What a gyp!
Joseph Losey characterised the screenplay of THE GYPSY AND THE GENTLEMAN as “immoral, vicious, déjà vu, old fashioned and badly constructed.”
To take these charges one at a time:
While, like most films in the bawdy / historical romp / bodice-ripping genre, TGATG bounces along on (very mildly) saucy bedroom and bathroom scenes and moments of violent passion, the real immorality is in the attitude to gypsies, who are all pretty fiendish. Admittedly, Melina Mercouri, as Belle, the femme fatale, is only half gypsy, but even she despises her kind. On the other hand, Losey’s decision to portray Belle without any redeeming features breathes a bit of much-needed life into the yarn.
There’s a streak of nastiness in this genre, emerging in scenes like the hunt in TOM JONES and the whip fight in both versions of THE WICKED LADY. Michael Winner’s ’80s remake stands as possibly the most obnoxious film of this kind. Poor Marina Sirtis (from STAR TREK: TNG) is required to be naked in every single scene she appears in, and get bullwhipped by Faye Dunaway in front of guffawing peasants (I can understand some people enjoying the spectacle of a whipping, but is it actually FUNNY?). Losey’s film is not that vicious, but the plot is driven by acts of cruelty — it could almost play as a Hammer horror if Losey relished the sadism instead of pulling back on it.
3) Déjà vu.
Well, the movie is certainly intended to remind us of the popular Gainsborough Films of the ’30s and ’40s. Rank Studios, under the control of John Davis (“the man who killed the British film industry, caricatured as Don Jarvis in PEEPING TOM) was largely bereft of new ideas and sought to recapture former glories by, well, carrying on exactly as before.
4) Old fashioned.
That kind of goes with point 3, doesn’t it? Losey tries to enliven the film and set the action within an interesting world. He smuggled production designer Richard MacDonald onto the film — MacDonald was Losey’s regular collaborator, before and after, but lacked a union card, so had to work anonymously at this stage.
(Union cards were very hard to get. My friend Lawrie tells of being approached by friends who wanted him to sign some papers to get a young tyro director named Michael Winner into the union. “And I remembered how hard it was for me to get my membership, so I signed his papers. I didn’t know him from Adam. And it wasn’t until some years later that I suddenly thought, ‘My God, what have I done?’”)
MacDonald’s work is very grand, and Losey at least had a reasonable budget and schedule for once, but he was up against the rigid infrastructure of Davis’ Rank. The music score was imposed on the film and Losey had little or no say in the editing (it’s marked very sloppy continuity cutting, quite unlike the sharp and surprising cuts of SLEEPING TIGER, earlier, or KING AND COUNTRY, later).
5) Badly constructed.
Is it ever! This is the biggest problem, because it has nothing to do with taste, like the other problems, and everything to do with basic narrative economy and good storytelling (and this is, after all, a YARN, not some mood piece). The film takes AGES to get going, devoting endless scenes to setting up characters (some of whom, like Flora Robson’s famous actress) aren’t even necessary, and all of whom could have been introduced IN ACTION.
(Screenwriter Janet Green has some stronger credits: she co-scripted VICTIM, SAPPHIRE, and SEVEN WOMEN, an impressive batch.)
As a result, the first half of the film is set-up. Once the plot actually starts (45 minutes in!) things get quite a bit more interesting. Debt-ridden Keith Michel, having married the mercurial Mercouri, is tempted into a scheme to cheat his sister of an inheritance. We’re in passable film noir territory here. In fact, with Mercouri entering the household, taking it over, and then bringing in her lover as a servant, we’re following the exact path of THE SERVANT, Losey’s later triumph. But that simple plotline is here gussied up with a lot of frippery and whatnot — as Dorothy Parker once complained, “This isn’t just plain awful: this is fancy.”
However, the plot, once in motion, carries us along for a while, before collapsing to its knees under the burden of too many contrived reversals. Then a spectacular carriage crash (one stuntman seems to bounce nastily off a stone balustrade) brings things to a rather impressive conclusion, with a combined kiss/murder/suicide, and a major bad guy escaping unpunished (amazing the censors permitted THAT). So it’s by no means all bad.
Losey’s gift for casting helps. Although Keith Michel can do little save jut his telephone receiver of a jaw, Mercouri looks better than usual with dark hair for once, and grins maniacally to suggest any given emotion. You can’t take your eyes off her, for fear she’ll get you. In small roles we get a surprisingly muscular Nigel Green, tiny Welsh pulp Mervyn Johns (Losey alone seems to have discerned a potential for creepy wickedness in the timorous gnome-fellow), and best of all, as Mercouri’s true love, the sloping madman that is Patrick McGoohan. When Mercouri and McGoohan are on screen together, essaying their various accents (she trying in vain to suppress her Greek, he forcing a sort of Mummerset-Oirish upon us), you often can’t understand one word in ten, but that word is usually “Poo!” or “Arr!”, which speaks volumes.
(Losey rang Jules Dassin to ask how he could contact Mercouri. “Well, curiously enough, she is right here beside me in bed.” Her Greek skin was considered sub-standard for a British production, but Losey’s doctor treated the Melina melanosis [or whatever the hell the problem was] and she got the all-clear.)
After TGATG was released, Rank terminated Losey’s three-film contract, leaving him high and dry. He described the British film industry as “going to Hell on wheels … Subjects are generally conventional and unimaginative with many taboos.” In his next film, Losey came up against one of these taboos, the insistence that the British police force, like the army, must always be shown as above corruption…