Sunday, February 01, 2015

An Appreciation: Joseph Losey

The Boy With Green Hair (1947) ***- Losey’s debut film is a bit of a radical experiment- an allegory on war in the vein of a children’s film. Orphaned by World war 2 and bounced from family member to family member, Dean Stockwell stars as the young boy whose hair inexplicably turns green after washing it one day. Naturally, this exotic change frightens everyone in town and makes Stockwell the alienated, confused target of both young and old. Not only is “The Boy With Green hair” an interesting exploration of the affects of war, but it establishes the overriding theme in Losey’s long career…. the us-vs.-them mentality strengthened by his imbroglio with the HUAC committee only three years later. The most stunning moment in “The Boy With Green Hair”: after keeping his camera fairly motionless for the first half, the slow pan out as an imagined group of war orphans appear before Stockwell in a park. Available via on-demand DVD-r.

The Lawless (1950) **- Run of the mill moral drama that posits angry town folk against the Hispanic population when a teen (Lalo Rios) crosses paths with the local affluent white boys. One mistake compounded upon another sees the teen running from the law with newspaper editor Wilder (MacDonald Carey) being the only supporter of the fugitive teen. Losey’s condemnation of the mob mentality was actually done more convincingly years earlier by Fritz Lang’s “Fury”. “The Lawless” also suffers from a thin romantic relationship between Carey and Latino newspaper editor Gail Russell…. A development that feels more forced than truthful in its liberal leanings. This is one of the early misfires by Losey. Available on multimedia streaming.

M (1951) ***- Updating Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M” seems like a frivolous effort, but Losey does his best, transporting the setting to Los Angeles and mining the original film’s hard moral edge. But unlike the original, there’s no Peter Lorre as the sniveling and cowardly child killer, replaced by the bland performance of David Wayne, which lessens the film’s critique on civilian vengeance. Still, Losey’s razor sharp control of his moving camera, the urgent performance of mob boss Martin Gable dispensing his own brand of fugitive justice and the uniquely cinematic settings of Bunker Hill and the Bradbury building make “M” an interesting watch. Not available on DVD, although I’ve recently read a new print is floating around out there, so hope for a release is imminent.

The Prowler (1951) ***½- Losey’s strongest film to date in his career is a careening expose that begins like a paranoid horror film, turns into a black hearted film noir, then ends up imagining itself as a sun-drenched western that no one survives intact. Sociopath police officer Van Heflin responds to a prowler call and immediately falls in love with the victim, Evelyn Keyes. It’s not long after and both are plotting devious conspiracies against her husband and hitting the open road. What’s most impressive about “The Prowler”, besides its cold and bitter outlook on life by lead character Van Heflin, is the way Losey manages several tonal shifts throughout the story. With the noir genre about to fully run out of steam here in the early 50’s, “The Prowler” is a wonderful, nasty little footnote.

The Big Night (1951) **½- A young man’s descent into adult hell best characterizes “The Big Night”, Losey’s last film made on American shores before his self imposed exile to Europe due to the blacklist scare in Hollywood. Staring John Barrymore Jr. as the diminutive son seeking revenge for his father’s brutal beating at the hands of a powerful newspaper writer, the sense of helplessness is amply portrayed by his twitchy, screeching performance. It’s not a bad one, just a bit overdone. More interesting is his interactions with an adult world- first being scammed by an adult at a boxing match, then taken under the wing of boozy teacher Philip Bournef and exposed to all night episodes of dancing and drinking. Through it all, Barrymore holds a gun under his jacket, trying to reconcile the hatred he holds for Al Judge (a wonderful Howard St. John). Some subplots, especially a quick female interest that develops between Barrymore and an older woman, feel shoe-horned into the melodrama. “The Big Night” works best when its focused on the hard boiled descent of an innocent into a pit of urban malaise. Available via on-demand DVD-r.

