Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Losey at the BFI, Part # 3:
Secret Ceremony (1968)

As the innovations of the early ‘60s began to give way to the cultural upheavals of The Sixties as we know and love them, the kind of unconventional, psychologically/politically engaged, quasi-artistic filmmaking that Joesph Losey had pioneered in preceding years increasingly began to seem like ‘the in thing’, with the British film industry reeling in turn from the impact of Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’, Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Cul de Sac’ and Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If..’, ending the decade with the colossal bad trip of Donald Cammel’s ‘Performance’, a film that in many ways owes its very existence to the themes Losey explored in ‘The Servant’.

During these boom years for his brand of film-making, Losey seems to have immersed himself in a series of more high profile projects than he had previously attempted, moving into colour and toward more stable studio backing as he turned out the uncharacteristically light-hearted spy caper ‘Modesty Blaise’ (1966), followed in quick succession by a more consciously avant garde, but by most accounts less successful, reworking of the themes explored in ‘The Servant’ in 1967’s ‘Accident’, and ‘Boom!’ (1968), an absurd sounding vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that relocated a Tennessee Williams play to a Mediterranean Island.

Sadly I didn’t get the opportunity to see any of those films at the BFI, but I was lucky enough to catch screenings of Losey’s two subsequent films, ‘Secret Ceremony’ (1968) and ‘Figures in a Landscape’ (1970). And, boy, do they ever make for a strange double bill. Both are utterly unique films to the extent that they are almost without precedent in modern cinema, but at the same time they are so different from each other it’s almost impossible to believe they were made concurrently by the same man.

To start with ‘Secret Ceremony’, well…. christ, I don’t know where to start. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

Leonora, played by Elizabeth Taylor and made up like a stern Roman Catholic housewife who’s gone slightly wrong, with weird zig-zaggy stockings and a black mourning veil, boards a London bus.

(The whole film is photographed in totally maxed-out Technicolor, but simultaneously with a very drab colour palette, as if Mario Bava relocated to Kilburn on an overcast day and only brought his brown and green filters.)

On the bus, she is silently hassled by Cenci (Mia Farrow), a witchy, wild-eyed young girl, who follows her when she gets off. It seems Leonora is going to the cemetery. On the way there, both women pass through the church, and pause to stare in desperate fascination at a christening service. In the graveyard, Leonora puts flowers on the grave of her daughter, who drowned aged eleven, as is recounted in detail on her tombstone. Turning around, she bumps into Cenci, and, in highly confusing moment, appears to recognize her as her dead daughter. Cenci, for her part, identifies Liz as her own dead mother, and precedes to drag ‘mother’ back to the opulent gothic mansion where it seems she has lived alone for many years, and there feeds her a yummy silver service breakfast. And my god, the house in this film is simply incredible – the vast main entrance hall is done out in beautiful neo-classical art nouveau frescos, whilst the inner rooms look like Elizabethan palace chambers stuffed with a mad range of antiques from all ages.

So, personally, I’d love to be accosted on buses by witchy girls who want to take me back to their gothic pads for breakfast, but Ms. Taylor seems quite unhappy about the whole situation. Not that it stops her from gratuitously stuffing her face and immediately declaring that she needs a nap and falling asleep on a kingsize bed.

Now at this point, one would be forgiven for thinking, what the hell is going on? Is Cenci really Leonora’s dead daughter, or is she really Cenci’s dead mother, or neither, or both, or what? None of the possible combinations really makes much sense, and the only thing that IS made clear to us is that both of these women are completely mad. And with no more reliable narrative voice to inform us of what’s actually going on, we spend the next… well, god, it seems like hours… simply watching them stumble around the decadent chaos of the mansion, acting crazy with each other.

They take a bath together in a big Victorian tub, and Cenci torments Leonora by repeatedly pushing a rubber duck under the water in mockery of the drowning of… herself?, her sister?, Leonora’s completely unrelated kid? – who knows. They choose outfits to wear for the day – hideous, hilarious outfits the like of which no sensible lady of any era would be seen dead in. Liz declares that she wants to find the perfect dress for a happy, bright sort of day, and rejects Cenci’s first suggestion (some sort of giant, woolen monstrosity) because “no dear, that’s the sort of thing you’d wear if it was bloody pissing it down”. Then she apologies for her language, declares it time for another nap and falls asleep.

