Memory Monday: The Ass on the Bathroom Door

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So, I’m revisiting those filmmakers I devoted Official Weeks to in the past here on Shadowplay. Joseph Losey got his own week because I had a sense that I hadn’t seen nearly enough Losey and that I hadn’t appreciated him enough — a sense that, actually, I might have some kind of antipathy to his whole approach. As Richard Lester said to Soderbergh, Losey was the last person you would use the word “zany” about, and in fact I found there was a lack of humour which was almost heroic at times. MODESTY BLAISE is the one film Losey made that could be called a comedy, and indeed is absolutely dependent on whimsy since it refuses to be what the producers evidently intended, a campy James Bond sex-and-violence wallow. The only part of that equation Losey didn’t have a fierce antipathy to is the “campy” part, and yet even that was kind of alien to him, which is how he was able to make BOOM! a great piece of unconscious camp.

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I somehow didn’t have a copy of THE CRIMINAL to hand when I did Losey Week, though I knew I would like it when I saw it. When Losey played thrillers more or less straight, they were gripping. When the movie insists on providing a commentary on what it’s about, instead of just being about it, you could get problems, as with the stuff with the gangsters in Losey’s maudit remake of M: the movie insists on offering up a pinko analysis of organised crime as a manifestation of Capital. THE GODFATHER succeeds simply by allowing this idea to play out as drama, not even as an allegory, but as a simple statement of fact. Nobody needs to point it out.

Losey described THE PROWLER, another excellent noir I didn’t get around to writing about, as “a film about false values,” and such stories are powerful and compelling as long as the scenarist can resist inserting a mouthpiece to put it all into words. “The playwright should show conditions and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions,” as Brander Matthews put it.

And so to THE CRIMINAL (1960), which does just that. I think the avoidance of proselytising is something Losey ultimately found very sympatico in the British writers he worked with, which is what led him to bond so well with Pinter, who NEVER tells you what’s on his mind. Here, the writer is Alun Owen, later to pen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Richard Lester remarked to me that Owen had a multiplicity of useful hats he could put on, as both a Scouser and  a Welshman, and he had a wealth of life experience which informed his work. Very unusually for a British crime film, THE CRIMINAL sets out simply to record a series of events, into which the viewer is invited to read meanings. What it avoids is any Marxist or Freudian analysis of what leads to a life of crime, though you can hunt for clues if that’s your bag.

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We begin in prison, though Owen has written a careful gag, a high-stakes poker game between Brit-flick stalwarts such as Murray Melvin and Patrick Wymark (shockingly young, a tufty-haired rolly-polly joker with a sinister edge, not quite the Toby Jug he would morph into just a few years later). We’re clearly meant to be taken by surprise when we discover the game is being played with matches by lags in a cell. But Losey takes his directorial wrecking-ball to the gag, framing Melvin against a painted brick wall pasted with suggestive imagery (I think that might be Abbey Lincoln and Frances Bacon!), and even before that there’s a short of a prison gate with the producers’ credit over it. This is either a crass insertion by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, who had just made PEEPING TOM and were considered the dregs of the industry, or else Losey himself couldn’t resist sticking their names over a shot of a prison gate (maybe he had more wit than I credit him with).

Losey had earlier made a short for Hammer, A MAN ON THE BEACH (1955), a dull Tales of the Very Expected thing entirely predicated upon the shock revelation that Donald Wolfit’s character is blind. Wolfit, whose tread could be as leaden as Losey’s at his worst, plays the whole thing with an unblinking middle-distance star and groping hands, telegraphing “I can’t see a bloody thing” from his first entrance, rendering the whole enterprise pointless. So Losey is one of those filmmakers with a constitutional aversion to the “pull-back-and-reveal” gag, it seems.

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Jimmy Sangster, who apparently originated the story of THE CRIMINAL as well as scripting that benighted short, based a lot of his career on that very narrative trope, churning out DIABOLIQUES rip-offs for Hammer, so Losey’s rejection of the approach is an early sign of an exciting battle of sensibilities. Unlike Sangster, Owen is drawn to narrative sidetracks, and invents a whole prison populace of distinctive characters who don’t really need to be there for story reasons, but are essential for world-building. Asides from Melvin and Wymark (and it’s typical the show opens with such minor figures), we’ll soon get Gregoire Aslan (chucklesome charm subdued into lizard-eyed menace), Tom Bell and Kenneth Cope, who fulfills a similar function here as in X: THE UNKNOWN, which Losey nearly directed and may well have cast him in: turn up, look scared, suffer An Appalling Fate.

