Archive for The Sleeping Tiger

Losey Week Revisited

Posted in FILM, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2020 by dcairns

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I did a week’s deep dive on Joseph Losey, years ago. This is another, larger deleted sequence from the essay I’m working on. Poor Evan Jones got cut, because it was just too sprawling and diffuse.

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Joseph Losey had been forced to leave to avoid testifying before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He would gradually, by talent and sheer force of will, reinvent himself: in America he had specialised in thrillers; in Britain he slowly transformed into a maker of art films, a form which had almost no history in the UK.

But his first collaboration with writer Evan Jones was made for Hammer films. The Damned (1961), AKA These Are the Damned, is often falsely grouped with the sci-fi thriller Village of the Damned (1960) whose success the studio probably wanted to cash in on. In it, a teenage gang’s conflict with a visiting American (the dependably dull MacDonald Carey) brings them into contact with a group of children are kept underground and rendered immune to radiation, primed to take over the world “when the time comes,” as the head of the project says, bears more relation to Losey’s debut The Boy with Green Hair (1947) and his juvenile delinquent picture The Sleeping Tiger (1954).

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Look behind him! It’s The X-Files!

Jones was tasked with adapting H.L. Lawrence’s source novel, The Children of Light after blacklistee Ben Barzman’s legal troubles stalled his progress on the script. Talking to Michel Ciment, Losey sketched out a brief bio of his chosen replacement: “Actually he hadn’t, so far as I can remember, ever worked on a film before. His parents were landowners in Jamaica. He’s milky-coloured, and he makes no secret that his father was black. He was educated at Oxford, I think. His play was pretty strong and dealt with the relationships of a landowner and his peasants in Jamaica. We had a certain political kinship and we got along very well in other respects, too.”

The job had to be done fast: at Losey’s urging, he largely threw out the original story, keeping only the premise. He was still writing until the day before shooting started. It’s a bizarre movie with many dysfunctional elements: disparate plot threads are introduced in haphazard fashion, and the attempts to wrestle with youth culture are terribly square and unconvincing. The sci-fi aspects made Losey very uncomfortable too: he couldn’t believe in them. But somehow a certain stark force is realized: the subterranean children, who are cold to the touch, are a metaphor for both Britain’s public school system (in Britain, for some topsy-turvy reason, private schools are referred to as public schools) and for the populace as a whole: literally kept in the dark. One very effective touch is that rather than building up a single villain in charge of the scheme, Jones emphasizes the team, which includes favorite Losey actors Alexander Knox and James Villiers.

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Though nobody involved can breathe convincing life into the gang of delinquents led by a young Oliver Reed, who has not yet learned to whisper huskily, there are commendable efforts to avoid the tabloid news clichés: Reed’s character is obsessed with protecting his sister’s purity, “…because you’ve never had a girl yourself,” she charges. Losey’s command of visuals was increasing as he found more and more talented collaborators. Here, production designer Richard MacDonald creates frightening and dreamlike caves and classrooms for the little troglodytes, enhanced by  Elizabeth Frink’s sculptures of wingless, decayed birds. “Life has the power to change,” intones Knox, “After the first great explosion, strange, wonderful flowers, unknown before, bloomed in the desert.” The film continually aspires towards poetry, is dragged down by plodding convention, then soars again.

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Arthur Grant’s black-and-white widescreen images are edited by Reginald Mills, who cut Michael Powell’s classics and would go on to cut The Servant (1963, written by Pinter) and King and Country (1964) for Losey. The sound design, dominated by crashing surf, anticipates the roaring breakers that give Losey’s later Boom! (1967) its title (“the shock of each moment of being alive.”)

