Joseph Losey (1909-1984)

Joseph Losey (1909-1984)

"The expatriate American director Joseph Losey (1909 - 1984) claimed his place among important filmmakers with such rich films as The Servant (1963), King and Country (1964), Accident (1967), The Go-Between (1971), and The Romantic Englishwoman (1975). His reputation, however, remains unjustifiably problematic. For some he is an allegorist detached from his characters, for others principally a stylist with a penchant for the gothic. Admittedly the body of his work includes both great achievements and failed aspirations; masterful films stand amid misbegotten efforts such as Modesty Blaise (1966) and Boom! (1968). Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter Moreover, critics have disagreed radically about the very nature and characteristics of his work. The French critic Gilles Jacob, for example, writes of Losey's "unshakable faith in human nature", whereas Foster Hirsch concludes that the "world-view" in his films is "essentially negative, their sense of the possibilities of human nature and society deeply pessimistic" The effort to see Losey's achievement whole has been further complicated by the drama of his personal history and the several ways of dividing his filmmaking career. After only five feature films in the United States, in the years 1948-51, he was blacklisted and moved to England, never making another film in his own country although he expressed the desire to do so and, on at least one occasion, nearly succeeded. Given the blacklist and Losey's subsequent exile, the most obvious division of his films is between those produced in Hollywood and those after. But the films he made after Hollywood can also be divided between the English and the European, and the three films he made from screenplays by Harold Pinter (The Servant, Accident, The Go-Between) can be distinguished from his other English films made both before and after their collaboration." [1]

Early Life

Joseph Losey around 1943

Born January 14, 1909 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to parents of English, Dutch, and German extraction, Losey was one of the more prominent figures of the Hollywood left before being hounded out of the US in the early 1950s during the anti-communist witch-hunts. "When he was sixteen, his father died suddenly of peritonitis; his subsequent relationship with his mother was difficult and distant,and he was to see her infrequently after he left Wisconsin for Dartmouth College in 1925. Prior to committing to filmmaking, Losey studied medicine at Dartmouth College and then majored in English literature at Harvard. "In his senior year at Dartmouth Losey broke his back in a freak theater accident. A year in the hospital, which he spent reading and studying, led him to change from medical studies ("a completely false vocation that I'd imposed on myself") to theater and English literature; after graduation, he completed a masters degree in English at Harvard in 1930. "The back thing was a blessing in disguise, as the black list was a blessing in disguise. The catastrophies in my life seemed to have always worked out for my benefit." [1]

Radicalised during the early years of the Great Depression, in 1931 and again in 1935 Losey traveled to Europe. On the latter trip he visited Russia and he had the opportunity to immerse himself in the work of the Soviet avant-garde before that movement was completely crushed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Losey studied at the Moscow Art Theatre with Sergei Eisenstein and later worked, in Los Angeles, with Bertolt Brecht. In Russia he met Vsevolod Meyerhold, a visionary avant-garde dramatist who fought against the crude propagandism of Stalinist “socialist realism.” He was one of many prominent figures in Soviet art and culture executed in the Stalinist purges. Photo from the Broadway Production of 'Waiting for Lefty' (1935) In Moscow, Losey directed an English-language production of Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty. "He briefly thought of staying in Russia, but was talked out of the idea by a member of the Politburo who, he later said with characteristic candor, "was really like a breath of fresh air because he cut through all of my nonsense, my idealistic nonsense". In the thirties, Losey became a Marxist, and later in Hollywood he joined the Communist party, a move that was to have a great and disturbing impact on his life. Living in New York City throughout the thirties, he first wrote theater reviews, then worked as a stage manager,and eventually directed plays, working with such writers as Sinclair Lewis and Maxwell Anderson. His New York experience was a blend of theater, politics, and film that led him to work for such politically oriented groups as The Living Newspaper, the Federal Theater, the Political Cabaret, and eventually to begin making educational and documentary films. When the war broke out, Losey worked for the United War Relief and then volunteered for the Air Corps, but a dossier of his political activities thwarted his enlistment, and he spent the better part of a year working in radio for NBC. Ironically, before the war ended, he was drafted into the army and ended up making films in the Signal Corps." [1]

The Hollywood Years and the Blacklist

The twelve-year-old Dean Stockwell in The Boy with Green Hair (1948)