Stranger On the Prowl (1952) *½- Imitating the Italian neorealist style of filmmaking, Losey’s “Stranger On the Prowl” is quite a mess. It begins promising enough when stowaway tramp Paul Muni is discovered and tossed into an Italian port city where he scrambles to sell his gun for the ship admission. Along the way he befriends young Giacomo (Vittorio Manunta), also scavenging for his family’s food. But a second act murder sends the two scrambling from the law throughout the neighborhood slums. Not only does the murder appear forced and manipulative, it’s this act of violence that lets down the succinct neo-realism style built up in the first half. In fact, it basically betrays the style in favor of the more hard nosed American noir narrative, unsuccessfully blending the two forms. The other problem is actor Muni himself. His role is unfocused and ragged, never adequately revealing the dual essence of a man in complete desperation or the unwitting father figure to young Giacomo. Perhaps all of this was lost in translation. In the book on Losey by David Chute, Losey admitted to never even editing the film or seeing a finalized version before it was released.  Available on PAL DVD only.

The Sleeping Tiger (1954) **-   Losey’s first film made in England is a standard love triangle noir with liberal psychological inflections. A psychiatrist (Alexander Knox) is held up by a young man (Dirk Bogarde in his first of five collaborations with Losey) while walking home one night. Instead of turning him into the police, he gives the man a place in his home in the efforts of studying his psychological background. Of course, the doctor’s bored housewife (Alexis Smith) finds herself falling for the dashing criminal. The hallmarks of Losey’s cinema are in place- the bracing use of mirrors and reflections to hone narrative high points…strong tones of good being corrupted by evil… and an overtly metaphorical finale that actually pits the lovers against an actual tiger on a billboard- yet the overall impact of “The Sleeping Tiger” is strangely devoid of anger, feeling or emotional tug. The chemistry between Bogarde and Smith is mechanical and the use of the American noir genre feels strangely strained. Not available on DVD.

Finger of Guilt aka Intimate Strangers (1956) ****- Losey’s first masterpiece, IMO. Richard Baseheart plays Reggie Wilson, a Hollywood producer forced to England due to a scandal (sound familiar?). Not only does he find work as a successful movie man there, but he marries the daughter of the studio boss. Then letters begin to arrive asking why he’s cut off his relationship with a woman named Evelyn (a marvelously duplicitous Mary Murphy) and Baseheart genuinely doesn’t remember her. With his wife in tow, they travel and confront the mystery woman with even more devastating consequences. Not only is “The Finger of Guilt” a morally complex rumination on the past, but it precedes the great paranoid thrillers of the 70’s with its shrewd atmosphere and constantly shifting perspective on truth and fiction. The finale, which takes place in a movie studio resembling a prison with its long shadows and spotlights, is also a bracing allusion to Losey’s deep cynicism towards Hollywood and its artificiality.

Time Without Pity (1957) **1/2- Just how difficult would it be for a recovering alcoholic father to effectively fight for his son's life in prison? That's the scenario poised in "Time Without Pity", starring Michael Redgrave as the head strong father and imprisoned son (Alec McGowan). Graduating more and more into social commentary with this film, it's more of a nice transitional effort than anything else.

The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958) *- The nineteenth century costume drama seemed to be a requirement for all directors working in the 50’s, and “The Gypsy and the Gentleman” is Losey’s addition to the genre. There is so much story here, miss a few minutes and you’d be lost. Rich playboy Deverill (Keith Michell) meets roaming gypsy Belle (Melina Mercouri) and marries her. Her real lover, Jess (Patrick McGoohan) moves into their mansion as stable boy and helps Belle devise a plan to win the fortunes of Deverill’s late aunt, which involves stopping his younger sister Sarah (June Laverick) from marrying before her 21st birthday. It all sounds fun, but the film is a chore. No one in the film engages, especially Mercouri who plays Belle in high camp mode. The direction is lifeless and “The Gypsy and the Gentleman” remains as one of Losey’s major disasters.

