❉ Daniel Marner on two films book-ending a fertile period for director Joseph Losey.
The Criminal (1960) and The Go-Between (1971) can stand to be looked at together as examples of the strengths Losey brought to any project, the way he brought subtle innovation to potentially tired material and the way his vision progressed as the years wore on.
“I can’t touch it. It’s too painful. Too perfect.” – Harold Pinter on LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between.
“It was too tame for the pornographic age. As one man put it, who would be interested in a bit of Edwardian nostalgia? That’s idiotic. It is certainly not a romantic or sentimental piece. It has a surface and coating of romantic melodrama, but it has a bitter core.” – Joseph Losey in conversation with Mel Gussow for the New York Times, 1971.
“‘The picture should look hot and like a slightly faded Renoir or Constable – the colours mostly gold and brown, the green minimized as much as possible under the circumstances. The skies and their clouds and the peculiar light of Norfolk …” – Joseph Losey’s pre-production notes for The Go-Between
It has often been said that if a place wants to see itself as it really is, it should see itself through the eyes of a newcomer. In cinema this certainly seems to hold true. One thinks of Wim Wenders gazing in childlike wonder at the glass and chrome surfaces of Houston in Paris Texas, or Ridley Scott looking at 1980s LA and seeing the suffocating hellscape of neon and smoke it had the potential to become in Blade Runner.
Beyond surface and environment of course there is the society, and it’s the things a foreigner notices about the people and their behaviour that makes the most lasting impression. In 1950s and 60s Britain some of the most memorable and transformative works of cinema were made by people whose vision was formed elsewhere, who were drawn here for various reasons (not always voluntarily) but saw the social mores and foibles of the various classes with a piercing clarity that a native might have been less able to freely articulate. In films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment and the documentary short We Are the Lambeth Boys Czech-born Karel Reisz was able to deliver a vision of working class beauty, defiance and excitement amid the stifling symbols of capitalism and empire: American Richard Lester adapted the madcap techniques he’d learned in US TV to help reflect the surrealism and humour of what The Beatles were going through, at the height of their fame, and turned London into a swinging playground for the heroes of The Knack.
When Joseph Losey arrived in England in 1953 it was under something of a cloud. Like many others his thriving directorial career in America had been brought to an abrupt, unfair halt owing to the intervention of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He’d been a Communist party member shortly after WWII, and when the looming shadow of McCarthyism began to draw near he took the drastic decision to abandon Hollywood entirely and forge a new career in Europe (this episode was dramatized in a scene from Irwin Winkler’s 1991 film Guilty By Suspicion, with Martin Scorsese turning in a brief but memorably winning cameo as the fictionalised ‘Joe Lesser’).
To many people even now the fact that Losey was an American is something of a surprise: he made a home in Britain, certainly, but he was also AT home in Britain, and his diverse filmography flowered here in a way it may not have done had he remained in the States. Despite making a dozen films in America (and one in Italy) by the time he’d reached these shores, it’s largely his British canon that most people remember him for. He’d made some brilliant and original films in his homeland certainly (including perennial anthem of alienation The Boy With Green Hair and an English language remake of Fritz Lang’s M that is much better than it has any right to be) but when we think of him now we think firstly of the films he made from the late 50s to the mid-70s. Running the gamut from tense crime drama (Time Without Pity), to despairing science fiction (the brilliant These Are The Damned), to high-camp jet set spy spoof (Modesty Blaise), to psychological study of class tensions (The Servant), to metaphysical histrionics (Boom!)…he was a hard man to pin down.
The Criminal (1960) and The Go-Between (1971), both out now on Blu-Ray from Studiocanal, are like book-ends to this fertile period and can stand to be looked at together as examples of the strengths Losey brought to any project (an eye for the way social hierarchies can maim and destroy those who exist in their shadow, as well as a burning anger at the sheer injustice of it all), the way he brought subtle innovation to potentially tired material (the gangster movie, the drawing room romance) and the way his vision progressed as the years wore on.
