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Losey, Joseph (1909-1984)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Losey, Joseph (1909-1984)

Joseph Losey was born on 14 January 1909 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. After high school, he studied at Dartmouth and Harvard, majoring in medicine and English, but he soon drifted to New York City, where he became involved in the theatre and began making short films. He caught the attention of MGM and was asked to make A Gun in His Hand (1945), a two reel short in the 'Crime Does Not Pay' series.

Losey was unhappy during his tenure at MGM, and left in 1947 for RKO, where he directed his first feature, The Boy with Green Hair (1948). Several other films followed which established him as an inventive, individualistic director. But in 1951 his links with left-wing theatre groups (in 1947 he had collaborated with Bertolt Brecht on a production of Galileo) and the concern for social justice in many of his films attracted the attention of the House of Representatives UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and led to him being blacklisted.

In 1952 he arrived in England and began re-building his career. After directing several episodes of television series such as Robin Hood, he directed his first British feature film, The Sleeping Tiger (1954), though the credit went to the veteran director, Victor Hanbury. Its stage-bound plot makes it the least interesting of Losey's early British films, but it marked his first collaboration with Dirk Bogarde, whose career was to become inextricably linked with that of Losey.

In 1955, Losey directed the 29-minute short colour film A Man on the Beach for Hammer, with a cast that included Donald Wolfit, Michael Medwin and Michael Ripper. Immaculately photographed by Wilkie Cooper, this peculiar and atmospheric caper film centring on a casino robbery, scripted by Jimmy Sangster, offers an interesting hint as to Losey's future direction in British cinema.

The Intimate Stranger (1956) is a thriller, in which rising film studio executive Reggie Wilson (Richard Basehart) is almost forced out of the profession when he becomes the target of a vicious campaign of innuendo engineered by studio production chief Ernest Chaple (Mervyn Johns). The parallels with Losey's own plight are obvious, and The Intimate Stranger succeeds admirably despite its modest budget. It was followed by Time Without Pity (1957), featuring Michael Redgrave, Ann Todd, Leo McKern, Peter Cushing and Alec McCowen in an adroit suspense film in which Alec Graham (McCowen) is convicted of killing his girlfriend and sentenced to death. His estranged father, David (Redgrave), an alcoholic writer, becomes convinced of his son's innocence and tries desperately to clear him in the 24 hours before his date with the hangman. Superbly photographed by Freddie Francis, Time Without Pity was the first British film Losey was allowed to sign his name to. The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958), showed Losey had little aptitude for costume drama, but Blind Date (1959) confirmed the promise of Time Without Pity in showing Losey capable of turning a routine genre film into an incisive comment on the human condition.

Now well established in the UK, Losey began to look for more adventurous projects. The Criminal (1960), re-written by Alun Owen from a script by Jimmy Sangster, told the story of criminal Johnny Bannion as he tries to come to terms with the world he has made. Half the film is set in the precincts of a dank and dreary prison, with highly theatrical sets and lighting, and the film is a brutal but stylised vision of the criminal's place in modern society. It featured impeccable performances from Stanley Baker as Bannion and Sam Wanamaker as his oily, smooth-talking nemesis. John Dankworth's compelling score, which marked the beginning of a long collaboration between the composer and the director, added intensity and depth to Losey's striking pictorial compositions. The Criminal showed that Losey possessed an immense and original talent and doors that had been closed to him finally began to swing open.

Hammer offered Losey the chance to direct The Damned (1962), one of the most underrated of his films. At a seaside resort, teenage gang leader King (Oliver Reed) and his mates terrorise the locals, including tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) and sculptress Freya Nielsen (Viveca Lindfors). Nearby, in an underground cave complex, government officials led by the sinister Professor Bernard (Alexander Knox) and his serpentine assistant (James Villiers) contrive to keep a group of radioactive children alive in order to study them. King, a vicious psychopath at the film's outset, is gradually humanised, and attempts to help the children escape. But because they are radioactive, they fatally contaminate everyone they come in contact with. In the end, the momentarily liberated children are rounded up by government workers in radiation suits, and returned to their underground prison. Losey's collaboration with Hammer was predictably stormy; using a script by Evan Jones that he substituted at the last minute, Losey delivered a film that was both bleak and uncompromising, rather than a conventional science fiction thriller. After heavy cuts, the film was released by Hammer in August of 1962; it did not reach the US until July 1965, as the bottom half of a double bill.

