In the sixties, Joseph Losey represented the greatest expression of auteur or art-house cinema with works like The Servant (1963), King and Country (1964), Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971), all of which, with the exception of the second, were written by the playwright Harold Pinter. But before becoming a leading figure of European independent film, Losey endured a complicated situation like so many others affected by the reprisals of the Hollywood witch hunt from 1947 onwards. His work is divided into three periods: his early period in North American film until the early fifties, the prestige he achieved in the UK of the sixties and seventies and a later, more itinerant stage when he worked for Italian, French and Spanish production.
Born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1909, Losey turned his steps towards written and broadcast journalism, later moving into theatre. His openly left-wing beliefs led him to work on several mises en scène with Bertold Brecht and to spend a period in the former Soviet Union studying new theatre concepts. In the late thirties he started to direct short films with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, making his feature debut in 1948 with The Boy with Green Hair, a parable against war, totalitarianism and intransigence towards difference, produced by RKO. Although he did succeed in making a number of low-cost films noirs of undisguised social slant – The Lawless (1950), The Prowler (1951) and The Big Night (1951), all three penned by screenwriters blacklisted by the Un-American Activities Commission, Daniel Mainwaring, Daltun Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr – and even a remake of Fritz Lang’s famous M in 1951, his name appeared on the blacklist for the tone of his early films and he was accused of belonging to the North American Communist Party.
When called to testify, he was in Italy shooting Stranger on the Prowl / Imbarco a mezzanotte (1952). He decided not to return to the United States and settled in Britain. He released said film under the pseudonym Andrea Forzano and trade union issues prevented his name from featuring on the first two movies made in his country of adoption: in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), first collaboration with one of his actors fetiche, Dirk Bogarde, he is credited as Victor Hanbury and, in The Intimate Stranger (1956), as Joseph Walton.
Losey took up his place in British cinema at a time of change. These were not only the days of rising Free Cinema, a trend he had no part in even if some of his earlier films made in the sixties did have a certain realistic and social angle, but also of the horror movie makers Hammer Film Productions, for which Losey started X The Unknown (1956), before he was ousted from the shooting and replaced by Leslie Norman, later directing The Damned (1962); these were Losey's only inroads to the sci-fi domain.
Following a timid attempt at integration to the great British film industry with The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958), a Rank production headlining Melina Mercouri, his work attracted outstanding interest from the mystery movie Blind Date (1959) and the prison drama The Criminal (1961), the beginning of his collaboration with the other actor with whom he would enjoy close understanding, Stanley Baker. Until the mid-seventies, Losey alternated highly personal films reflecting on relations of power (between both men and institutional bodies) constructed around mises en scène packed with symbols (his particular use of spectacular images), with what at first glance seemed to be more commercial titles served up by the big stars of the moment and taking their inspiration from works of enormous popularity or unquestionable literary prestige.
To this first group belonged the film that best defines his work, The Servant, with Pinter's acerbic writing and the acting duel between Bogarde and James Fox, Accident (Grand Prix du Jury at the Cannes Festival), The Go-Between (Palme d'Or at Cannes) and the anti-war King and Country, played out in the British trenches of the First World War during a summary trial for desertion. The second group includes works like Eve (1962), adaptation of a novel by James Hadley Chase, starring Jeanne Moreau and which was the first of many films consecrated by Losey to female characters who irradiate a strange fascination; Modesty Blaise (1966), iconoclastic version of Peter O'Donnell and Jim Holdaway’s spy-fi comic strip featuring Monica Vitti; Boom (1968), a piece by Tennessee Williams dished up by the explosive couple Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton; Secret Ceremony (1968), a psychological and claustrophobic drama once again starring Elizabeth Taylor, with Robert Mitchum and Mia Farrow; A Doll’s House (1973), based on Henrik Ibsen's piece and with Jane Fonda, David Warner and Trevor Howard, and A Romantic Englishwoman (1975), another of his defining movies, an intense and evil triangular game written by Tom Stoppard and performed by Glenda Jackson, Michael Caine and Helmut Berger.
During this prolific period, Losey made hugely abstract works including Figures in a Landscape (1970), following the flight of two prisoners pursued by a mysterious helicopter (with a screenplay written by actor Robert Shaw, its leading man alongside Malcolm McDowell; the film competed in San Sebastian) and Mr. Klein (1976), with Alain Delon in the part of an unsavoury character accused of being a Jew during the Nazi occupation in France (winner of the César for Best Film). But he also shot films of obvious political accent such as L’assassinio di Trotsky / The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), with Delon as Ramón Mercader and Burton in the role of Leon Trotsky, and Les routes du Sud (1978), continuation of La guerre est finie (1966) by Alain Resnais, once again written by Jorge Semprún and with Yves Montand repeating his role of Spanish exile in constant ideological conflict.
Losey returned to Brecht many years later with a cinema adaptation of Galileo (1974), based on the English translation by Charles Laughton and starring Topol, hugely popular at the time for his leading part in Fiddler on the Roof (1971). He also made the filmed opera Don Giovanni (1979) with Ruggero Raimondi and, in France, La Truite (1982) with Isabelle Huppert in the part of yet another of the director’s complex female characters. His last film was Steaming (1985) which, like the one before it, was never screened in Spain. This is a work of theatrical roots starring Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles and set in London Turkish baths as they fight its closure on ladies day. Losey never saw the final cut of the film; he passed away in June 1984, almost a year before its presentation at Cannes.
Losey’s relationship with the San Sebastian Festival was always complicated owing to the Franco dictatorship. In addition to Figures in a Landscape, the Festival screened The Sleeping Tiger, Boom and, in the informative section, The Go-Between.The Romantic Englishman was also selected, but the director and Glenda Jackson refused to come to the event in protest against the death sentences recently signed by Franco.
After its screening in San Sebastian, the retrospective will run at the Filmoteca Española in Madrid.