The whole thing is highly reminiscent of the Maysles Brothers’ classic documentary Grey Gardens, and, like that film, ‘Secret Ceremony’ is a definitive example of pre-ironic camp, a movie that’s capable of reducing a modern audience to near constant fits of laughter and disbelief, despite being a very real and serious endeavor to its creators and participants.

At some point, two spiteful maiden aunts turn up to visit, and rudely taunt Cenci as they go about stealing some of the valuables laying about the house. It seems they run an antique shop solely off the back of all the stuff they’re ripping off from the house. Later in the film, Leonora goes to visit them there, memorably dressed in what seems to be a purple airline stewardess outfit and matching fez, and gives them hell about it, symbolically tearing a doll apart in the process.

Things take a(n even more) sinister turn as it becomes clear through their rambling, inconsequential exchanges that both women have suffered abuse at the hands of a man called Albert – second husband and step-father respectively, we gather – a circumstance they recall by giggling as they compare imitations of the sex noises he made them make.

Whilst Leonora is asleep, Cenci wonders down to the kitchen where she declares that “my virginity is the only thing I possess”, before she starts a conversation with an imaginary Albert, feeds him his dinner, and throws herself across the table, simulating being raped by an invisible assailant, in a violent transformation that seems to prefigure post-Exorcist possession movies. Watching from behind a paneled door, her ‘mother’ bursts into tears, and the camera shifts upward, across the surface of an out of focus grandfather clock….

And it is at this point readers that, for the good of us all, I must cease this scene by scene synopsis, because, well…. my god – it’s only the laughter that stops me from waking up at night screaming. I’ve maybe described about a quarter of what happens in the film, and from hereon in it just goes further and further off the deep end.

For one thing, Albert returns! He may be clad in a dirty mac, a truly ridiculous leprechaun beard and floppy hat, but yes, I’d recognize those drooping lids and inquisitive eyebrows anywhere…. it’s only motherfucking Robert Mitchum! He doesn’t seem too perturbed to see his dead wife peeking through the curtains, and returns later when she’s gone out to continue his affair with his step-daughter, who, despite clearly being massively traumatized by his previous interference, returns his advances in her own weird way, agreeing to shave his beard off for him (christ, SOMEONE had to), as he holds forth about his recent sexual history. Albert, it seems, is some sort of suave, irascible sex fiend who’s been off working in academia in America, enjoying the company of students, colleagues’ wives, daughters and anyone else unlucky enough to enter his orbit, but, like a comic book villain version of Humbert Humbert, he just can’t get the image of a young Cenci sliding down the banisters off his mind. “Do you realize”, says the droll, measured voice that once told us the story of left-hand right-hand, “that all over the Australian bush, fathers are banging their daughters like there's no tomorrow? What makes me any different?”

By and by, this whole merry crew end up relocating to the seaside, where the film reaches a level of high camp so sadistically feverish it could only really be put into its true context by a panel consisting of John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Herman Goering’s floating, disembodied brain.

I think I finally reached my breaking point during the sequence in which Mitchum confronts Taylor on the dunes. She is overseeing a lavish picnic, clad in a purple floral dress, push-up bra and a huge, girdle-style leather belt. “You look more like a cow than my late wife”, Albert observes, “no offense, I'm very fond of cows”. “Mooooo!”, he proceeds to taunt her, as she stabs at him in fury with a butter knife, in continuation of the surreal, nightmarish life and death struggle that seems to comprise this film’s final forty minutes.

In another scene that’s liable to be etched on my mind for longer than I’d like it to be, Leonora, goaded even further into hysterics, performs a symbolic abortion on Cenci, pulling the fluffy crab toy she’s been using as an ersatz baby out from under her dress and tearing it apart in a hideous, sledgehammer montage of screaming faces, tearing fabric and mad woman wrestling.

Needless to say, things stumble on toward a morbid, overblown gothic finale in which the fate of each member of our deranged love triangle is played out to the accompaniment of orchestral bombast and ridiculously overbearing religious imagery, as our weird protagonists’ faces are cross-faded into images of the crucifixion and…. shit, that’s it, I’m outta here.

