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:

1) Immoral.

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.

2) Vicious.

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…

10 Responses to “What a gyp!”

  1. McGoohan appears quite fetching in that screen grab.

    Kenneth Tynan doubtless loved the whipping in the Winner.

  2. Yes, the beard suits McGoohan. The accent’s no help, and the camera often feels a bit distant from the players, but he’s at his most virile and dangerous.

    Have you read about the artistic porno movie Tynan was trying to make with Robert Stephens and Romy Schneider?

  3. Nice piece.

    I’ve read about Losey disowning this movie before. I don’t know much about the guy but the qypsy taking over the household has ‘The Servant’ written all over it, don’t you think?

    How many of its faults should be laid at Losey’s door I wonder. I know ‘the producers’ supposedly interfered but I read a quote from him once that he only really got the hump over the music……. which seems pretty irrelevant to the film in terms of its structure and pacing. I mean, Losey fillmed all the endless ‘set-ups’ as you put it, so what’s he whingeing about?

    Maybe he was learning and made a few mistakes himself…… perish the thought.

    Is it right Rank gave him a job in Britain because his fellow country men had *blacklisted* him?

  4. Hi. The Servant connection is definitely there, but TGATG isn’t one-tenth as good.

    Losey’s problem here is mainly that he didn’t have control over the script. Being forced to shoot it as written, he couldn’t really make that great a difference. I think his lack of enthusiasm shows. The music is actually OK, but it wasn’t what he wanted — I agree that it wouldn’t have made much difference, the damage was done.

    Being compelled to shoot the script, complete with long, undramatic set-up, it’s unfair to blame Losey for most of these inadequacies. He cast it pretty well, and it’s very nicely designed and decently shot. the things he couldn’t control, particularly the script and cutting, are the worst elements.

    Yes, Losey had fled the blacklist in America. But he got jobs in Britain because of his talent, not out of sympathy. I think there was some desire to harness the energy of American filmmakers and exploit talent the US had rejected — but in a film like this, Losey’s Hollywood skills are flattened by the weak material and British production methods. But when UK cinema underwent a renaissance, Losey was well-placed to exploit it, so his work catches fire around the same time Tony Richardson et al are redrawing the map of British cinema.

  5. Fair play. I wasn’t seeking to *blame* Losey, more just trying to pin-point what if any responsibility he should take for what happened. He must have had some creative control to account for the similarity of the key-note plot to his later ‘Servant’, I have assumed or perhaps The Servant was just Pinter anyhow. If Losey was purely working as a ‘shoot-by-numbers’ technician it raises a question in my mind about why he gets creative credit for the ‘Servant’………. Or is it just his film-craft rather than any authorship that we should credit him with? I’m not that expert on what exactly he is being credited with when The Servant is discussed.

    Losey wasn’t the only *exiled* director working for Rank was he. (C. Raker) Cy Endfied had made ‘Hell Drivers’ with McGoohan and Stanley Baker the previous year. He seemed to rub along okay, so far as I know.

  6. Endfield had a somewhat bitty career, considering how successful Zulu was. To decline from that to DeSade in five years, with only one film in between, is unfortunate.

    I’m not devoted to the word Losey, and I’m not sure I’d apply to Losey in every case. He fits the bill in that his films do have common themes and images, and he’s a terrific stylist. One of the mysterious things is how a filmmaker who doesn’t write his own material sometimes shows a predeliction for particular themes and images. Jacques Toruneur, who was always a director-for-hire, and never involved in the writing process, nevertheless has not only a recognisable style but a tendency to excel with certain kinds of material.

    Anyhow, while Losey was a jobbing director on The Gypsy, but he had much more creative involvement on other films, before and after. It makes sense to talk of the Pinters as jointly authored, since Losey supervised the development of the scripts. They were written for him, but Pinter’s creative input cannot be underestimated.

  7. Power struggles betweenn characters of different social rank are a major Losey themes. It’s very much present in Gypsy. But as entertaining as we may find the film in retrosepct at the meoment of its making Losey was dissatisfied. The Servant shows just how far he wanted to go with the same idea — to the Moon and back.

  8. There were about three too many plots going on in Gypsy, that was its main problem. McGoohan dismissed the film as “no classic”, but knowing McGoohan’s stated inability to enjoy his own work, I doubt he ever actually watched it.

    I am left wondering if Losey just threw a hissy fit over the interfering Rank producers. Perhaps he felt (with some justification maybe) that they should just be bloody grateful to have him! The fact that he quit “over the music” just sounds like an excuse. It might be that some of the apparent jumbled plotting that the film is crippled by was the result of A.N.Other patching the thing together in the end, without much comprehension of how it was meant to be.

    I suppose mainly its just a regret that Losey was unable to grit his teeth and finish the thing himself. Who knows what sort of bizarre ground-breaker it might have been, if he had. The dividing ine between success and failure seems narrow sometimes. It’s certainly better than its often given credit for, compared to some *costume dramas*. Footsteps in the Fog had a similar core plot idea I think, with Jean Simmons gaining power over her master.

  9. I never heard that Losey quit — he completed the shooting and was basically not invited to participate in post-production. If he had been, he might have cut out some of the less useful material, and he’d certainly have improved the basic continuity of scenes, which is pretty bad. Losey would typically be quite creative in post-production on other films, adapting and altering anything that didn’t work. The Rank studio cutter seems to have just assembled all the material, avoided using any shots that were too creative, where possible, and left it at that.

    There’s a near-riot early on where Mercouri ficlhes a purse. Losey shots some of hand-held, but the editor has tried to minimise this, cutting to wide shots wherever possible. The only interesting cutting is in scene one, where Michel wrestles a greased pig — it’s all jump cuts, and quite exciting. Either Losey was sitting in on the edit at this point, or he hadn’t shot any coverage to allow the editor to treat it differently. I suspect the former.

    Another example of a movie where the director walked away before the edit: Rebel Without a Cause. While the studios editing choices undoubtedly weaken the film (Nick Ray’s closing shot, unused in the film but included on the DVD, is terrific) the result is a still a masterpiece, because the material was great and Ray was fully invested in the shoot. The difference is clear: TG&TG never had that potential because the script wasn’t strong and Losey wasn’t enthusiastic. (Plus no James Dean!)

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