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As always, Patrick Magee, of the curling lip and watery eye, who plays the corrupt prison warden Burrows, threatens to rip the whole thing apart with a performance evoking paranoid schizophrenia, satanic possession and narcissistic personality disorder all at once. The only way Richard MacDonald’s spectacular prisons set can contain him is for Owen and Losey to open up other avenues into disintegration, safely channeling the Magee Overflow. Most eye-popping occurs during a monologue by mentally-ill prisoner Brian Phelan, where Losey pushes in fast to a tight closeup and actually irises in to shoot the actor in a vignette, suggesting simultaneously his frightening isolation from reality and his inability to reach Baker on any meaningful emotional level.

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Baker himself is astonishing, the kind of actor without whom this kind of film would be unimaginable. Unapologetically macho — and also willing to associate closely with the film’s themes of sexual variance. His close-quarters combat with Bell and Neil McCarthy has sexual intimations, even down to the “nothing-happening-here” pretense when Caught At It by the warden. Tough guy Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) has pugilists on his walls and a tender relationship with Phelan.

The film, unusually, contains two long prison sequences, as we meet Baker the day before his release, and when arrested again he arranges an escape. In the outside world, an agressive, overstated heterosexuality reigns. Baker’s swinging crim pad is awash with nudes, both artistic and actual. He playfully spanks the full-length odalisque on his bathroom door. She has a nice behind, but come on — who spanks a door? When former squeeze Jill Bennett is edged out by newbie nudie Margot Saad, she’s more naked that I would have thought was possible in 1960 Britain, unless you were Pamela Green. The value of eroticism was probably the one area where Losey’s interests coincided with Anglo-Amalgamated’s.

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The film has hilariously little interest in its heist, apparently forged in a masterplan by grinning idiot John Molloy inside — we never even see the full robbery, just its aftermath, and never learn the plan, just the betrayals afterwards. These involve sad-eyed copper Laurence Naismith, purring creep Sam Wanamaker, and swaggering Nigel Green, enormous in an overcoat with padded shoulders, inflating his physique to Honey Monster proportions.

It is tempting just to list the cast, isn’t it? But the film is shot by tetchy genius Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) and edited by Reggie Mills who cut most of Powell & Pressburger’s movies. He’s wonderfully sloppy about continuity, and incredibly tight about narrative and psychology, and he has his own taut sense of rhythm. There’s a riot scene which energises all of these talents, and the ragged-edged cast, around MacDonald’s panopticon prison set and allows Losey to really break loose with the camera, which cocks its head like Ygor, crabs fast like Astaire, swoops in like Baron Harkonnen, combining the sardonic glint, the grace, and the leering aggression of all three of those figures. I should add that Johnny Dankworth’s score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and drama, its romantic longing largely in counterpoint to the hard-edged action.

It’s a bleak film. “Miserable time of the year,” remarks Magee. “If we could only have some flowers. Down there. In summer it’s a blaze of colour.” Here’s the prison garden:

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Here’s a park.

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Here’s a field.

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England as a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN no-man’s-land. Losey is starting to feel at home.

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15 Responses to “Memory Monday: The Ass on the Bathroom Door”

  1. While you’ve mentioned The Prowler and the superb remake of M in passing do not forget The Big Night. This was the one Losey made while he was packing his bags to get out of town. HUAC wanted to speak to him, and he had no intention of taking their “questions” — even turning down the opportunity to direct High Noon; which would have been his next project.

    Written by the about-to-be-blacklisted Ben Barzmann The Big Night is a unique “coming of age” saga in which John Drew Barrymore witnesses his bar-keep dad get beaten in front of him by a “Mr. Big.” While others tell him to forget it (Dad included) the kid is hot for revenge. He discovers along the way any number of things about himself (rarely has puberty been rendered so achingly) and Dad (who deserved the beating as it turns out.) Barrymore — the runt of the family litter (and Drew’s father, who neglected her his whole life; but she stepped in and took care of him when he faced death) is amazing. Doubly so because the FBI had asked him to spy on his director. Years later he told Losey about this — begging forgiveness. Losey told him there was nothing to forgive.