"After the war, Losey worked for MGM, directing a short film, A Gun in His Hand (1945), that received an Academy Award nomination. His chance to direct his first Hollywood feature came when Dore Schary, executive producer at RKO, asked him to make The Boy with Green Hair with producer Adrian Scott. But when Scott was subpoenaed in 1947 to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, production plans for the film were suspended. Meanwhile Losey helped stage a large rally at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles for the defenders of the Hollywood Nineteen (before the Nineteen became the Hollywood Ten), and soon after this event, hemounted a celebrated stage production of his close friend Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, starring Charles Laughton, which was presented in Los Angeles just prior to Brecht's appearance before the HUAC and subsequent hurried departure for Europe. A few months later the production was also staged in New York. Despite these highly visible public activities, Losey somehow survived the first round of blacklisting. Dore Schary again asked him to direct The Boy with Green Hair, but of course without Scott as producer. (Schary was himself fired by RKO's owner, Howard Hughes, before The Boy with Green Hair [1948] was completed.) This antiracist, pro-peace allegory or fable, which remains popular today, was attacked as a "red" film, a film that, according to Losey, "Hughes tried his best to change"; failing that, Hughes threatened him with a message about his contract: "You'll stayhere for seven years and you'll never work". Finally, his friendship with Brecht, his defense of Adrian Scott, his sponsorship of composer Hans Eisler (brother of Gerhardt Eisler, the head of the Communist party in East Germany), and his own party membership all made him vulnerable when the HUAC investigations were revived in 1951.

HUAC hearing

Losey's blacklisting has been much commented on by himself and others, and it certainly played a crucial role in the direction his career was to take. Without going into great detail, any summary of his attitudes about the blacklisting - about the witch-hunting, the scapegoating, and the betrayal by friends and colleagues - reveals one essential thing, and that is Losey's concern for maintaining a sense of personal integrity bothduring and after the blacklisting era. As he commented in a radio interview later:

There is the terrible problem - how to be honest, as honest as one can. How not to betray, or seem to betray... what one believed and did in extreme youth — whether in the 1930's or during the war or in the post-war period. I don't think anyone in his right mind wants to say "I didn't do this, I didn't stand for this, or I stood for this because I was a dupe," or whatever the escape-hatches may be. Because those attitudes or those points of view - no matter how limited they might have been or whatever caused them at the time - they are what one has developed from. They are part of what one is. And if you deny them, you do yourself and everyone else a great disservice, because then you obscure instead of clarifying.
The Lawless (1950)

In Victor Navasky's Naming Names, Losey gives a fascinating account of the events surrounding his being named a Communist, and of his betrayer who some years later offered him an attractive film project that he turned down. Controversy marked Losey's film career from its inception, and the political turmoil of the late forties and early fifties in America eventually turned him from a Hollywood director into an expatriate director. Ironically, as Losey told Gene Phillips: "In a way my being blacklisted was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it forced me to go to Europe to continue my career as a film maker. Otherwise I might have stayed on in Hollywood merely making money instead of making pictures I want to make. What could be worse than that?"

Speaking about the didactic qualities of his first two Hollywood features, The Boy with Green Hair and The Lawless (1950), Losey succinctly put into perspective the kind of films he made not only in the United States, but for his first several years in England:

They were what is called "message" pictures. And they were made by a man — me — and other men and women, who thought we knew the answers or thought we could find answers. I stopped somewhere along the line — I guess at Eve maybe — making that kind of picture, and have been much more interested in making pictures of provocation: that is, opening up the mind so people have to examine situations and attitudes and come to their own conclusions.
Prop man John Orlando, director Joseph Losey and David Wayne at work on M

Interestingly, for a few critics the early melodramas in Hollywood are Losey's finest. The French critic Pierre Rissient, for example, argues in his book Losey (1966) that the American films are his best, simple, unpretentious, and the more successful for these traits. But Losey himself never concurred in this assessment. With typical frankness he said that The Boy with Green Hair "certainly is obviously a first film". He was dissatisfied with the studio settings (they seemed unrealistic to Losey, who knew from his own experience what small towns were like and who would have preferred location shooting) and frustrated in trying to deal with the film's mix of fantasy and reality, notably in the war orphan scene that was shot in a studio-built glade and even in the charming song and dance fantasy with Pat O'Brien and veteran vaudevillean Walter Catleff. Losey also felt that the film was compromised by mixing a pro-peace message into what was "basically an allegory about racism". Similarly, although he liked The Lawless, Losey said that the film was "very primitive as a piece of work", one that, as he said to James Leahy, "belongs to a very early period of thinking for me I was still trying to get out of my system, I suppose, some of the things which were very much a part of me in the thirties and early forties".