Blind Date aka Chance Meeting (1959) ***- Losey’s most theatrical film to date- a murder interrogation anchored to just a couple of settings- its also a fantastic psychological thriller. Young, freewheeling artist Hardy Kruger arrives at the apartment of his adulterous girlfriend and finds her away. It’s not long before the police arrive and hold him for the murder of her… since her body is found in the adjoining room. As the detective trying to raze guilt from the young man, British stalwart Stanley Baker matches wits with the young man and just how he and the woman met is told in flashback. Since Kruger’s complicity in the murder is never really in question by the viewer, Losey and screenwriter Ben Barzman (a regular collaborator with the filmmaker) play a myriad of psychological games between the two men. If nothing else, “Blind Date” feels like a transitional film for Losey, finding his voice away from American shores and adapting his talents to more adventurous, non linear stories that would take precedence for him in the 60’s. Not available on DVD

The Criminal (1960) ***- One of the logical templates for all later prison films, “The Criminal” is most adept at textualizing the machinations of just how easy it is for the inmates to run the asylum. Stanley Baker is the long-life criminal of the title. In fact, he’s only out in the free world long enough to pull a daytime racetrack heist and then get thrown back into jail when one of his cohorts spills the beans. The rest of the film follows the various in-dealings, alliances and mock prison riot orchestrated by Baker and his fellow prisoners. Most likely not appreciated back in its day, “The Criminal” is now an enthralling look at this underworld behind bars. Watch it with “A Prophet” for a double does of lock up life.

Eva (1961) ***½ - Here is Losey emerging into the adventurous Sixties. Gone are the stuffy confines of the 50’s melodrama and with cinematographer Gianni Di Venango (who would later become Fellini’s DP during his 60’s heyday), Losey embraces a modernistic visual style, full of deep focus handheld exterior shots and carefully modulated long takes, such as one of Jeanne Moreau from an outside window as she lounges in her apartment and we expect the worst.  It’s not hard to believe Jean Luc Godard was originally attached to the project. Nouvelle vague shades abound. The story is just as transgressive. Stanley Baker, engaged and enjoying a ripe time in Rome and Venice as a lauded novelist, falls in love with Eve (Jeanne Moreau), a woman who meets and exploits everyone for money. Their relationship becomes an emotionally dangerous and complex one. With shades of perversion and masochism, “Eve” is certainly Losey’s most morbid film to date as Baker and Moreau are both pretty morally empty people ravaging through life trying to live like the upper echelon. There’s very little sweetness here, and while a majority of Losey’s output examines the duplicitous nature of love, “Eve” is especially black hearted.

These Are the Damned (1963) ****- Like his debut film “The Boy With the Green Hair”, “The Damned” utilizes the innocence of children to lament the foils of man. On the run from a band of street thugs led by Oliver Reed, Simon (MacDonald Carey) and Joan (Shirley Ann Field) wash up on an island where strange tests are being conducted. A group of children find them and help them ashore. Locked in a cave with the unique children, they soon come face to face with unimaginable dangers. Heartbreaking in its rendition of a secluded group of children struggling to understand the outside world, “These Are the Damned” is a Cold War paranoia drama of the highest order, with a finale that ranks as Losey’s most haunting.

The Servant (1963) **-  Now hailed as Losey’s 60’s masterpiece, perhaps it’s this air of respectability that heightened my expectations and left me quite cold. Affluent bachelor James Fox hires a manservant (Dirk Bogarde) who routinely emasculates and manipulates him, even going so far as to destroy his posh relationship with girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig). Via Harold Pinter’s screenplay, the roles between master and servant are upended. Hindsight is 20/20, and “The Servant” has garnished a lot of attention as a gay and lesbian stalwart effort, and Losey and company seem to be having a lot of fun. The constant use of mirrors, reflections and divided sight lines throughout the film marry Pinter’s oblique screenplay and the ending segues into numerous interpretations of the master/servant relationship.

