Joseph Losey was one of America’s greatest gifts to British Cinema. Forced to abandon Hollywood for London with McCarthy’s communist witch hunt baying for his creative blood, his British residency, for the rest of his working life, ensured that such art house cinema classics as The Servant, Accident and The Go Between, were forever enshrined in the British pantheon of film classics. Now in the year in which he would have celebrated his 100th birthday, the famously prickly director’s work is being re-appraised and re-released by the British Film Institute.
Losey is often referred to as a director’s director, never really gaining any popular appeal outside of the higher echelons of cinema. He produced his fair share of duds, brooding his way through a series of clunkers such as 1948’s The Boy with Green Hair. B movies were seen as his area of expertise, so much so that he was considered to direct the first Hammer Horror films.
Three projects he completed in the 1960’s though, Eva (1962), The Servant (1963) and Accident (1969) are hailed as masterpieces that helped kick start a New Wave cinema movement in Britain, similar to the celluloid revolution in France which brought Goddard, Truffaut and Demy to the fore. Not only this but his casting of Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker in these films helped two actors, who up until that point had been mired in the British studio system, making fodder for the cinema going masses (think Doctor In The House), begin a new chapter of their careers, in high brow cinema.
Eva, Losey’s first real stab at sophisticated film making has early hallmarks of brilliance, but it is let down by a rather sultry self indulgence. The Billie Holiday score gels wonderfully with Jeanne Moreau’s faded chic, juxtaposed against an equally fading Venice, before it became the tourist rat run that it is today. She is an especially deadly femme fatal ( a constant Losey character in his films), and in one scene she is seen lying in a steaming Jacuzzi, listening to Billie Holiday records, while a clique of men destroy themselves outside her door, just to get close to her. Stanley Baker plays a rather too stereotypical Welshman, an author whose garb on the back of the book he is supposed to have written is that of the coal miner. Tyvian of course has a lover already, the honest innocent who is always cast aside by the protagonist in Losey films, for the darkness. And Eva is darkness personified, like Hugo Barrett in The Servant, she has no redeeming qualities, but Baker falls for her non-the less, perusing her across Europe, only to be met with a hail of abuse, flung ash trays and at one point the end of a riding crop. But his love or rather lust persist, masochistically, and he throws his life away almost on a whim for her.
It is a desperate attempt at cool, at platinum chic, a rather slapdash stab by Losey to try and raise himself above the B pictures that had been the tradition of his career up until that point. There’s some laughable moments, particularly at the beginning when a biblical style voice over akin to a Charlton Heston film announces over shots of sculptures of Adam and Eve “And the man and the woman were naked together, and they were unashamed.” It aims for Antonioni’s timeless angst, but instead is very much an article of its time.
It was Losey’s 20 year working relationship with Dirk Bogarde though which helped prompt the blossoming of his career. The quartet of films the two made together in the 1960’s, The Servant, King and Country, Modesty Blaise and Accident are in many ways the cornerstones of British film making in that decade. The Servant and Accident in particular, both starring Bogarde and both scripted by Harold Pinter, created for the first time British intellectual film, utterly cool, utterly sophisticated and stylistically European.
It is The Servant which most consider to be the prime Losey cut and one of the most enigmatic films ever to be produced in the UK. It is, rather predictably, slated as a kitchen sink drama of the kind Alan Bates was making at the time. The valet arriving in a fit of stutters and blushes and ultimately betraying his dominatory tendencies, plying the young aristocratic Tony (Edward Fox) with ever stronger spirits until he is a broken mess, his fiancé heading towards the door, and the house very much belonging to Barrett. Servitude reversed. This is however not before Barrett has endured the full force of the British upper classes’ sense of superiority, basically being treated as a second class citizen by Tony, before the tables slowly turn.
Losey throughout his career is unremitting towards the upper classes, both here, in Accident and in The Go Between for which he won the Plame d’or in 1971 at the Cannes Film Festival. But this is much more than a class war parable, it is, which marks it out among its 1960’s peers a very gay film, with obvious homosexual overtones. The film made in 1963, four years before homosexuality was made legal in England in Wales, sees Bogarde camping up his performance, becoming a creepily obsessive dominator who tells Tony “My only ambition is to serve you, you know that don’t you?” Before handing him a mysterious vial of liquid that he’s got from “A little man in Jermyn Street” that pushes him ever deeper into his virtually comatose state. Tony becomes ever more reliant on Barrett and can barely function without him as the movie reaches its climax, which see’s Bogarde throwing Tony’s fiancée out of what is now Barrett’s house, Tony lying fractured out of his mind in the hallway.