“The Criminal is no classic or genre ground breaker, but there is much to recommend it to new audiences. Not least the unflinching way it presents the threat of violence, hanging like cigarette smoke in the stale jail air”
The Criminal from 1960 has the atmosphere and the trappings of many other British gangster flicks of the time, including the solid, square-jawed presence of dependable Welsh proto-Connery Stanley Baker, a woozy jazz score from Johnny Dankworth (his wife Cleo Lane trilling the theme song), a who’s who of familiar faces (Murray Melvin! Patrick Magee! Patrick Wymark! Tom Bell!) and characteristically harsh chiaroscuro lighting from Robert ‘The Third Man’ Krasker. An uncomplicated tale of imprisonment, greed and betrayal it possesses all the cynicism, dourness and irony one would expect from this genre, but adds a genuinely nasty streak of violence which is introduced early and continues throughout: the opening chapter details the comeuppance of a prison snitch on the orders of top boy Johnny Bannion (Baker) and it’s a little masterpiece of layered detail, from the whisper network spreading the news of the snitch’s return (“Knick knack paddywack/Kelly’s back, Kelly’s back”) to the genuinely shocking, prolonged beating Kelly (Kenneth Cope) receives, his assailant battering him mercilessly as muscleman pictures fall on him from the cell wall.
Bannion gets released from jail shortly thereafter and the alienation and paranoia he feels is palpable without being overpowering: he can’t relax and enjoy his welcome home party, he mistrusts his smooth American partner Carter (Sam Wanamaker), he even seems irritated by Suzanne (Margit Saad), the beautiful German girl he unexpectedly finds in his bed. These scenes of Bannion’s domestic setup in his modernist flat surrounded by paintings and photographs of naked women have something of the flavour of Roeg and Cammell’s later Performance (1969) to them, images of a man of violence finding sexual oblivion amid the tasteful rugs and space-age-looking heat-lamps of 60s sophistication.
Bannion’s progress is as crooked as the company he keeps and carelessness with the loot from a frantically-edited, barely-glimpsed racetrack heist (Losey pre-empting Tarantino by focussing only on the run-up and aftermath, never showing the actual heist itself) lands him back in jail, where power has shifted, loyalties are strained and new alliances must be formed.
The Criminal is no classic or genre ground breaker, but there is much to recommend it to new audiences. Not least the unflinching way it presents the threat of violence, hanging like cigarette smoke in the stale jail air, as well as the comradeships and compromises that keep the closed system of prison life ticking over. There’s the tiniest hint that an unlikely pair of pals (brutal hired thug Clobber played by Kenneth J Warren and Brian Phelan’s sensitive, nerve-shredded Pauly) might be just a bit more than that, and the combative relationship between Bannion and wild-eyed warder Barrows (Patrick Magee wearing every emotion on his agonised face as usual, thank God) softens occasionally owing to their shared Irish Catholic background.
“For all its sense of searing heat and blinding summer light The Go-Between has a chilly, chilling quality to it… But as the film’s trailer tells us “This summer would end…with a storm” and the gathering clouds of that storm are the substance that forms our narrative.”
Jump forward a decade and what is arguably Losey’s most famous film heaves into view from behind rain-drenched glass, Michel Legrand’s doomily chiming score warning us that this tale isn’t going anywhere happy. Based on LP Hartley’s feted novel and coming complete with an adapted screenplay by Harold Pinter (his third and final collaboration with Losey after their previous two hits The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967) it has the air at first glance of that most staid and unadventurous of British cinema standards the period drama. There is a palatial country house, a naïve newcomer (Dominic Guard, phenomenal), a forbidden romance between the lovely teenage daughter of the house (Julie Christie just a touch too old for the role, but convincing nonetheless) and a horny-handed son of the soil (Alan Bates at his Alan Batesiest) and the backdrop of an English summer of yore ringing with the tweeting of birds, echoing to the crack of leather on willow.
