A Prowler Named Joseph Losey

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Joseph Losey was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s after making some films there. He resumed his career in Britain, making some films in Italy and France as well. He was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA in 1909; he went to high school with Nicholas Ray. He studied at Dartmouth College and Harvard University before studying in Moscow where he met Sergei Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht. Losey was a major figure in the New York political theatre movement in the 1930s. He worked with Brecht for preparation on Brecht’s Life of Galileo Los Angeles production in 1946 and 1947. One year later Losey’s debut feature film The Boy with Green Hair (Losey, 1948) was released starring 11 year old Dean Stockwell in his first film.

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The Boy with Green Hair was seen a political allegory about a war orphan who wakes up one morning to find he has green hair. The green symbolising his difference in society as a war orphan. Some may find this ‘message’ film too preachy. Stockwell and his guardian played by Pat O’Brien have excellent chemistry and the film is an important social document of Truman’s America of 1947. The scene of Peter (Stockwell) being confronted outside of school over his differences reminded of a scene directed by Losey’s classmate Nick Ray in which James Dean is halted back after crossing the school crest in Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955). Such abuse from the cushy insiders is too much for loner outsiders like Stockwell and Dean, Stockwell expresses his feelings through a speech about war orphans and Dean expresses himself by raging at his parents.

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Losey made Stranger on the Prowl (Losey, 1952) in Italy before settling in Britain in 1953 where he made The Sleeping Tiger (Losey, 1954) starring arguably his favourite actor Dirk Bogarde with whom he worked with on five films. Bogarde plays a criminal taken into care by Alexander Knox, a psychiatrist. Alexis Smith plays the psychiatrist’s wife who develops feelings for Bogarde. The film is an excellent three hander by the actors about characters who can never be sure what they want. Raymond Durgnat (1966) rightly points out that the film could have made in the 1930s by Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart (James Mason would have been perfect), Bette Davis and Claude Rains. With Losey blacklisted the film was credited to its producer Victor Hanbury. Losey and cinematographer Harry Waxman use dark shadows to convey deep trauma and secrets. The house in The Sleeping Tiger marks for me Losey’s fascination with confined spaces; the houses in The Servant, Accident, Secret Ceremony, The Go-Between and The Romantic Englishwoman. The apartment in Blind Date, the cave in The Damned, the prison in The Criminal and the trenches in King and Country.

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The Intimate Stranger (Losey, 1956) was once again credited to its producer, this time Alec C. Snowden. Losey does what he can with what feels like a BBC Play for the Day, but with less visual imagination than say one directed by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh or those scripted by Dennis Potter. The story concerns an American film producer who resides in England after a near scandal in Hollywood. He begins receiving love letters from a woman he does not remember. The actors Richard Basehart, Mary Murphy and the wonderful Roger Livesey are all on fine form. Perhaps the most visually striking element of the film is the use of film sound stage lights being repeatedly shone on a guilty culprit.

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Blind Date (Losey, 1959) concerns a Dutch artist Jan (Hardy Kruger) who goes to the flat a French woman Jacqueline (Micheline Presle), he hears a knock on the door, police led by Inspector Morgan (Stanley Baker) enter and discover Jacqueline’s body. With this film and The Criminal Losey highlights the multicultural change which started in Britain around the 1950s. Jan as an outsider to England struggles at first to understand the police’s methods. The film also struggles in its flashbacks of Jan and Jacqueline but I suppose that’s the point. One was reminded of the domestic arguments in Contempt (Godard, 1963). Durgnat (1966) interestingly refers to the ending as having an air of ‘Godardian freedom’ in which Jan hasn’t learned much from the experience maybe this makes a second viewing more interesting.

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In The Criminal (Losey, 1960) the prisoners are stick figures for labour. Johnny Bannion’s (Stanley Baker) release from prison is short lived he almost cannot bare to leave those stone walls. The film’s ending echoes Shoot the Piano Player (Truffaut, 1960). His woman Suzanne’s (Margit Saad) presence is like that of an angel, ‘a gift from the Gods’ as Durgnat (1966) argues. Freedom is too far away from any of these characters, they are always imprisoned in some way.

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The Damned (Losey, 1963) opens with a rock ballad from the film’s composer James Bernard, entitled ‘Black Leather Rock’. It reaches its climax when a gang led by King (Oliver Reed) start whistling it, I marvel at this moment. The Damned starts out as a runaway story involving Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and Simon (Macdonald Carey) and turns into them stumbling upon a group of radioactive children whom Joan, Simon and King decide to rescue against the odds. The scenario and relationship between the head scientist Bernard (Alexander Knox) and his mistress Freya (Viveca Lindfors) echoes Doctor Génessier and his mistress Louise in Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960). The Damned is among the most ambitious produced by Hammer Films. Such subtleties are added to the texture of the film like the incestuous overtone in the relationship between Joan and King who are brother and sister. The film pulls no punches, it portrays an England spiralling over the edge with gang beatings, illegal scientific experiences, an England where freedom is once again denied.