I don’t know *what* to make of this film. Given its colossal strangeness, icky subject matter and complete lack of commercial potential, it is ironic that this is first of the Losey films I’ve seen that was made for a major American studio. Picture if you will, some poor commissioning editor at Universal, sitting in a dark room some time in 1968 watching a rough cut of ‘Secret Ceremony’, head in hands, muttering: “oh shit, I am in so much trouble”.

But then, hey, what do I know? Ok, so I’m someone who’ll happily put on a Female Prisoner: Scorpion movie to unwind with after tea, and ‘The Secret Ceremony’ reduced me to a gibbering wreck. But head over to the film’s page at IMDB, and you’ll find plenty of positive reviews from people – Liz Taylor fans mostly it seems – who are happy to regard it as a serious and successful melodrama about family breakdown.

Maybe that illustrates some kind of profound point about perceptions and expectations of mainstream vs. underground cinema, or maybe these people are all just fucking mad, who knows. I mean, maybe there are hundreds of sanity-shaking, borderline offensive films such as this one lurking in the hinterlands of ‘70s family melodrama, unseen by the likes of us cos they don’t have a name director attached? I don’t know.

But whatever – on some level, I suppose the IMDBers have a point. Buried somewhere within ‘Secret Ceremony’ is an effective gothic tragedy. Someone – was it Roger Corman maybe? – once said that the essence of any gothic horror story could be reduced to “a pretty girl goes into a big house, gets the shit scared out of her”, and, whilst ‘Secret Ceremony’ isn’t horror (well, not intentionally anyway), it is on that level that the film could have succeeded. In and of itself, Mia Farrow’s performance is startlingly good, and if the film had concentrated more on investigating her world – that of a damaged, deeply confused teenager living in fear amid the opulent ruins of her ancestors – well… it could have been beautiful.

But it isn’t. Joseph Losey’s capacity for visual and emotional excess we have already noted in some of his earlier films – for better or worse, it’s one of the things that marks him out as a director of such great interest. But combined here with his lack of interest in maintaining a clear-cut narrative, with a script (courtesy of George Tabori) that make the Andy Warhol Frankenstein and Dracula movies look like models of quiet good taste, and with Elizabeth Taylor cleaving into view like the dread revenant of a thousand ham-fisted melodramas, and…. well it’s a wonderful, awful, dignity pulverizing, nigh-on hallucinogenic nightmare of a motion picture, conceived and executed on an unself-conscious level that most of the subsequent filmmakers who have SET OUT to freak people out with this sort of thing could never hope to equal.

It’s as if in trying to take his established set of favourite themes – psycho-sexual power games, shifting identities and unconventional, destructive love triangles played out within the enclosed environment of a single building – and applying them to a group of characters who are dangerously mentally ill, Losey has somehow forgotten to examine that illness from an outside perspective, and instead has let it take over and command every aspect of the film. From the lighting and the costumes through the dialogue, the over-acting, the fragmented narrative, the seemingly endless, pointless emotional climaxes, ‘Secret Ceremony’ isn’t so much a film about people who are insane, it is more a film that has GONE insane.

Naturally I commend it to you in the highest possible terms. ‘Secret Ceremony’, ladies and gents. As the poster blurb for that other misunderstood cinematic gem ‘Wayne’s World II’ put it: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Losey at the BFI, Part # 2:
The Servant (1963)

To be honest with you, I’m a bit lost for words when it comes to trying to find something original to say about Losey’s ‘The Servant’.

In fact I’m embarrassed that not only had I never seen the film before, I’d never even heard of it. The reach of ‘The Servant’s critical and cultural impact on UK cinema is, it seems, widespread, and rightly so.

Rarely have I seen a film that is this perfectly realised – the script, the direction, the performances, the production design – all are as good as they could possibly have been, and all serve to create the kind of masterpiece that happens once per generation when the multitude of strange, tempestuous elements that go towards creating a motion picture – the same elements that Joseph Losey in particular seems to have struggled with throughout his career – all find themselves arrayed in glorious alignment toward a common goal.

My mum certainly remembers going to see ‘The Servant’ back in the day. Probably not in 1963, but at some stage. She recalls the film as being “chilling, absolutely chilling”, the vehemence of which conclusion surprised me. Because, well, yes, Dirk Bogarde’s astonishing against-type performance as Barrett, and the way he slowly transforms his character’s mannerisms and motivations, seeking to conceal his true face from the audience as much as from James Fox’s Tony, implicating us in the same kind of listless weakness he is seeking to exploit in his master… that is indeed chilling.