King and Country (1964) ***½ - World War I films have a different tempo and ambiance. The endless trenches of mud, blood, spit and sweat spoke volumes in Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”, and Losey features the same abyss in “King and Country”. It also deals with a similar subject- that being the court martial of a British soldier (a wide eyed and stunned performance from Tom Courtenay) during the Great War. Accused of abandoning his post, the young soldier is defended by lawyer Dirk Bogarde in what I feel is his strongest performance yet for Losey. He harbors doubt and some contempt for Courtenay, yet he carries out his sworn duty. There’s an underbelly of emotion and sentiment in Bogarde’s performance as he tries to lessen the sentence for his defendant and an air of authenticity between the two men in their quiet conversations. “King and Country” feels like an ignored effort in Losey’s 1960‘s “art house” period, but it deserves a second chance, if not for the guttural poetics it elicits of the men in the trenches than for its downright sobering finale on the unfair (and embedded) practices of military policy.

Modesty Blaise (1965) *- Cashing in on Monica Vitti’s burgeoning international appeal, “Modesty Blaise” is probably one of the films Austin Powers has a great time mocking. Playing a crime boss of some sorts, she’s hired by British Intelligence to help them protect a shipment of jewels from villainous Dirk Bogarde (who gives the film’s jazziest, most entertaining performance). The only real strength Blaise has, besides her stunning legs, is the ability to constantly get caught and have someone else save her. Honestly, even from what I’ve read about Losey, “Modesty Blaise” was never meant to be taken seriously or condemn anyone for slumming. Filmed and released at the height of the Swinging 60’s dominance, it’s a bad film but visually fun.

Accident (1967) **- aka How the Intelligentsia Fell for Their Pupil. Perhaps it’s the age-old theme done to excess, but Pinter’ screenplay and Losey’s direction of “Accident” feel passe. Bogarde and Baker are the professors who both fall for the same student, lovely Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) and domestic anarchy ensues. In fact, anarchy is too strong a word, and that’s probably the strongest aspect of “Accident”. Even though Bogarde’s wife suspects (and most likely expects) the attraction, there’s no fighting about it. The scene where Bogarde returns home unexpectedly and finds his friend (Baker) using his home for a tryst with Anna also plays out in a single long take over a plate of eggs with stifled emotions. “Accident” is mostly about the repression of feelings, which is perhaps why the film struck a chord in the mid to late 60’s when all hell was breaking loose with free love. Viewing it today, it’s a film I can appreciate more than like. It is a shame actress Sassard didn’t make other films. She’s a natural beauty, and the obvious temptation for two older men.

Boom (1968) **- Not quite the disaster it’s rumored to be, “Boom” does suffer, though, from its boring account of a rich, megalomaniac woman (Elizabeth Taylor) clashing wits with drifter Richard Burton. There’s no doubt this is a misunderstood film. It’s a comedy… one of the few from Losey and Taylor acts the hell out of it… tossing x-ray machines off balconies and screaming” monkey! Off! I can’t think” to her pet. Adapted from a Tennessee Williams play, the seething undertones of distrust, adultery and personal manipulation are present but without any real flair. Available on PAL DVD.

Secret Ceremony (1968) ***- What starts as a weird psychological drama soon turns into a twisted bit of playacting that verges on the macabre. On a bus ride, Elizabeth Taylor finds a young girl (Mia Farrow) eyeing her intently. After following her around for awhile (notably to Taylor’s dead child’s grave) a connection forms between them and Farrow brings her home to her expansive mansion, believing Taylor is her long lost mom who just never came home one day. Down-on-her-luck Taylor goes along with the ploy and the two women proceed with an unnerving relationship that not only involves the other tangential relatives, but Robert Mitchum in a perverse turn as some sort of pedophile stepfather. Everything about “Secret Ceremony” seems ludicrous, yet it works. Losey’s direction adds to the unusual tempo of the film in the way certain shots pan slowly across empty spaces in a room while the characters talk in another or the way enormous silences fill the screen. One of the films hardly mentioned in Losey’s long career for its placement in the ill-fated Burton/Taylor years, but it’s worth seeking out. Not available on DVD.