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It is so difficult to write about The Servant (Losey, 1963) which I consider to be Losey’s masterpiece along with The Go-Between. Losey’s direction in The Servant is heavily emphasised by noir shadows and sharp camera movement. Pinter’s dialogue is among his best. The Servant from its opening street image is very much a London film accompanied by Johnny Dankworth’s jazzy score. A figure, Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) immerges from the wilderness in this opening sequence, he has applied for a job as aristocrat Tony’s (James Fox) servant. Tony hires Barrett which begins a spinning wheel of dishonesty, cruelty and power shifting between the men and the women, Susan (Wendy Craig) and Vera (Sarah Miles). That is not to say that The Servant is about a battle of the sexes, it is more of a battle of the classes. The final shot and abrupt end credits stunned me.

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King and Country (Losey, 1964) concerns wet and depressing trenches in the Battle of Passchendaele in World War One, 1917. When Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is accused of desertion Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) steps in to defend him. Losey shot the film cheaply, using a set at Shepperton Studios for the trenches and an almost deserted London street and home of Private Hamp to remind us of his life left behind. Bogarde is at his best as a no-nonsense humanitarian trapped in a bureaucratic authoritarian cesspool where the questions in the feeble heads of the chief officers are; ‘what’s best for England?’, ‘what’s the best example to the soldiers?’ etc. Keeping in mind that these questions are still relevant 100 years later is severely depressing. As Hamp lies drunk on the ground towards the end of the film, all that is still relevant in 2016 hits home (you’ll see what I mean). And Bogarde stepping up in the final scene in a reveal similar to a scene in Visconti’s The Damned (1969) is a testament to his incredible integrity as an actor in moments that are amoral and his characters know they are and bear them through emotional guilt.

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Accident (Losey, 1967) is the weakest of Losey’s films that I’ve seen; I say this as a huge admirer of his work. I saw the film about five years ago on VHS and struggled with its narrative and characters, it was my first viewing of a Losey film. Revisiting it now knowing Losey’s films a lot better and that it was one of his three collaborations with Harold Pinter I still find myself more puzzled with the film, especially as Pinter also scripted The Servant and The Go-Between both of which I believe to be Losey’s best films. I get that Losey and Pinter are interested in the bland and empty lives of these people but it not enough to sustain its narrative. It is a vagueness that works well in films of that period like Charlie Bubbles (Finney, 1967). Accident needs at least one scene to grasp onto to make it accessible in someway, I did not find one but will gladly revisit the film in another few years.

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Secret Ceremony (Losey, 1968) portrays an almost empty London like the London of The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1973). The huge Debenham House in Holland Park, West London is the main setting for this unsettling psychological drama which bares the tagline ‘no one admitted the last 12 minutes’. Mia Farrow lives all alone in the huge house which bares the past secret of likely incessant with her now dead family. The film at first intriguing strains its own narrative relying on slightly repetitive scenes involving Farrow. Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum give mildly interesting performances. Their encounter on the beach is the film’s best scene it breathes on its own and adds to the mystery of the incest theme. The house reminds me of Jeanne Dielman’s apartment you just cannot wait to leave.

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The Go-Between (Losey, 1971) has a score by Michel Legrand that is absolutely mesmerising, up there with Michael Nyman’s great work for Peter Greenaway’s films. From the opening shot of raindrops on the window, I was captivated by the love of life that climaxes Legrand’s main theme. The story is; Alan Bates and Julie Christie use young Dominic Guard to act as a ‘go-between’ for their correspondence of love letters. The film won Losey the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, his highest career honour. Gerry Fisher’s (a regular collaborator of Losey’s) stunning cinematography captures the beautiful English nature and the large country house filled with what I remember to be natural light leaving its mark of emotional intensity like Legrand’s music does particularly when Fisher’s zooms to a dramatic close-up.      

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The Romantic Englishwoman (Losey, 1975) is an interesting film about power once again set mostly in the surroundings of an English house. Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine are perfectly cast as a married couple with Helmut Berger as their ‘go-between’ for business and pleasure. Losey and his screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Thomas Wiseman have made a comedy of manners, for example in one hilarious scene Caine and Jackson are ‘down and dirty’ in their front garden before an unannounced guest pulls up in their driveway. Dirk Bogarde who collaborated with Losey five times reportedly turned down Caine’s role. Caine’s rants are among his best, like in A Shock to the System (Egleson, 1990).

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Mr. Klein (Losey, 1976) stars Alain Delon in a performance of subtle intensity which is maybe the best acting of any Losey film. It’s difficult to say more, Delon has encounter after encounter which builds towards an intimate experience about identity and bad timing, with an ironic final image. Losey worked until the end of his life in 1984, aged just 75. I cannot quite tell if Losey’s American identity merged with a English one after he had lived in London for 30 years.

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