But chilling-ness aside, my primary impression upon leaving the cinema concerned the extent to which the film was really funny, of how fresh and irreverent the wit of Harold Pinter’s script seemed, and of how honest and unforced the laughter it provoked was, even forty or fifty years since Pinter’s name disappeared ‘neath a cloud of tedious theatrical pomp. Not to mention how real, and human, and basically likable both Bogarde and Fox manage to make their characters, despite the razorsharp maze of petty hatreds, personal failings, ambiguities, betrayals and collapses that the film subjects them to at every turn – in both cases, enough to reduce most lesser actors to cynical cut-out villains rather than the fully fleshed out, empathetic beings that the players give us here. I mean, it is entirely possible that Barrett doesn’t utter a word of truth or carry out any benevolent action throughout the film, but, as portrayed by Bogarde, it’s difficult to hate or fear him, even as he pulls the wool over our eyes for his own mysterious and destructive ends.

Also on my mind was the extraordinary manner in which Losey’s command of unsettling, baroque mise en scene reaches its apex here, with a carefully balanced language of expressionistic framing and visual symbolism almost managing to take on a life of its own in parallel to the scripted narrative, frequently commenting on, expanding upon, and sometimes even venturing to suggest meanings that go way beyond, the on-screen action.

(An excellent examination of visual symbolism in The Servant can be found here, although I would strongly disagree about the importance the writer seems to place upon the film's extremely vague homoerotic subtext.)

I’m sure that ‘The Servant’s central themes – in particular, its vicious assault on the interconnecting webs marking out the boundaries of personal identity, social position, class background and sexual propriety in mid-century British society, explored on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level – have been exhaustively examined and discussed in print by more gifted and insightful writers than I. And I’m sure that to aimlessly trudge through a blow-by-blow plot synopsis of such a fine film would fail to do justice to the beautifully subtle means by which Pinter and Losey reveal their tale to the audience.

And similarly, it is a film which is hard to lavish the necessary amount of praise upon, without appearing to lapse into driveling, meaningless hyperbole. I could fill pages outlining individual moments from the film I thought were particularly breathtaking, but, described rather than seen, and removed from their carefully curated context, their significance would be lost. Basically, I’m tempted to just take the easy way out and to urge all readers to go and see this film. The DVD is widely available – we can talk about it afterwards if you like. No matter what your wider cinematic interests may be, you’d have to go a long way to find a better film than this one.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Losey at the BFI, Part # 1:
Blind Date (1959) and Eva (1962)

All of Joseph Losey’s major concerns as a director can be seen, admittedly in pretty clumsy fashion, in the earliest of his British films I caught at the BFI, 1959’s Blind Date. A quick, low budget (I’m assuming) whodunit, ‘Blind Date’ gets off to an excellent start, as an aspiring Belgium artist played by Hardy Kruger hops off a London bus with a bunch of flowers, and proceeds to hop, skip and jump his way along the North bank of the Thames to the accompaniment of John Dankworth’s terrific, upbeat modern jazz score. (Mixing lively strings with bebop cool, it’s VERY Miles & Gil influenced sort of stuff – pretty damn fine.) Reaching what we assume to be his lady’s residence – an exquisitely, almost disgustingly, lavish art & antique-filled flat – Kruger finds the door on the latch and wonders in, making himself at home as he awaits her arrival. To his surprise, the police – led by tough Welsh detective Stanley Baker – arrive instead. A dead girl is discovered in the flat’s back bedroom, and poor Hardy is understandably subjected to some serious questioning. So far so good, but things really begin to flag as Kruger’s character begins to recount his affair with the wife of a prominent diplomat (Micheline Presle), instigating a a series of flashbacks, as the dastardly secrets culminating in the murder of a nightclub singer begin to unravel.

‘Blind Date’ is a very well made film, no question – Losey’s powerful eye for detail and claustrophobic use of interiors are in evidence throughout, and the difficult theme of class privilege and public school networks being utilised to whitewash aristocratic scandal is excellently and subtley handled, several years before the Profumo Affair would throw similar concerns directly into the public eye. The scene in which Baker’s working class detective is curtly informed by one of his softly spoken superiors that he’s “perfectly good at solving crimes”, but “fails to understand the wider ramifications of public service”, is chilling.

