Sleepy Hollow

Bizarre worm’s eye view of riot.

I watched a fuzzy off-air recording of THE LAWLESS the other day, which is possibly the weakest of Losey’s American features. But they’re an interesting batch. U.S. Losey is hard to see and often underestimated, but there’s plenty to admire:

First off, Losey made a number of short films, several of them corporate promos. Despite his communist sympathies, he was apparently happy to whore himself out to big business. Well, the man had to eat. And drink. Especially drink. I haven’t seen any of these shorts and Christ knows if I’ll ever get to. PETE-ROLEUM AND HIS COUSINS sure sounds enticing. Would make a good support film for ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, I bet. Programmers, take note!

The Boy Who Didn't Turn Yellow

THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, commissioned by liberal producer Dore Schary, is a middlebrow liberal anti-war tract made cherishable by the fact that it’s completely insane from beginning to end. Howard Hughes, who bought R.K.O. midway through the film’s production, did his best to strangle the pacifist message, but Losey, Schary, screenwriters Alfred Lewis Levitt and Ben Barzman (soon to join Losey on the blacklist), and child star Dean Stockwell all resisted Hughes’ interference in their own ways, and what made it to the screen is fairly uncompromising, and completely bananas. A boy’s hair turns green overnight after he learns that he’s a war orphan. The ghosts of the slain instruct him to keep his verdant locks as a warning against the horrors of armed conflict. Wow.

Heavy irony.

THE LAWLESS. Another liberal message film, this one about lynch mob violence, it’s but devoid of GREEN HAIR’s agreeable barminess. The best idea is naming the Mexican ghetto Sleepy Hollow, and restaging the Headless Horseman bridge chase with an ice cream van and a pursuing police car. Otherwise, comparison with Fritz Lang’s FURY is instructive. The studio prevented Lang from having a black protagonist, but at least Lang’s story places the victim front-and-centre in the narrative, and challenges our easy perceptions by turning him from persecuted into the persecutor partway through.

Losey is allowed to use actual minorities, Mexicans, in his story, but the hero is a white newspaperman with less at stake in the story. It’s like a version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with the child’s-eye view removed, and with no real tragic injustice to get angry about.

Stranger on the Prowl

THE PROWLER is knockout. A lucid and lurid skewering of “wrong values” in capitalist society, in the form of a tight noir potboiler. Losey was pleased with his integration of production design and camera movement / composition: his collaboration with designer Richard MacDonald would be a defining feature of his films in exile. Manny Farber, who sometimes reacted against Losey’s editiorialising, admired this one. “Socially sharp on stray and hitherto untouched items like motels, athletic nostalgia, the impact of nouveau riche furnishings on an ambitious ne’er-do-well, the potentially explosive boredom of the childless, uneducated, well-to-do housewife with too much time on her hands.”

M. Butterfly

M. Losey’s remake of the Lang classic has terrific scenes, and uses some of its borrowings well — others get in the way. Some of the script is fairly dumb, but Losey’s use of L.A. locations, including the iconic Bradbury Building, makes it fly. I blogged it HERE.

THE BIG NIGHT is possibly best of all. I blogged about it HERE, and in the weeks since then it’s stayed in my mind and grown clearer and sharper. It’s the least strident of Losey’s early message films, and it disguises any tendency to preach with a grotesque and surreal surface. Peak noir.

Losey was clearly on a roll. Despite M being shot in only 20 days, and THE PROWLER in 17, both are vigorous, dynamic and intelligently shot genre pieces. Losey could find interesting things to say within the constraints of the thriller, and put his points over in an economical and entertaining manner.

Forced to work abroad by the blacklist, Losey would find himself working within entirely different genres and constraints. The British film scene is a very odd world…

These are the damp

8 Responses to “Sleepy Hollow”

  1. You’re read-out of Losey’s early years is correct. He starts as a director “of talent” with fits and starts of energy and innovation working their way through often unpromising material — until the full fruition of The Big Night. While The Lawless is set in a small town it’s clearly casting the audience’s mind back to the “Zoot Suit” riots of 1941 ( See Zoot Suit and 1941.) The Lawless meanwhile is lively sub-Double Indemnity fun.

  2. I take it you mean The Prowler is sub-DI. It is, but it’s very very nicely filmed. I’m not surprised Manny Farber responded to its modesty and didn’t like the blaze of later Losey.

  3. I’ve yet to see “The Lawless,” dammit. I’ll bet, however, that it would make an interesting double-bill with another film written by Daniel Mainwaring — “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

  4. The Lawless would gain interest by the juxtaposition, yes! The themes are identical. But only one film has Sam Peckinpah as a meter reader.

  5. Hey, here via Glenn Kenny’s blog.

    I’ve only seen “Pete-Roleum” but it’s certainly an oddity, not least because of the involvement of Charlie Bowers in the animation, a mid-ranking but still unappreciated silent comedian. You can find it on the two-disc set “Charlie Bowers” that was put out a couple of years ago (no idea if it’s still in print), and the set itself is some fascinating stuff, not least because Bowers himself is something of a tragic figure. So much talent, so close to the surface, but he never quite took off or worked with somebody who pushed him far enough.

  6. Whoah, I have at least one disc of Bowers around here somewhere! B. Kite called him the most dreamlike filmmaker ever, and I don’t dare disagree. Amazing stuff. If the Losey is on there, I’ll run it for sure. I don’t remember having seen it, but that stuff blurs away like a half-remembered dream: there was something about EGGS, wasn’t there?

  7. Damn, only got disc 1, and it’s not on there. But it means I can GET disc 2, eventually, thus leading me a small step closer to the COMPLETE LOSEY.

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