But as the film’s trailer tells us “This summer would end…with a storm” and the gathering clouds of that storm are the substance that forms our narrative. 12-year-old Leo (Guard) has come to stay for the holidays with the patrician Maudsley family at the turn of the last century (1900) and swiftly develops a chaste crush on their daughter Marian (Christie): she, charmed by his articulacy and sweetness forms a bond with him. She playfully entrusts him with the job of being her messenger boy on ‘a business matter’ between her and tenant farmer Ted Burgess (Bates) and the smitten boy is only too happy to oblige.
Of course the nature of Marian and Ted’s ‘business arrangement’ becomes clear to Leo fairly quickly, and his loyalties to the beautiful, attentive girl and his ruggedly handsome new adult friend become strained by jealousy and defiance as his adolescent heart and racing imagination struggle to cope with the illicit danger and heady promise of the adult world. Interspersed throughout the childhood story we get quick, unannounced flash-forwards to the adult Leo (an impressively stoic, near-wordless performance by Michael Redgrave) as he revisits the location of his summer adventure as a grey ghost of a man, the gloomy weather of his present portending to us that the high summer of his past is a prelude to something terrible and wrenching.
For all its sense of searing heat and blinding summer light The Go-Between has a chilly, chilling quality to it. Pinter and Losey make sure that we stay with Leo’s viewpoint throughout, and just as the house he’s staying in seems to be full of hidden doors and blind corners, so too does Leo’s gaze offer him tantalising but fragmentary glimpses of the intimacy he’s too young to enjoy or understand. The film’s most startling moments come from Leo’s tearfully angry pleas to Ted to let him in on the secrets of adulthood (” What is a lover? What does a lover DO?”) and the sum total of all this secrecy and guilt explodes in a finale that has a truly frightening, Gothic tone, right down to the raging thunderstorm it takes place in.
One is left in no doubt by the film’s end that the duplicity that causes the wreckage of all these lives is an essential by-product of the English class system, and that everyone who has been touched by it is a victim in their own way: even the sly, stern Mrs Maudsley whose actions precipitate the final collapse is in a terrible, painful trap where she can do no less than she does, and Margaret Leighton’s multi-layered performance as she first charms, then cajoles and finally DRAGS Leo to the Ground Zero of the unfolding tragedy is a somewhat overlooked marvel.
For a story of such interiority a lesser film-maker might have presented something as drab as the rain-sodden window-pane that opens the film, but Losey and lighting cameraman Gerry Fisher presents sunny Norfolk (apparently caught in snatches between mockingly unseasonal thunderstorms) as the most breathtaking playground an uncertain boy could hope for, and the shots of Leo as a tiny figure traversing a vast, verdant landscape in the blazing sun is oddly reminiscent of similar recurring imagery in Peter Greenaway’s odes to the eccentricities and brutalities of the English countryside like The Draughtsman’s Contract and Drowning By Numbers, Legrand’s pulsing, repetitive neoclassical score a clear forerunner of the minimalist throb that Michael Nyman carpets throughout Greenaway-Land.
Both of these Blu-Rays are handsomely mounted as one would expect from Studiocanal, and the extras on both discs are intriguing. The Go-Between features the lion’s share with trailers, extensive interviews with the likes of Dominic Guard, Gerry Fisher, producer John Heyman and Losey’s widow Patricia and son Josh, as well as an insightful breakdown of the relationship between Losey and Pinter from Michael Billington. A very decent stills gallery, an Anglia Television news report on the making of the film (featuring chats with Losey, Christie and Leighton) and an intriguingly shot, impressively progressive Horlicks ad from Losey featuring the all-too-rarely-seen spectacle of an all- female rally driving team rounds out the set.
The Criminal Blu-ray might seem a little undernourished next to these riches, but it does feature a very insightful and detailed commentary track by the ever-reliable Kat Ellinger which helps fill in the background of how the film came to be, as well as lesser-known stories from its making and a solid appreciation of the film’s place in its era and genre, as well as the many grizzled faces in its cast, where they came from and often where they ended up.
❉ THE GO-BETWEEN and THE CRIMINAL are out now on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download from STUDIOCANAL as part of their Vintage Classics Collection.
❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.