The Prowler (1951)

Despite Losey's perceptive criticism of his early films, this stage in his career reveals something more than merely a politically committed neophyte director learning his craft. For instance, The Boy with Green Hair, quite apart from its troubled production history, merits attention not just as the first feature of a filmmaker who went on to a distinguished career, but as a film that demonstrates its director's already considerable strengths. Whatever its limits, the film remains not just a well-meaning if obvious work of earnest social criticism, but a promising film of charm and sensitivity, marked by excellent performances by Pat O'Brien, Robert Ryan, and especially the twelve-year-old Dean Stockwell. Indeed Losey's skill with actors would be remarked on by many performers who worked with him subsequently.

Although Losey ascribed to The Prowler, his third film, "a kind of Hollywood polish which I don't admire and don't strive for," he also counted it "a very smooth picture... which really doesn't date". Certainly, of his early films it is the one that best suggests the directions his mature work would take. Written by Hugo Butler and Dalton Trumbo, both of whom were to be blacklisted (Trumbo was uncredited because he had already been identified as one of the Hollywood Ten), The Prowler is an effective film noir about a morally adrift policeman who contrives to murder a beautiful woman's older husband (allegedly mistaking him for a prowler) in order to get the woman and her money for himself." [1]

The Outcast

Director Joseph Losey rehearses Blind Date with Micheline Presle and Hardy Krüger

"With his Hollywood career brought to a close by the HUAC investigations and the resulting blacklisting of directors, writers, and actors on the political left, Losey directed in Italy in 1952 the first film to be made abroad by a blacklisted artist (Stranger on the Prowl [Imbarco a Mezzanotte]). Eventually settling in England, he directed several films, including The Sleeping Tiger (1954) and The Intimate Stranger (1956), under various pseudonyms - using for the latter film the name Joseph Walton (his first and middle names). Ironically, with these two films, and Time Without Pity (1957) and Blind Date (1959), Losey continued to collaborate with fellow American victims of the blacklist, including Carl Foreman, Howard Koch, Ben Barzman, and Millard Lampell. But, importantly, because the prohibitions of the blacklist often extended to English films with American financial backing or dependent on American distribution (Time Without Pity was an exception), he had no control over his material, which was basically routine studio melodrama. "Partly because of the typecasting nonsense in Hollywood, after my first film I had been cast in the role of a director of melodrama. So of course when I began to work again here, I was, in the case of The Sleeping Tiger, handed a piece of sensational melodrama." [1]

The Criminal (1960)

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.

The Damned (1963)

The Hammer studios offered Losey the chance to direct The Damned (1962), one of the most underrated of his films, an effective polemic against the horrors of nuclear warfare. 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.

Virna Lisi, Stanley Baker and Jeanne Moreau in Eva directed by Joseph Losey, 1962

"But these films are not insignificant. Their importance, however, lies principally in what they reveal of Losey's growing sense of how to merge themes that mattered to him with the power of individualized characters set within particular social worlds, which are revealed by complex cinematic means. Losey acknowledged both his need for and frustration with the message films of this period in his artistic growth." [1]

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.

Dirk Bogarde and James Fox in The Servant (1963)

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.

The Servant: A shadowy vortex, the stairway is a playground for the ball game and the many other power games between master and servant.

"Losey's personal artistic struggle became one of understanding the complexities and ambiguities of his characters' sexual obsessions and will to power, which are inextricably bound to their moral failings and their self-destructiveness. "With Eve I wanted to make a picture - as I still and always do - about the particular destruction and anguish and waste of most sexual relations, whether heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or whatever". Eve, The Servant, Accident, The Go-Between, The Romantic Englishwoman, La Truite, even his elegant film of Mozart's Don Giovanni (1979) — all testify to Losey's enduring fascination with this subject in its different cultural contexts and with its interrelated themes of class conflict, personal ambition, hypocrisy, and betrayal. What substitutes for the overt violence of the earlier melodramas is a pervasive atmosphere of anxiety, of threat, of suppressed or inner violence. Rather than a psychology of tidy answers that a film like The Sleeping Tiger provides, Losey came to understand what Robert Bresson stated epigrammatically in Notes on Cinematography: "No psychology (of the kind which discovers only what it can explain)". For a director so often accused of didacticism, Losey made films after his early years that are surprisingly free of explanations and answers. Instead, what he discovered and presented most lucidly through the sophisticated narrative structures and narrational strategies of his best work is an ineluctable mystery at the heart of human nature and human behavior. Losey's films neither insist on nor ignore causality; instead his characters are more often compelled by motives that are ambiguous or uncertain rather than simple or straightforward.