    Also in the cast, in her very last role (thanks to the blacklist) Dorothy Comingore.

    IOW, ESSENTIAL VIEWING!

  2. Agreed:
    https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/04/19/big-bad-night/
    Certainly Losey’s finest American film. The observations on race are very pointed too.

    In a sidenote, RIP Julie Harris, who designed Losey’s problematic The Gypsy and the Gentleman, as well as classics A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

  3. La Faustin Says:

    Speaking of Memory Mondays, just realized you could perfectly well have reused yesterday’s headline.

  4. I find Losey to be both blatant and subtle at the same time. Barrett’s take-over of Tony in The Servant can be predicted from the first shot of Bogarde looming over Fox. But the details and implications of the take-over aren’t easily described. Barrett is so powerful he could have pulled it all over in a weekend. And yet he takes his time. What he’s going to do after the end credits roll is a really interesting question. Will the place fall apart a la Grey Gardens ? Fascinating that Fox goes from this to Performance whose narrative and mise en scene is decidedly Loseyesque.

  5. Among his lesser films I’d like to give The Romantic Englishwoman another look now that Glenda Jackson has retired from politics and Helmut Berger has turned-up as an “on his uppers” Yves in Saint Laurent

  6. Eve is another one I haven’t seen in awhile and long to — in a halfway decent print.

    ALL James Hadley Chase adaptations are worthy of intensive study, especially Chereau’s Flesh of the Orchid .

  7. Eve is stunning, a true aesthete’s wallow in arthouse beauty for its own sake, loosely tethered to a fairly compelling drama. Agree that it wouldn’t do to watch a poor copy. I was lucky to stumble upon a second-hand copy of Studio Canal’s Serie Noir edition going for a song.

  8. henryholland666 Says:

    Had to do a bit of searching for “The Criminal”, it’s listed as “The Concrete Jungle” on IMDb.

    I recently watched (twice) the excellent Stanley Baker vehicle “Yesterday’s Enemy”, a very grim WWII movie. It has this great exchange between Baker’s Cpt. Langford and Philip Ahn’s suave Yamazaki:

    Langford: I’m a prisoner of war and I intend to answer no further questions.
    Yamazaki: You are a strange people. You decide to fight a war, and then try to bind yourselves to rules of conduct because it suits your purpose.
    Langford: And I’ll point out that you started this war.
    Yamazaki: But who started the war against the Sudanese? Or the Indians? Or the Boers? Did you have any rules for war then? No, but now that you have someone else just as big as you, now that you are not fighting spears with guns, you want a code of conduct.

    I’ll admit, I chortled at Yamazaki’s last bit.

    Not very familiar with Losey’s work, but I do love “Time Without Pity”, a terrific Michael Redgrave vehicle. I also like “The Go-Between”, Redgrave has a minor role in that one. Mmmmm….Alan Bates…….mmmmmm.

    I saw “Modesty Blaise” last week, I’d file that under “a missed opportunity”. Really, a Scottish accountant who’s a tightwad? Racist!!!

    I hope Dirk Bogarde spent his paycheck wisely.

  9. La Faustin Says:

    Speaking of James Hadley Chase adaptations: just saw UNE MANCHE ET LA BELLE (Verneuil, 1957): Henri Vidal torn between Isa Miranda and Mylène Demongeot. Yum!

  10. Ooh, that sounds good!

    On the one hand, I don’t think Modesty Blaise really works. On the other, it isn’t quite like anything else: the shambolic take on the spy caper refuses to be interested in the usual things and just becomes a celebration of design and tonal dissonance.

    Yesterday’s Enemy is on my radar — hope to report soon.

  11. It works because it isn’t like anything else.

    Bogarde is gayer here than he was in Victim

  12. Yes, even as I lament its lack of narrative purpose, I can revel in the silliness and the gorgeousness.

    Johnny Dankworth, whose score holds it together as much as anything could, and who contributes greatly to The Criminal, was rather unfairly treated. When Boom! tested badly, his score got the blame and it was replaced entirely by John Barry. Losey was already at work on his next film so he asked his friend Richard Lester to supervise the dub. Lester expected this to take a few days at most but it turned into weeks of work as Dick & Liz could not be depended on to show up to dub their lines. He still seems quite cross about it.

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