Figures In the Landscape (1970) ***½ - The assumptions of what exactly “Figures in a Landscape” is trying to say are all over the map. The flight against totalitarian regimes, escaping one’s own identity and Losey’s own march into the cinematic wilderness that would be the wild 70’s have all been levied at the film as possible themes. Regardless, its a stark, lean action film that follows two escaped convicts (or at least we assume since their hands are tied behind their backs at the beginning) as they traverse mountainous terrain while fleeing an omniscient black helicopter and troops of soldiers. We learn bits about Mac (Robert Shaw) and Handsome (Malcomk McDowell)- whose names tell us even less about the men- but “Figures in a Landscape” is primarily about their elemental run for survival. Perhaps the film is so good because it allows us to fill in the blanks and presume our own motivations onto the characters.  Available via on-demand dvd-r

The Go Between (1971) ****- Losey’s Cannes winner is the best film of his late period. Gorgeously shot and sumptuously paced, “The Go-Between” is one of those films that burns in the memory long after its over…. which is akin to its story of lingering loss and faded childhood indulgences. It’s 1901 and young Leo (Dominic Guard) spends part of his summer at the plush estate of his school chum, enjoying idyllic days and the relationship older Marian (Julie Christie). Also on the grounds is Ted (Alan Bates) a caretaker of the fields and Leo befriends him as well. The lack of a father and his distant mother push the malleable Leo to impress both of them, which leads him to carry letters and messages between them, despite Marian being engaged to another man (Edward Fox). Leo becomes embroiled in a game of secrecy and adult games, which leads to disastrous consequences. Not only does “The Go Between” shine as one of Losey’s most impressive and restrained works, but its placement in the final phase of his career is fitting. It’s a film that plays with a lot of his later themes, especially the ideal of the modern world pushing his protagonists  into vicarious situations. Here it’s the desire of a child to enter the adult world while in later films (“Mr. Klein” and the “Assassination of Trotsky”) it would be Nazism and political intrigue deciding the fate of his impressionable men.

The Assassination of Trotsky (1972) **½- Documenting exactly what the title says, “The Assassination of Trotsky” is Losey’s most political date to work. If the film doesn’t largely succeed, it’s because Richard Burton as Trotsky fails to deliver any lasting impression of the exiled revolutionary. In fact, his casting seems a bit off kilter. Faring better is the assassin sent into Mexico City, played by Alain Delon. Conflicted, oblique and completely Delon-cool, the film turns into a methodically dry countdown until the two men will meet. Yet its this dry, unaffected tone of the entire film that drains it of its life. DVD OOP

A Doll’s House (1973) ** - If the 60’s were Tennessee Williams adaptations and Southern chamber pieces, then the 70’s were the time for major American filmmakers to turn Masterpiece Theater. Luminaries such as John Huston, Sidney Lumet, and eventually Losey took on the chore of adapting classical plays into motion pictures. Meeting varying success, Losey’s attempt at Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” would have been much better if not for the laborious performance of Jane Fonda. After a fired bank officer (Edward Fox) tries to blackmail the newly wedded wife (Fonda) of his previous employer (David Warner), tensions flare in the household. It’s a simple conceit, as the best and most enduring plays always are, but the necessary fire and depth feels missing in the film. I don’t usually prefer to compare films, but another version, released in the same year as this one, starring Anthony Hopkins and Claire Bloom as the embattled husband and wife conveys more passion and stirs the morality pot with a keener vision than Losey and company. Not available on DVD

Galileo (1975) **- A unique take on the life of the astronomer, one also must ask why? Starring actor Topol (of “Fiddler On the Roof” fame) as the title character, the film picks up where Galileo challenges the understood hierarchy of the day concerning planetary orbits and follows up until his last days, secluded and self exiled with guilt for recanting his beliefs. The collision between new radical ideas and age-old institutionalized religious beliefs is expressed with zeal by Losey and screenwriter Bertolt Brecht, but the whole affair carries an odd vibe, as if it were one of those educational films shown in middle school during a history class. The recantation scene, played out as a stark recreation with only the actors casting huge shadows in front of a backlit screen is progressive and visually stunning (and Lars vonTrier must be a huge fan) while the rest of the film is utterly devoid of passion. A troupe of singing alter boys to break up the scenes is especially distracting and made me fast forward over quicker than anything in a long while.

