natural lighting is astonishing. He finds a core of melancholy in the greens and blues that abound in Bogarde’s world. Everything seems so free and lovely, so why does Bogarde feel as though he’s suddenly trapped by everything and everyone? This is a vicious film that nestles Pinter’s scathing world view in flashbacks of idyllic afternoons and frank friendships. The film moves through time with a confident stride and high modernist style, overlapping dialogue and sound design, creating a tapestry of frustrating fates. No one knows how badly they’re hurting each other. Pinter appears for a moment delivering news of a possible death with impish nonchalance, the author hand-delivering the message of the piece.
Losey’s next projects were shrugged and laughed at with equal measure, too self-consciously un-self-conscious for the good taste of the public. 1968’s Boom! and Secret Ceremony both star Elizabeth Taylor and they’re both marvels. Losey misses Pinter’s sharpness as a writer, but retains the theatricality as Liz paces back and forth on expressive sets reciting acres of double talk and coded language. “Because of the unusual ending no one will be admitted during the last 12 minutes,” screamed the poster for Secret Ceremony. Suffice to say no one was clamoring to be admitted in the first or last twelve. John Waters for years was Boom!’s most public admirer but he wasn’t the only one. Fernando F. Croce called it “A brilliant film, or rather a brilliant ‘sen-sation,’ by erudite artists who heed the Witch of Capri's warning about ‘jokes taken too seriously.’” Losey hopped aboard Figures in a Landscape (1970) when Peter Medak jumped ship, and tried to wrestle Robert Shaw’s too metaphorical screenplay into something cinematic. It’s like one of his Pinter scripts married his crime capers. The inscrutable dramatic interplay unfolds at a gallop while men in helicopters shoot at Shaw and Malcolm McDowell. It didn’t make much of a splash despite its unnerving intensity and verve, so once again Losey rang up Pinter.
An adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1971) was meant to be there follow-up to The Servant but they couldn’t find the money until Bryan Forbes at EMI agreed to give them a fraction of what they needed to make it. They went to MGM for the rest of the money and they made it for a million dollars. The minuscule budget helped the earthy, tossed off feeling of the thing. The intruder this time is young Leo Colston (Michael Redgrave provides his rueful narration from the present and Dominic Guard plays him in the past), a boy sent to live with his rich school chum and his family, the Maudsleys. Alan Bates plays lascivious farmer Ted Burgess (those were something like his stock in trade by 1971) who’s secretly bedding betrothed aristocratic beauty Marian Maudsley (Julie Christie). Leo wants to curry favor with the bewitching Marian by agreeing to pass notes between her and Ted. It ends in a swelling of jealousy, outrage, and blood. It’s interesting to see Losey calm again, returning to a freer camera after the purposeful yet drugged-seeming gaze of Secret Ceremony, Boom! and Figures in a Landscape. It’s not quite as cunning or exacting as Accident (arguably setting it in the past does a lot of the work forecasting everyone’s destiny), but the class warfare is more pregnant. Watching a woman claw through the sunken swampy grounds and jagged underbrush of Bates’s property to stop her daughter from sleeping with him speaks volumes, though the film around her speaks at a whisper. Losey may have been too cowed by bad reviews or too infatuated with the text to exact much of his style, but the result is a respectfully dark take on the material, boilerplate in English school curriculums. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Restraint looked good on Losey, but he couldn’t tolerate it long.
The next decade and a half of the director’s career was spent chasing the deliberately operatic and byzantine. He’d adapt work by Mozart and Brecht, cast Jane Fonda in Ibsen, talk openly about Marxism and communism, and cast Richard Burton as Trotsky. His final movie is called Steaming, to give you some indication what Losey was up to during this period. The old, dangerous Losey would make exactly one more appearance in 1975’s Mr. Klein. Alain Delon financed the film from on a script by firebrand writers Franco Solinas, Fernando Morandi, and an uncredited Costa-Gavras. It’s might be the best thing Losey ever made. Delon plays a scumbag art dealer in 1942 buying up priceless works from Jewish people and other marginalized groups leaving Paris in the dead of night. He lives with Juliet Berto in one of Losey’s typically chic apartments though this one has the dusty melancholy of the forgotten. The whole time it feels like we should not be here with Delon. It is unsurprising when Paris starts to close in around him. He discovers that there’s another man with his name somewhere else in Paris who might be Jewish. This makes Delon nervous. He doesn’t want to be mistakenly arrested by the Nazis, so he starts trying to look the other fellow up so they can sort out their identities and Delon can go back to sleeping like a baby while the city burns. His investigation keeps dragging him further out of his own life and into the one lived by the other Mr. Klein. Gerry Fisher films Paris as a grey blue nightmare, leftover from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, as others have pointed out. This version of the nocturnal, decaying Paris is more horrifyingly alive. Fisher takes the camera off the tripod enough times to make us feel like we’re being hustled through the streets like the crowds of Jewish people loaded onto trains at the film’s conclusion. We’re pulled inexorably with the tide of history towards its hideous endpoint. Klein’s dogged belief that he can solve the mystery of his doppelgänger, whom he keeps just missing in public places, has an awful certainty to it. People keep trying to stop him, but he won’t be swayed. Pinter wasn’t involved here but his spirit is all over the piece. There is no escaping what other men plan to do to you if they’ve already decided you’re dead.
Losey was lucky enough to escape everyone’s plan for him, escaping persecution, arrest, failure, pigeonholing, and returning the favor to both those who didn’t escape with their names intact and those who were crushed by the times when he wasn’t. Mr. Klein was only one movie that tried to remind us that the past never dies and that our former ignorance and lust for outrage would someday be looked upon as barbarism. Unlike most of his heroes, Losey never pretended to be anyone but who he was. When asked later if he held a grudge for what he was put through in Hollywood, he demurred, “A good shaking up never hurt anyone.” He proved it to his audiences time and again.