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Losey was able to make Eve the same year, a true European art film based on a novel by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, a prolific British plagiarist who established a career penning American pulp fiction despite never having been to the States, armed only with a dictionary of slang and a map. The star, Stanley Baker, was Welsh, the son of a coal miner: his stardom anticipated that of later working-class heroes like Connery and Caine. Here he plays a novelist whose book has elevated him into high society, apparently cutting him off from the wellspring of his talent: but in fact he’s an utter fraud, who stole the manuscript from his dead brother. His destructive relationship with the title character, played by Jeanne Moreau, and with the vulnerable Virna Lisi, leads to tragedy.

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Losey hated the book and got Jones to change the setting from Hollywood to Italy, incorporating footage captured at the Venice Film Festival. There’s no sense that this is meant to be a thriller, and the producers were aghast at its running time (168 minutes in Losey’s original cut). But the remaining hard-boiled elements help balance Losey’s tendency to self-serious artiness, resulting in one of his most fully-achieved films, and there’s a much stronger sense that Jones knows the kind of people he’s writing about here (his best character in The Damned is the sculptor played by Viveca Lindfors: Jones feels the strain when called upon to script the inarticulate). He also had a gift for acid camp, here personified by James Villiers as an aloof screenwriter, who protests at a wedding, “Why should an intelligent man like myself be subjected to this kind of tribal ritual?”

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Losey likes stuffing his films with art: the setting of Venice gives him a valid reason to do so. In fact, art is inescapable there. And Baker’s tortured intellectual, self-destructive and lashing out, suits him admirably. The pairing with Jones (blacklistee Hugo Butler also worked on the script) was proving fruitful.

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Next, Jones adapted King and Country (1964) from a radio play written by one of the participants in the true life story it told: during WWI, a private is tried for desertion. It’s a clear case of shell shock, what we now call PTSD, but the court of officers cannot accept that because they daren’t allow any excuse for a soldier not “doing his duty.”

The tiny budget and cramped sets are overcome by Losey putting the focus strongly on his central performances. Dirk Bogarde, his other favorite actor of this period, plays the officer charged with defending Hamp, played by Tom Courtenay. Courtenay, the star of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) is another of the new breed of regional, working-class actors (in his case, Yorkshire) who retained their original accents and introduced a new, understated naturalism. There’s an electrifying contrast with Bogarde, a Rank Organisation matinee idol who successfully rebelled against his image and, like Losey, made the transition to the arthouse, eventually working with Fassbinder, Visconti and Resnais.

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The play had been essentially a transcription from memory of the trial. At Losey’s behest, Jones opened it up to include a mock trial conducted by enlisted men in which a rat, captured from a horse carcass, is prosecuted. Jones wrote this with a good deal of slang which, when combined with regional accents and somewhat difficult studio conditions (the film was originally intended for television and shot in a mere three weeks) result in some difficulties in audibility and comprehension, but this actually enhances the realism.

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Unlike many reflections on the Great War (e.g. the recent 1917), Losey and Jones’ film eschews sentimentality and heroism. It is bitter and angry. The uneducated and traumatized Hamp, who has simply turned away from the guns and tried to walk home, is as guiltless as the rat and equally doomed. What cannot be admitted is that the war is unendurable.

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The final Jones collaboration was regarded at the time as an unmitigated disaster, and is still a film maudit. In fact, in his later career, Losey practically came to specialize in the film maudit, or what John Waters enthusiastically embraces as “the failed art film.” But Modesty Blaise (1966), based on a popular newspaper strip and intended as a parody of the James Bond franchise. It was, on the face of it, an incredible case of directorial miscasting. As Losey’s friend Richard Lester later said, “The last person that would come to mind to produce a movie that fits the adjective ‘zany’ would be Joe Losey.” “Antonioni,” claimed Losey, “said […] that it was ridiculous to try and parody the thing that one was oneself doing.”

Apart from the question of humor, Losey also strongly disapproved of the Bond films’ flippant  “violence for violence’s sake,” an attitude that may seem quaintly prudish today, but it was important to him.

