We’re living in a time when the sloppy cult of the film director — every movie, however trashy, is now “by” somebody — allows for a quick route to cheap sophistication. We simply adore them for what they apparently represent: perhaps smart-Alec nihilism (in the case of the Coen brothers), wanton weirdness (David Lynch), or post-modern but empty stylistics (Quentin Tarantino). It’s not even necessary to have a great knowledge of their films. They are essentially brands, and professing admiration for one is usually calculated to say more about you than about them.
Joseph Losey, the American director who died in 1984 and whose work has just been given a season at the National Film Theatre to mark the centenary of his birth, would not, one suspects, have been particularly sympathetic to the notion of branding. His name might mean little to Coen devotees and the younger movie magazine buffs, but they would probably have heard of some of his films: The Go-Between perhaps, Accident maybe, The Servant almost certainly. Like John Schlesinger, whose reputation has similarly wobbled with each decade and passing fashion, his varied output, which straddled genres and ranged from social drama to opera adaptation, tends to defy crude attempts at a summing-up. Thus unbranded, it is too often the fate of figures such as him to fall by the wayside.
And yet surely these three films alone would merit Losey a position as one of the great directors. Each one mines the complexities of human relationships in the context of conventional social and class structures, where sexual and emotional responses are inextricably entwined with some sort of power struggle. The surface of the milieu depicted in each often seems banal — almost crushingly so in the case of Accident (1967), considered by many to be his masterpiece. Apparently aimless conversation and protracted pauses (Harold Pinter, with whom Losey developed a fruitful partnership, was the screenwriter on all three films) give little away as to the dynamics working beneath the surface. Yet gradually and almost imperceptibly, the tension mounts. The overall effect can stay with you for days afterwards.
Losey sympathised strongly with left-wing politics, but as these films illustrate, he was far too subtle and talented a director to drift into outright polemic. Not that he could be blamed if he had, given his early experiences in Hollywood. Arriving there in his mid-thirties after working in both commercial and avant-garde theatre and radio, he established a reputation as an intellectual. He made a number of short films, and, with his friend Bertolt Brecht, co-directed Charles Laughton in the original US production of Galileo, before making his 1948 feature debut, The Boy With Green Hair. A fable about an outsider faced with prejudice, the movie was initially shelved by a studio in flight from the growing McCarthyite atmosphere in the industry. Eventually, Losey was investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee for his alleged ties to the Communist Party. He was blacklisted, fled to England and found work initially under various pseudonyms.
The critic and film historian Philip French has said that Losey’s arrival here was the greatest thing to happen to British cinema in the 1950s. Some of the films he made before his reputation was consolidated with The Servant in 1963 are indeed among his best; titles such as The Sleeping Tiger, The Criminal and Eve have largely fallen from public view, which might also account for his uncertain status now (and which, by putting the emphasis on the first half of his career, the NFT is presumably aiming to put right). His reputation has also not been helped by the fact that in later years he made some spectacularly bad ones: Modesty Blaise, a ridiculous spy spoof, is all but unwatchable, and the disastrous Boom! — an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play starring Elizabeth Taylor and Noel Coward — is beloved only by the dreary aficionados of camp and bad cinema.
But Losey should be forgiven these. At the very least, they are evidence that however strong his political beliefs, he was not straight-jacketed by them in the way that Ken Loach is. His characters are not mouthpieces and his best films can be savoured by those unaware of his experiences or worldview. They reflect the complexities of their time, rather than providing clean sheets on which a set of principles can be written. The power-play between Dirk Bogarde’s manservant and James Fox’s weak aristocrat in The Servant perfectly illustrates this: as an artistic reflection of the crumbling social structure of the time it has become emblematic, but it is just as importantly an exploration of personal and sexual motivation, and can be read as such by those for whom the Profumo era is as distant as Magna Carta.
Losey was by all accounts a personally difficult man, but there is also evidence in his work of a certain pessimism: the least manipulative character in Accident — Michael York’s aristocratic young student — ends up dead, while those around him stew in a juice of hidden desires and personal agendas. This, ironically given Losey’s politics, can make his work appealing to some conservatives. He is unpredictable — unbrandable — which is why his best films should continue to be seen and considered by thoughtful people everywhere.