||Joseph Losey (1909-84) could have been one of America's brightest lights in cinema, but circumstances dictated otherwise, and after a promising start helming cult efforts like anti-war tract The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of Fritz Lang's breakthrough M and film noir The Prowler, he foundered when the American authorities took an interest in his left-leaning politics and he was blacklisted by Hollywood, under the belief that he would be brainwashing the public with Communist propaganda. But he still wanted to work in film, so like so many afflicted at this time, he upped sticks and moved to Europe.
Britain was Losey's destination, and for a while in the nineteen-fifties he settled for whatever jobs came his way, sometimes under a pseudonym, combining this with his love of the theatre. However, come the sixties he found his creative voice on celluloid once again, and in 1960 The Criminal was the piece that announced this, a hard-hitting crime drama that made the most of its rising star of a leading man, Welshman Stanley Baker. It set a style that would see Losey blossom throughout this decade, yet would also leave him open to accusations of pretensions that would sabotage his reputation at times; here, he reined those impulses in.
Yes, you could regard The Criminal as more than the story of a career thief who operates between the London underworld and prison, the latter of which he takes in his stride as an occupational hazard, and there were many indications that Losey, by now as naturalised in Britain as he would ever be, intended this to be a state of the nation address in a manner screenwriter Alun Owen did not entirely commit to. Though densely plotted, this nevertheless could have sprung fully formed from the pages of a pulp paperback with its regular bouts of violence, as much sexual content as the British censors would allow, and a general air of immorality.
Owen's biggest claim to fame was penning the screenplay for A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles' classic that had a similarly vivid sense of Britain on the cusp of something as the sixties progressed, yet while that film was optimistic this new broom was ushering in the Swinging Sixties and a bright new future for the youth of today to exist in, The Criminal was a lot more cautious, even pessimistic, when it recognised that promise could just as easily be taken away as granted. If anything, its cynicism was looking forward to the aftermath of the explosion of creativity the Fab Four participated in and encouraged: the troubled seventies.
Baker's character is established early on as the top dog in the prison we open the story in, maybe even more powerful than the guards (the head one, Patrick Magee, barks his way through the corridors, but even he allows Baker to have his way when he exacts revenge on an inmate who has wronged him), consequently when he is released about twenty minutes into the film, we anticipate he will also be influential on the outside. So it is a heist at a racetrack is arranged, but Baker, who believed himself to be master of his own destiny, finds life is not as fair as he would have liked, ironically all those criminals he's hanging around with prove impossible to outsmart.
Yet vice versa applied, as everyone's schemes fall apart simply because everyone was out for themselves and there was no way they could see themselves right. Was this the misanthropic Losey's observation, acceptance even, that people are too often the architects of their own destruction no matter what they do? Was this how he saw Britain headed despite the prevailing, upbeat, mood of the times? No wonder the French regarded him so highly. And no wonder that he would return to the subject of the decay of British society with The Servant in 1963, which had the establishment in its sights - there was more to come.
The Servant was the film that truly made Losey's name internationally and in the United Kingdom; The Criminal was not a huge hit nor a cultural talking point, but seeing matinee idol Dirk Bogarde victimising his boss James Fox for whom he is the butler was exactly right for a society that was learning to no longer tug the forelock and bend the knee towards its supposed betters. It seemed obvious that Losey would eventually direct the adaptation of L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between in 1971, though he took more than one attempt to get the project off the ground, but when he did it was the most acclaimed feature of his career.
Not everyone likes The Go-Between, or what he did with it, as some regard it as one of the origins of the heritage cinema genre that was appearing as the country and indeed its film industry, was going into decline after the blooming sixties. Essentially these pictures sought to create a glowing, beautifully photographed view of the British past that would in some way reassure the present that things were fine back then, and would be again, yet Losey did not want to play that game. Therefore while the aesthetes and would-be aesthetes attended the film and appreciated its finer qualities, others would recognise the rot in its story.
That plot had twelve-year-old Leo (Dominic Guard) in the title role, a relatively poor visitor to the fabulously well-to-do country house in Norfolk and its family, where he almost reluctantly becomes the vessel to pass letters from the daughter of that brood (Julie Christie) to the local farmer (Alan Bates) who she is having an affair with, without the knowledge of said family. For if they found out, it would be scandal thanks to the class difference, and besides, the daughter is intended for a Viscount (James Fox), more of her standing and he may be a perfectly decent sort, but he is not who she is head over heels in love with.
Then again, she may simply be in lust with him and he with her, not being able to discern the difference either through the intoxication of physical attraction or through the excitement of carrying on under the noses of the gentry. Even if the connection is superficial, you get the impression it could develop into a genuine romance had the climate been more understanding, or in blunter terms, far less corrupt and prejudiced. As with The Criminal, a grand plan to see the characters enjoy lasting happiness is scuppered, but in the case of The Go-Between, we are not meant to judge them getting their just desserts, it is intended as a tragedy. For that reason, the film may be predictable, but mix the bucolic imagery with Michel Legrand's melodic yet oddly sinister soundtrack, and you would be justified in feeling uneasy. But that was Losey, and these were two of his most vital works.
[Both these titles have been released on Blu-ray by Studio Canal, fully restored in finely-detailed 4K. Those features:
On The Criminal:
Audio Commentary by Film Historian Kat Ellinger
On The Go-Between:
Interview with Dominic Guard
Anglia local news 31/07/1970 - featuring location report and i/vs with Julie Christie, Joseph Losey & Margaret Leighton
Behind the scenes stills gallery
Interview with Josh Losey
Interview with Patricia Losey
Michael Billington on Harold Pinter
Interview with Gerry Fisher
Interview with John Heyman
Horlicks Television advert directed by Joseph Losey.]