Archive for The Lawless

No Gentleman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 7, 2020 by dcairns

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The biggest surprise about THE SERVANT is what it’s not.

It sounds, from synopsis, as if we’ll get a critical commentary on the British class system. One would expect, from director Joseph Losey’s history as a man of the left (fleeing American and HUAC) that the theme might come out in the dialogue, ponderously, as it does in his US films such as M and THE LAWLESS, or more subtly, in the action, as it does in the superior THE BIG NIGHT or THE PROWLER. The latter is about “false values,” as Losey put it, which meant the story could simply illustrate where those values might get you, without the need for commentary, and it would be a perfectly clear morality tale from a left-wing perspective.

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But we have to factor in Harold Pinter as scenarist, and the source novel I guess, though I’m afraid I don’t know anything about it. Pinter’s involvement guarantees that things won’t be so simple, or direct.

What I was expecting, nevertheless, was a structure where Dirk Bogarde’s manservant, Barrett, is exploited by his “master,” Tony (James Fox), and then rebels. Instead, Barrett is mysterious, conspiratorial, from the start, and Tony is weak and arrogant, occasionally mean, and crumbles with little apparent assistance from Barrett. His girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) seems to be on to Barrett from the start, so that her genuine nastiness towards him (some great Pinteresque questions, “Do you use a deodorant?”) are almost justified.

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And then, hilariously, just when you might expect persecution, master and servant turn into schoolkids in one scene, a bickering old married couple in the next. There’s not really a sense of escalation, just frequent and perplexing transformation. And then, after the fabulously louche party scene, it stops. I can imagine being quite frustrated with that conclusion if I’d seen it in the cinema.

What the movie resists most obviously is taking sides, even though Bogarde is frequently seen as sinister and Fox never is. Wendy Craig’s casting makes me think of THE NANNY, which starts with the little boy as antagonist and then switches sympathies to make Bette Davis the monster, and then manages to find sympathy even for her. I like that film a lot. But THE SERVANT manages to do something much more complex, where our sympathies rarely land squarely anywhere, the natural class enemy gets more sympathy and is more comprehensible than the worm-that-turns underdog, and maybe PERSONA is a better comparison? Also, the suggestion that, when class barriers crumble, we’re all going to lose our identities and enter a delirious, hazy flux of psychological disintegration, feels more like a right-wing anxiety than one of the left, in a way.

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All of which is a confession, really, that I don’t “get” THE SERVANT the way I get other Losey or Pinter films, but I like the feeling of disorientation it produces. More on it as the day goes on.

Sleepy Hollow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2008 by dcairns

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