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The resulting film, a pop art/op art pastiche based around nothing of any importance, is very attractive and, on paper, very funny. Jones was particularly successful at writing a camp villain for Dirk Bogarde to play with bleached blond hair, getting ironically overwrought about innocent lives wasted. “A father of two children, probably with a split-levek house in Woking, and a rubber plant in the lounge. Why can’t they be bachelors?!” At its best it hits a tone not elsewhere attempted and hard to pin down. When leads Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp abruptly burst into song (the film is not otherwise a musical and neither of them can really sing) the movie is not fracturing its own approach, it’s fulfilling it.

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But part of the oddness is Losey’s approach and pacing, with his circling tracking shots which had now become a trademark: it moves like an arthouse drama, leaving way too much air around the witty dialogue. If you see it with an audience you can sense them trying to enjoy it, trying to hurry it along to be the thing it needs and deserves to be. Something like Barbarella (1968), carelessly shot and with about five good lines, works perfectly well, with a lot of burbling electronica to fill in the dead spots, whereas despite classic stuff like Bogarde pegged out on the desert sands calling out for “Champagne!”, Losey’s film seems to not know where the jokes are. Plus it’s 119 minutes long and it has no motor, because the central characters aren’t taking the situations seriously.

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The film’s failure broke up the Losey-Jones partnership: Losey went on to direct Pinter screenplays Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) while Jones worked on a scattershot collection of films without much apparent momentum or focus, but including one classic, Wake in Fright (1971).

That’s what I’m talking about…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2008 by dcairns

Ein Klein Nachtmusik

The Joseph Losey Collection— out in September on Region 2 DVD in the UK.

Contains THE CRIMINAL, which looks sensational, crucial stuff like THE SERVANT, THE GO-BETWEEN and ACCIDENT, also EVA, SLEEPING TIGER and, surprisingly and delightfully, M. KLEIN.

Trailer for THE CRIMINAL. I dig how the voice-over man is incredibly ANNOYING. Not his voice, his whole ATTITUDE. If you met this voice-over man at a party you’d be compelled to glass him in about fifteen seconds, he’s that offensive.

Losey’s second film with Stanley Baker, THE CRIMINAL looks to me like a gutsy piece of work. His first film with Baker, BLIND DATE, like his first film with Dirk Bogarde, is more of a rough sketch for what’s to come. But still fascinating. Perhaps perversely, of all the Losey’s I’ve still got to see, THE CRIMINAL is the one I’m most excited about.

Alas, I won’t have this beauty in my hands until long after J.L. Week is over, but maybe we’ll have a second week in September — if Fiona can bear it.

The Intimate Finger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2008 by dcairns

Bright Eyes

Not really, of course. Joseph Losey’s pseudonymously-directed 1956 mystery was released as THE INTIMATE STRANGER (great title, and apt!) in the UK, and FINGER OF GUILT (sappy, generic title) in the US. So I’ve simply combined the two titles into one SUPER-TITLE. Richard Basehart plays the titular finger.

For its blacklisted director (working as “Joseph Walton” in the UK version, using producer Alec C Snowden as a front for the US release) and writer (the celebrated Howard Koch, writing as “Peter Howard”) it was a payday and a chance to establish themselves in the UK film industry. Koch dismissed the result as entirely undistinguished, but it led to better things.

I’d never taken notice of Richard Basehart much before except in IL BIDONE, where he’s dubbed. Here it was a shock to hear him sounding like John Huston — since Basehart played Ishmael in Huston’s MOBY DICK the same year, I’m assuming this is a deliberate impersonation, decades before Daniel Day-Lewis made off with Huston’s gravelly purr for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

One thing that’s fascinated me about all the Losey films I’ve run recently is the element of autobiography. From Michael Redgrave’s alcoholism in TIME WITHOUT PITY to the tortured father-son relations in THE BIG NIGHT, each Losey film seems to declare some personal significance. Most blatantly of all, FINGER-STRANGER deals with a blacklisted filmmaker driven out of the US and targeted by a conspiracy in a British studio. The atmosphere of paranoia and persecution must have been something both Losey and Koch could relate to.