These points of interest aside though, the film is sunk by some major flaws. Primarily: the script is lousy. The relationship between Kruger and Presle, the pivot upon which the rest of the drama is supposed to balance, rings completely hollow, their scenes filled with passionless gestures of unconvincing passion and flatulent pseudo-bohemian dialogue of the “is this what art means to you??” variety. It’s also amusing to see that, in the grand tradition of films about artists, Kruger’s paintings are absolute crap, making his humourless pontificating about the struggle of the artist even more of a chore to sit through. And when the big plot reveal rolls around at the end, ‘Blind Date’ achieves a somewhat unique place in the annals of crime fiction by featuring a trick ending that manages to be both entirely predictable, and also to make almost no sense whatsoever.

Good performances might have saved the day, but, whilst Baker is characteristically solid, both Kruger and Presle ham it up horribly, never managing to convince us that their characters are anything other than thoroughly dislikable, ruining any sense of human tragedy that might have been extracted from the Double Indemnity-esque plotline.

‘Blind Date’ is not a terrible film by any means, but sadly these failures outweigh its obvious strengths. It could easily be argued that Losey put a lot of himself into the character of Kruger’s painter, portrayed as he is as a deadly serious, socially-conscious artist stumbling into the labyrinthine weirdness of the British class system, but nonetheless, as an early ‘60s British noir I found it decidedly inferior to Basil Dearden’s much-discussed but rarely-screened ‘Victim’ (1961), and I fear it is ultimately best viewed as a curio, or as an interesting precursor to the director’s later work.

(A far more interesting analysis of ‘Blind Date’ as it fits into Losey’s wider work can be read here at Sense of Cinema.)

Much the same mixture of strengths and failures can be seen, on a much grander scale, in one of the most ambitious and troubled films of Losey’s career, the French/Italian co-production Eva.

Whilst Losey may have maintained a low profile in the English speaking world, it seems that many in the European New Wave were hip to him from the word go. Apparently his name was being thrown around by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics even before he left America, and a still from the otherwise obscure initial release of ‘The Damned’ even made their cover. With a rep like that on the continent, I guess it was hardly surprising that Losey might have wanted to blow the comparatively stuffy British film industry for the more visionary realm of French and Italian cinema, and it was on that basis that he found himself shooting ‘Eva’ in Italy, with substantial backing from France’s influential Hakim brothers.

Befitting this change of scene, ‘Eva’ certainly marks a sea-change in the director’s approach. Gone are the tight narratives, tight framing and tight budget of his thrillers – ‘Eva’ immediately sets out its stall as a fuckin’ Work Of Art, with capital letters. A deliberate attempt to establish its creator as a cinematic maestro to be reckoned with, it is a sprawling, diaphanous, decadent mess of a movie that exists in any number of confusing variant prints, stretching between two and three hours in length. (The restored print the BFI are showing has been cobbled together Frankenstein style in an attempt to recreate the director’s original cut – as a result, some scenes are blighted by irremovable Norwegian subtitles, and image quality varies throughout.)

In purely visual and technical terms, the film is astonishing. Losey may have toyed with a distinctive palette of architecture, furnishings, artworks, shadows and reflections in the mise en scene of his previous films, but here, in the heart of European opulence and off the leash of commercial cinema, he just goes bonkers, filling every available space with rich, dramatic texture than almost overshadows the human drama. Rarely have Venice and Rome been rendered so exquisitely on film, and with Stanley Baker, Jeanne Morreau and the beautiful Virna Lisi mooning around them to another killer jazz soundtrack (this time by prolific French soundtrack composer Michel Legrand), it’s hard not to just sit back and let ‘Eva’s gorgeous aesthetics roll over you like a velvet tank. Stuffed to the gills with jagged juxtapositions and sledgehammer visual symbolism, it’s rare that five minutes goes go without me wanting to hit ‘pause’ and exclaim “now THAT’S a fucking shot!”