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975) *½- Normally, the vivisection of a loveless marriage would be a bit tantalizing, especially when the couple in question are played by Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson, yet in “The Romantic Englishwoman”, it just comes off as a dull pretense for the crumbling foundations of marriage. More interesting, however, is the fact Caine plays a writer currently working on a novel about the exploits of a philandering woman. Art imitating life or is Caine pushing his wife to be the unwitting lead in his fiction? Either way, its left up for the viewer to decide, which is the most exciting thing in this Losey misfire. 

Mr. Klein (1976) ***½- A strong return to form for Losey. Re-teaming with French actor Alain Delon, “Mr. Klein” is a sharp, meditative allegory about the loss of identity. Played out in small brush strokes, Delon plays the titular character, an art dealer, mistaken for someone else when a Jewish newspaper addressed to another Klein is delivered to his doorstep. From there, Losey spins a quietly devastating portrait of a specific place and time where the malignant atmosphere grows rampantly. Like Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” or Ingmar Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg”, “Mr. Klein” says so much about the shaky future of mankind on the threshold of atrocities. Delon is magnificent, solemn as the persecuted doppelganger and everything in the film is controlled, especially the dour look and ‘nourish’ attributes.

Roads To the South  (1977) ** - Not Losey's finest effort and a sort of companion piece to "Mr. Klein" as its a film produced and financed in France with non-English roles and focusing on an exiled man who slowly reverts back to his old ways. This time it's Franco-era Spain and Yves Montand is the aging communist sympathizer brought back into the world after his wife dies carrying out some sort of mission for the couple's old ex-pat pals. Actually, this sounds more exciting than it really is. Flat at times, laborious at others and only mildly interesting in parts.

Don Giovanni (1979) ***- The enjoyment one derives from "Don Giovanni" will certainly depend on one's appreciation of opera. Nestled in at just around 3 hours, Losey didn't just film an opera of Mozart's timeless tale, but re-imagined it as a living, full film. His camera is vibrant, the sets are lush and the action of the actors, roving from the corners of the screen, down flights of steps, and around a dynamic cityscape is energetic.

The Trout (1982) *- Losey's ode to the French New Wave, even going so far as to give star Isabelle Huppert a Jean Seberg haircut at one point. But, unlike most of those freewheeling, expectation-breaking adventures, "The Trout" is full of insufferable men and women making innocuous decisions about love. Huppert and husband meet wealthy men Daniel Olbrychski and Jean Pierre Cassel and they both fall in love with her. Essentially a treatise on the destructive nature of Huppert's sexual dynamics, "The Trout" ultimately loses its edge through a tone deaf narrative. Not only does Huppert elicit zero charisma, but the film feels extremely out of touch with reality, tossing in several scenes of 80's dance clubs (seemingly to context the film in hip modern times) and the "meet cute" of Huppert and the dueling older lovers in a bowling alley of all places!

Steaming (1985) **1/2- Losey's final film is a stagebound adaptation of Nell Dunn's play about the waning days of a British bath parlor that caters exclusively to women. Eventually sharpening its gaze to a few of the loyal patrons (Vanessa Redgrave, Patti Love and Sarah Miles) and owner (Diane Dors), the film's main problem is its inconsistency. Most interesting when exploring the intimate troubles of Redgrave and Miles- namely their burgeoning feminist courage to live proudly without a husband- this storyline routinely succumbs to the histrionic performance of Love. Assuredly meant to provide a democratic slice of personalities and social class, her narrative arch detracts from the humbler points. "Steaming" does include a fantastic final image, though, as a host of white balloons are released into the air, a fitting celebration of life and the career of Losey. Not available on DVD.

1 comment:

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