STRANGER-FINGER begins with an eye examination, the bright light being something which will return at the climax:

Bright Light!

At the start.

Lights! Cameras! Action!

And at the end.

Basehart begins to tell his life story and we delve into flashback, and eventually wonder “Hang on, why is he sharing all this guff with his OPTICIAN?” then we realise that the eye-man must actually be a head-shrinker only the film just kinda forgot to mention it. The framing structure is wholly unnecessary anyway, but as with Losey’s earlier THE SLEEPING TIGER, it takes us back to that innocent ’50s faith in psycho-analysis — a lot of the lefties who got drummed out of Ho’wood had the same trust in Freud they showed in Stalin, but then Freud was huge all over tinseltown, where the Big Lie is what business is founded on, and all the couch-space in town is eaten up by rich fruit-loops.

The story gimmick — young exec is tormented by mysterious letters, recalls the opening of Altman’s THE PLAYER, but this one develops differently: a young woman writes to Basehart and his wife (daughter of studio boss Roger Livesey) claiming to have had an affair with Basehart. He has no memory of her, yet she’s insistent, and seems sincere.

Alas, the first half is quite unbelievably stately, with the editor lingering on every scene after the protagonist has left. Maybe the movie was too short? Losey’s filming is fluid, but rarely provides the flash of Hollywood excitement he brought to the best bits of SLEEPING TIGER.

I am smoking a fag

All that holds the attention during this opening trundle is the central question — who the hell is this girl and what is she all about? — OK, two questions — plus some spectacularly inappropriate and loud stock music. All early British Losey films seem to feature scenes where women put on loud records then attempt to talk. At times the score here is effective, as it must be: if you play tender moments with CRIME JAZZ and suspense bits with Liberace schmaltz, it WILL WORK at times, and when it does it’ll be better than if you did it the sane way round. Half the time here it doesn’t work at all, and drunkenly pulls you out of the film, but there’s one romantic clinch where the timpani freak-out accompaniment fairly gets your pulse going and you think, “Golly, THIS IS CINEMA!” for maybe the only time.

So, the police attempt to cherchez la femme fatale, but she keeps her cool and doesn’t change her story, and they wind up doubting Basehart. For a moment it looks like her long recitation of her imaginary past life with Basehart is going to lead into a flashback, which would give us a flashback within a flashback within an opticians, but she cuts it short and saves us the detour.

Stranger of Guilt

There’s a heavy spoiler alert now, because if I give away the ending then there’s no real reason to see this underwhelming effort, which might be a good thing, but it’s your choice, OK?

Basehart finds out that the whole thing was a set-up. His boss’s assistant, played by diminutive Welsh house-elf Mervyn Johns, resenting Basehart’s ascendancy, has hired an actress to destroy his life. That’s studio politics for you.There’s a tiresome false ending where Basehart thinks Livesey was behind the frame-up, then Johns gives himself away by repeating the whole plot in a dubbing booth with the mic on and broadcasting his (finger of) guilt to the whole sound stage — oops! Then Basehart persecutes his nemesis with an arc light (like all Celts, he instinctively fears bright illumination) before clubbing him to the studio floor with his powerful Richard Basehart fists. Regrettably, a climax where a muscular young man beats up an elderly, out of shape guy half his height into a tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp is not exactly a nail-biting suspenser.

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Shadowplay!

Now the film pauses yet again to admire sultry Mary Murphy (from THE WILD ONE), who has been enticingly cool throughout, then reunites Basehart with his estranged wife, who somehow got the news he’s innocent before anybody else knew.

Not a great film, but a great central enigma, and the blacklisting angle (not explicitly political — Basehart had a fling with a studio boss’s wife) is enticing. At the end, Basehart furiously calls Johns “an informer”, and the rage in that scene feels… personal.

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The producers would like to thank Fiona Watson for the phrase “tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp.”