The elephant in the room though is of course, Fellini. To say that ‘Eva’ was very much working within the new blueprint for European film that Fellini had perfected with 1960’s incomparable ‘Le Dolce Vita’ would not be to take anything away from Losey and his collaborators. But with its labyrinthine party scenes, its gratuitous nightclub acts, and snatches of overheard conversation..? With its high-heels clattering across nocturnal cobbled streets, its glistening fountains, fast cars and strained attempts to be as Italian as it possibly can..? With its virile male protagonist staggering senselessly between alluring women and endless insane scenarios without pause for upwards of two hours…?

Let’s just say that, for much of its running time, ‘Eva’ approaches a homage to Fellini in much the same spirit that Ronnie Biggs might be dubbed ‘the great train-homager’. (Joke courtesy of Stephen Fry on ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ the other week).

Nonetheless, ‘Eva’ is blessed with more than it’s fair share of shattering pure-cinema moments and images liable to live on in one’s mind forever, and it could still have emerged from Federico’s shadow to become a powerful film in its own right. But, as with ‘Blind Date’, it’s the poor handling of narrative that eventually sinks the picture. Admittedly, ‘Eva’s more sprawling and amorphous nature doesn’t call for the same tight plotting as the earlier film, but still, every time the director tries to convince us that this is a serious and profound exploration of human feeling, its pulpy origins in James Hadley Chase’s source novel can’t help but shine through, veering into the realm of unintentional camp, as situations become increasingly fatuous and melodramatic, and characters’ motivations remain distinctly unbelievable.

The film left me with frankly no idea why Stanley Baker’s ambitious Welsh novelist (a walking cliché of the ‘shrewd-boyo-made-good’, for all of Baker’s attempts to invest him with more depth) would want to betray his clever and charming movie star fiancée (Lisi) for Moreau’s frankly shifty and less attractive (relatively speaking) courtesan, and vague intimations of potboiler-style ‘uncontrollable passions’ fail to fill the gap, leaving us with the impression that Baker’s character is simply some kind of mixed up fool, instantly sabotaging the empathy we’re supposed to share with him later as his carefully-crafted persona begins to collapse and his life disintegrates.

Enjoyable as the film may be if viewed out of context, or as a sumptuous relic of a now distant era, there is a faintly desperate feeling behind ‘Eva’ that is hard to ignore. Shot at the same time as Fellini was preparing to unleash ‘8 1/2’ on an unsuspecting world, during that brief window in which Italian culture, Italian fashion, Italian cars, French art cinema and American jazz were the last word in untouchable cool, it gives the impression of an Anglo-American director overreaching himself massively in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the continent’s tastemakers in the most garish and obvious way possible, abandoning in the process most of the elements that had initially attracted the French critics to his work.

By all accounts, Losey put his heart and soul into realizing ‘Eva’, and brooded for years over the way its near total failure in the face of producer-enforced cuts and botched distribution killed his attempt to establish himself as a European auteur. But, as the chap who introduced the BFI screening pointed out, Losey’s failure is our gain, as he returned to England tail between his legs and immediately proceeded to make what’s generally regarded as his masterpiece, and perhaps one of the greatest British films I’ve ever seen, 1963’s ‘The Servant’.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Joseph Losey Season at the BFI: Introduction

James Fox, Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter on the set of 'The Servant' (1963)

Prior to watching The Damned a couple of months ago, I was entirely unfamiliar with director Joseph Losey (1909 - 1984), and the brief web research I did whilst writing that review mistakenly led me to believe that Losey was a fairly marginal and idiosyncratic figure in mid-century cinema, someone whose wider work was of only passing interest.

It took a pleasantly unexpected email from an employee of the Library of Congress to alert me to the fact that, actually, this is far from the case. Whilst Losey may lack the ‘household name’ status afforded to many of his contemporaries in the auteur business, he actually left behind a prolific body of work, some of it the subject of great critical and public acclaim, some of it derided and mocked by all concerned, and some of it simply too inexplicably strange for the world ever to have passed a coherent judgment. Nonetheless though, most of his films manage to include landmark performances from some of the finest actors of their era, and all of them are stamped with a distinct set of themes and ideas and a recognisable visual style that mark Losey out as a unique and fascinating filmmaker.

My correspondent suggested that I might benefit from investigating a season of Losey’s films being screened by the BFI through June and July, and, embarrassed by my ignorance of the man’s work, I have proceeded to do just that.