Undaunted, Losey pressed ahead with Eve (1962), an examination of sexual obsession in which Welsh writer Tyvian (Stanley Baker) falls for femme fatale Eve (Jeanne Moreau), who seems intent on creating havoc wherever she goes. The film was not well received, but once again, Losey had been victimised by his producers (the Hakim brothers), who cut some 16 minutes from the film before its release and jettisoned Losey's Billie Holiday song soundtrack.

Losey's next film, The Servant (1963), his first collaboration with Harold Pinter, was a critical and commercial success. Dirk Bogarde appeared as Hugo, a valet who gradually manipulates his employer, Tony (James Fox), into a position of hopeless subservience. The result is a nightmarishly claustrophobic film: an attack on the class system and the weakness of the English aristocracy. Bogarde's contribution was not limited to the disturbing performance which enabled him to make the transfer from matinee idol to art cinema actor. When Losey fell ill with pneumonia during the filming, Bogarde was obliged to fill in for several days as the director. He also starred in King and Country (1964), a low-budget black and white First World War drama, Modesty Blaise (1966), a pop art spy spoof which appears in danger of falling apart as it moves from one opulent location to the next, and Accident (1967), the film which brought Losey international acclaim.

Accident focuses on Stephen (Bogarde), a weak and insecure Oxford don, whose life is thrown into turmoil when he falls in love with one of his students, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), who also commands the affections of William (Michael York), a rich upper-class fellow student, and Charley (Stanley Baker) a media don who, despite his surface assurance, is undergoing his own mid-life crisis. Harold Pinter's adaptation of Nicholas Mosley's novel is spare and epigrammatic: for all its visual splendour, Accident is a film about interior states of being, and the essential unknowability of the other. With John Dankworth's cool jazz score, Pinter's crisp dialogue and Gerry Fisher's atmospheric colour cinematography, simultaneously invoking the indolence and privilege of academe, Accident seems to combine the discipline of his early films with the artistic ambition of his later work.

Subsequent films were often something of a disappointment. Boom (1968), is an embarrassingly indulgent Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor vehicle from a Tennessee Williams script. Secret Ceremony (1968), a more intriguing misfire starring Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow, was marred by an unfinished script, production problems and executive interference. Figures in A Landscape (directed by Losey under the pseudonym Joseph Walton) and The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), starring Richard Burton as Trotsky and Alain Delon as his murderer, lack the passion and energy of Losey's early films. Only The Go-Between (1970), an adaptation of an L.P. Hartley story by Harold Pinter, featuring confident performances from Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Margaret Leighton and Michael Redgrave, recaptured some of the director's old assurance, but it might be seen as the final statement of a man who had run out of energy and resources.

Losey's final films, A Doll's House (1973), The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), Galileo (1975), Monsieur Klein (1976), Les Routes du sud (1978), Don Giovanni (1979), Boris Godunov (1980), La Truite (1982) and Steaming (1985) have an air of exhaustion about them, as if Losey is simply going through the motions on the set, without any real commitment to the material. Even the best regarded of these films, Don Giovanni and La Truite, seem unambitious when compared to the vitality and originality of his best work. Losey's health, never robust, failed during the production of Steaming and he died in London on 22 June 1984.

Losey's greatest works were those he created out of a desperate need to make his vision whole on the screen; his exile from America sharpened that vision, forcing him to identify ever more closely with the outsiders he depicted in his most successful films. If his later career is a footnote to the earlier, more compelling works, Joseph Losey is still a major figure in the history of cinema.

Caute, David, Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1994)
Ciment, Michel, Conversations with Losey (London and New York: Methuen, 1985)
de Rahm, Edith, Joseph Losey (London: Andre Deutsch, 1991)
Hirsch, Foster, Joseph Losey (Boston: Twayne, 1980) Leahy, James, The Cinema of Joseph Losey (New York, A. S. Barnes, 1967)
Milne, Tom, Losey on Losey. (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967)
Palmer, James and Michael Riley. The Films of Joseph Losey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Accident (1967)Accident (1967)

A fatal car accident triggers an intense psychological drama

Thumbnail image of Criminal, The (1960)Criminal, The (1960)

Joseph Losey's fascinating portrait of a changing criminal underworld

Thumbnail image of Damned, The (1963)Damned, The (1963)

Joseph Losey's chiller about the after-effects of radiation

Thumbnail image of Go-Between, The (1971)Go-Between, The (1971)

Acclaimed adaptation of L.P. Hartley's novel about a boy's loss of innocence

Thumbnail image of Servant, The (1963)Servant, The (1963)

James Fox and Dirk Bogarde's savage attack on the British class system

Thumbnail image of Sleeping Tiger, The (1954)Sleeping Tiger, The (1954)

Joseph Losey's British debut stars Dirk Bogarde as a young criminal

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