Many people say that The Servant is a very simple class allegory akin to Animal Farm, Barrett the manservant and Tony the upper class cad simply swap places. But look more closely and you realise that Barrett replaces Susan (Tony’s fiancée), who begs Tony to sack Barrett, but ends up being removed from the house herself. Does Barrett replace Susan in Tony’s affections? That door is left very much open. One must remember that in the same year Bogarde made Doctor in Distress, a further instalment in the Rank Organisation’s Carry On style comedies, a million miles away from the subjects broached in The Servant, which fell away unnoticed on its original release, but set the critics raving.
Accident is a film which has been written off as upper class nonsense too, focusing on a long Sunday afternoon in a Buckinghamshire House, as two aging Oxford dons fight it out over a Spanish heiress. There is cricket, there is the Eton wall game and there is plenty of intellectual posturing and flimflamery, but thank heavens there is not one attempt by Losey to make one of these moneyed intellectuals heroic. They are all being sunk by their own desires, they are being dragged from the dreamy spires into a sexual mire that will end with a mêlée of rape and death.
It is a film of excellently sculptured images and metaphors. Bogarde and Baker play middle age academics, both in marriages teetering on the edge of collapse, when Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) comes into their lives as a pupil, setting their sagging desires racing once more. There is a wonderful scene when at a Sunday afternoon dinner party at Stephen’s country home the camera watches Stephen (Bogarde), Charlie (Baker), Anna and her “boyfriend” William (played by a very young Michael York) compete in a game of Badminton. Stephens’s wife is seen sitting in a chair watching, as the camera pans back to the game. As it heads back again towards Rosalind (played by Viviane Merchant) she has gone, nobody has noticed, the game continues, all the male eyes on Anna, and just like Tyvian and Tony’s loves, another innocent is cast aside.
On another level we have the obvious tension between Stanley Baker and Dirk Bogarde. Their relationship was just as tense off-screen for the same reasons as it was tense on. Baker was the masculine Welshman who could probably drink even Richard Burton under the table and he was strong and he was manly, and he was everything that Bogarde obviously wasn’t. They’re the same on-screen. Stephen lusts for Anna constantly, Baker actually has her, again and again, even at one point using Bogarde’s house, without his permission, for their sexual trysts. The only time Bogarde gets anywhere near her hallowed blue blooded flesh is when it is suggested that he takes advantage of her after the accident that kills her hapless boyfriend.
There is a scene in the middle of the film, when Sassard (the one bum note in the films acting score) is walking through a forest with Bogarde. He, ever the gentleman is leading the way, holding back branches and testing the ground (mentally as well as testing the firmament below). He warns her of a spiders web weaved between two saplings. You expect her to dodge it, she looks the type, but instead she drags it down with her hand destroying the life’s work of the blessed insect that created it. The perfect Losey metaphor for Anna, the wrecker, who appears and drags down the well ordered web of five lives, without much real care for those involved.
Losey films always feature webs of complicated relationships and to make his cauldron of depravity bubble he always drops a wrecker. Be it the poisonous almost Iagoesque Barrett in The Servant or the unwittingly fatal Anna in Accident or Eva in his Venetian passion play of the same name.
The classy sensuousness of a Losey film is something that doesn’t exist anymore, they are enigmatic, everything is implied but very often nothing is confirmed. Are Tony and Barrett in love in The Servant? Does the Oxford don rape his pupil? One can only guess. It would be quite right to consider if a Losey film ever portrayed a person actually in love and not a victim of lust, if he ever portrays a working relationship on screen well, or indeed if there is ever a realistic portrayal of a woman in his work. Instead of love though, one turns to Losey for a critique of the darker side of the human psyche, for studies in the callousness of lust and domination, where characters are often destroyed by their own desire. An age old subject coated in a poisons bitchy, subtext that Losey was the master of. Or as Dirk Bogarde described him in a letter to his widow, Patricia, written in the wake of Loseys death in 1984: “He has at least four great movies to his credit. Clever sod! Shitty bugger! Goodness how I shall miss him.”