As it turns out, the BFI season seems to have been devised as a comprehensive attempt to raise Losey’s standing amongst film fans, and to encourage those of us who might have accidentally caught one or two of his movies here and there to start to view his films as a cohesive body of work. As such, they are/were screening a total of about twenty Losey films, each of them boasting a fascinating plot synopsis, along with incredible cast lists and collaborations with / adaptations from the likes of Harold Pinter, Berthold Brecht, L.P. Hartley and Fritz Lang.

Although I’ve never been a big ‘movie star’ guy and am rarely drawn to a film primarily by the iconic/recognizable faces within, Losey nonetheless seems to have exercised an incredible knack for getting big names (or in many cases, soon-to-be-big names) signed up to his projects, with exciting and sometimes mind-boggling results. If you thought the idea of Oliver Reed as an umbrella-wielding seaside hooligan was pretty cool, wait ‘til you get a load of Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell on the run from a fascistic military dictatorship, Stanley Baker seducing Jeanne Morreau in wintertime Venice, Mia Farrow trapped in an incestuous psychodrama with Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Taylor in a Tennessee Williams adaptation set on a Greek island or Richard Burton essaying the role of Leon Trotsky – all this and much more was promised by the BFI’s programme.

As was set out in brief in my Damned review, Losey began his career in America in the 1940s, gathering a certain amount of praise/notoriety through to the mid-1950s for a series of carefully wrought b-movies such as “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948) and “The Big Night” (1951). The defining event in the establishment of his cinematic style though came via the unwelcome intervention of Joe McCarthy’s HUAC, and the ensuing Hollywood witchhunts. As a man with very real Marxist sympathies that it doesn’t seem he ever tried to hide, Losey naturally found himself blacklisted pretty sharpish. Rather than quietly withdrawing from the movie business or seeking lower ranking work under a pseudonym though, Losey instead made the bold decision to relocate to Europe, his Hollywood track-record presumably helping him gain a foothold within the British film industry, where, he clearly hoped, he would be able to make films without having to compromise his social/political agenda.

Although it took him a few years to find his feet in the UK, Losey seems to have carved a unique niche for himself as a filmmaker from the circumstances he found himself in, establishing an aesthetic that lies somewhere between America and Europe and somewhere between commercial and art cinema, often fusing the best elements of both to great effect. The brooding architecture and opulent furnishings of Old Europe are transformed by Losey’s lens into cavernous textures and claustrophobic framing devices straight out of the playbook of Californian noir, whilst at the same time the tough, b-movie logic of crime thrillers and relationship dramas are used to mercilessly expose the hypocrisy of the British class system and post-imperial capitalism.

And conversely, even in his most commercial and genre-bound work, Losey always manages (or at worst, attempts) to crack open the stereotypes rendered ubiquitous by American film, imbuing his characters with the sort of psychological depths and ambiguous motivations beloved of Truffaut and the Nouvelle Vague, and subsequently the whole of the ‘60s European New Wave, to which Losey clearly felt closer than he did to American film, both geographically and politically. Nonetheless though, his early grounding in the Hollywood studio system means that, unlike many European directors of the ‘60s, entertainment value almost always remains paramount in films, and, furious, unconventional and overtly political though they may be, they rarely cross the line into outright polemic.

Due to time and budgetary constraints, the films I’ve managed to see as part of the Losey season have been a fairly random and scattered selection from his voluminous filmography, but nonetheless, they still represent the most rewarding and varied spate of sustained cinema-going I’ve undertaken in recent years, and I’m looking forward to telling you all about them over the course of the next few posts.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


It seems that perhaps my three favourite living authors were sitting around together chewing the fat for an adoring public at the British Library last night. Jeez, they could've let me know; I was just hanging around the house.

Anyway, highly entertaining notes on proceedings here.

Michael Moorcock claiming his imitators (whoever they might be) are "spoon-feeding [his] work to the masses, spreading borrowed ideas in sanitised form" seems pretty rich coming from the guy who clogs up British charity shops to this day with about eight billion '70s Elric paperbacks, but no matter, it's all good stuff, and I think these fellows are each possessed of a body of work that gives 'em a free pass as regards being a tad self-regarding at times.

Iain Sinclair asks Michael Moorcock “Did you just meet in a pub, kind of reimage the cosmos as a hobby?”

Michael Moorcock says “Yeah, I suppose so.”

Michael Moorcock is very deadpan.