Private Sparrow cradles the condemned Hamp and consoles him with the grim observation, 'We'll all be rat food before long'.

There are ongoing traces of a personal signature in Losey's films, which he believed not so much necessary as inevitable in an artist's work. In part this is a function of his unusually close and continuing relationship with the same few designers - particularly Richard MacDonald, who worked with Losey repeatedly, even on films where he was not credited as production designer. Losey's meticulous attention to visual detail was typically in the service not of verisimilitude but of stylization, "breaking down reality and reconstructing it in terms of selected things that made it possible for audiences to see only what you wanted them to see". His oft-noted fondness for mirrors in the mise-en-scene, for example, is not merely a stylistic flourish or affectation, as both The Servant and The Romantic Englishwoman make clear. In both of these films mirrors hang in houses whose decor intimately expresses the narcissism, the preoccupation with self and identity that consumes their inhabitants. "I think places are actors," Losey once said. "Houses in Secret Ceremony [1968], Accident, The Servant, these are characters for me, and they influence immensely the actions of the people who are put there". The same can be said of the fierce landscape in Figures in a Landscape (1970) against which the characters play out a drama of hostility that yields to dependence, or the images of a subdued and oppressive Paris in Mr. Klein (1976) in which elegant apartments and country houses seem deprived of color and richness as the Nazi roundup of Jews in World War II overtakes the central character.

Cannes, 1971: Luchino Visconti and Joseph Losey, both recipients of awards (Palme d'Or for The Go-Between)

Losey's finest films are characterized by a layering of unresolved tensions not just between social classes, but between calm surfaces and passionate depths, between intellect and emotion, between places and the characters who live in them, between communities and those who intrude on them. Particularly in his collaboration with Pinter, Losey explored more complex forms to express these tensions, going beyond the simple storytelling that producers typically preferred. "Many of them feel," he once lamented, "there isn't any film unless, as they put it, there is a strong storyline. This is really nonsense". As his ties to the norms of traditional studio filmmaking loosened, Losey was attracted to more adventurous approaches to film form. Thus, as he turned away from the plot-centered energies of melodrama and social protest, he explored more intensively another, more important tension between what is now commonly distinguished as story and discourse - that is, the tension between a film's story (its inferrable characters and events) and the way the story is told. His growing interest in subjectivity and the experience of time began to influence his sense of the resources of film to tell stories in uncommon ways and led him to such complex literary experiments in point of view and narration as Nicholas Mosley's Accident and Thomas Wiseman's The Romantic Englishwoman, to L. P. Hartley's The Go-between, a moving study of an aging man whose life has been sacrificed to memory and loss.

The Romantic Englishwoman: Reminiscent of distorting images in The Servant

Losey's position as an expatriate who made films in several countries led to his own amused comment in an interview in American Film that "there's quite a good deal of confusion in the world as to what I am, in terms of a director. The French now think I'm English. A lot of the English think I'm English. The Italians think I'm French Anyway, it's unimportant, isn't it? I wanted to make some pictures because I think that I have a certain distance that has made it possible for me to comment on certain European societies and situations in ways that perhaps otherwise I couldn't have done." [1]

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.


  • Steaming (1985)
  • La truite (1982) ... aka "The Trout"
  • Don Giovanni (1979)
  • Les routes du sud (1978) ... aka "Roads to the South"
  • Mr. Klein (1976)
  • The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)
  • Galileo (1975)
  • A Doll's House (1973)
  • The Assassination of Trotsky (1972)
  • The Go-Between (1971)
  • Figures in a Landscape (1970)
  • Secret Ceremony (1968)
  • Boom (1968)
  • Accident (1967)
  • Modesty Blaise (1966)
  • King & Country (1964)
  • The Servant (1963)
  • The Damned (1963)
  • Eva (1962)
  • The Criminal (1960)
  • Blind Date (1959)
  • First on the Road (1959)
  • The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958)
  • Time Without Pity (1957)
  • X: The Unknown (1956)
  • The Intimate Stranger (1956)
  • A Man on the Beach (1955)
  • The Sleeping Tiger (1954)
  • Imbarco a mezzanotte (1952) ... aka "Stranger on the Prowl"
  • The Big Night (1951)
  • The Prowler (1951)
  • M (1951)
  • The Lawless (1950)
  • The Boy with Green Hair (1948)
  • Leben des Galilei (1947)
  • A Gun in His Hand (1945)
  • A Child Went Forth (1941)
  • Youth Gets a Break (1941)