Joseph Losey & Harold Pinter: In search of poshlust times
From Venetian decadence and British class war to Proustian time games, the films of Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter gave us a new, ambitious, high-culture kind of art film, says Nick James
A row of gondolas bob at the San Marco quayside in winter mist - the camera turns slowly through 180 degrees, taking in the far colonnades of the Piazza and coming to rest on a relief sculpture of Eve next to Adam at the corner of the Doge's palace.
It starts with Eve, not the wife of Adam but the film that tries so hard to squeeze redundant meaning from her biblical role as a temptress. The origins of a rich kind of art cinema that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s are extant in the film's ambitious, symbolist shots and its fragmentary gestures towards high culture. Venice - that lodestone and backdrop for premodernist artists craving excess and ruination - also plays its part. And we mustn't forget Jeanne Moreau's courtesan Eve, gliding in on a vaporetto to land outside Harry's Bar, oozing the sulky co-opted glamour of the New Wave.
"It is probably correct to say the film is self-indulgent," admitted director Joseph Losey more than a decade later. In 1961 however, when he began shooting, this rather paranoid, highly neurotic director believed his time had come. The French admired his command of mise en scène, both in the US studio films created before McCarthy's HUAC ran him out of the country (such as The Boy with Green Hair, 1948, The Prowler, 1951, and his remake of Fritz Lang's M, 1951) and in the films he made subsequently in Britain (such as The Criminal, 1960 and The Damned, 1961). At the invitation of French producers the Hakim brothers, with Eve he took on the directors whose influence he felt most keenly: Resnais and Antonioni, visual theorists of artifice and architecture.
"I was in love with Venice," Losey said, "mirror vision, left-handedness, sexual reversals, the fragmentation of water." You can see him in the first few minutes of Eve sitting in a corner of Harry's Bar, rigid with tension as the camera pans past to find Stanley Baker wearing glasses and a too-tight suit. Baker's character Tyvian is being an ass. His braggadocio as a regular Venice 'character' is out of place: he's a Welsh screenwriter, abject in his devotion to Moreau's Eve. His furious former producer, Branco (Giorgio Albertazzi), reminds him that they're gathered to remember Francesca, Tyvian's wife, who committed suicide two years earlier. Tyvian slaps money on the counter, storms outside and, half covering his face with his hand in self-disgust, mutters: "If I forget thee..." This overwrought gesture later finds a more startling echo.
Much of Eve's indulgent melodrama, adapted from a thin James Hadley Chase potboiler, has a disdainful Moreau mooching about in white and black Cardin. But let's fast forward. Having tasted a souring fling with Eve in Venice's Danieli Hotel, Tyvian marries Francesca (Botticelli-beautiful Virna Lisi). When Francesca leaves their Torcello home to help her boss Branco with an emergency, Tyvian seeks out Eve. He brings her back home, where she's been before, and again she disports herself in kittenish poses inspired by famous paintings, once more denying him sex.
In the morning Francesca finds Tyvian sleeping off his drunken coma on the floor and then, from the door to her bedroom, sees Eve and is aghast. Her expression echoes not only Baker/Tyvian's earlier one but, more tellingly, the reproduction of a painting that she's posed next to: Masaccio's Eve banished from Eden.
I remember clearly the pleasure this over-the-top high-culture quotation gave me when I was an art student in the late 1970s. In this moment Eve is exemplary of the Russian term poshlust (or poshlost) - defined by Nabokov, out of Gogol, as: "Vulgar clichés… imitations of imitations, bogus profundities… Look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages…" Sourpuss Nabokov was unaware that the careful irony of Lolita would soon be applied to all melodrama, the text being supposedly immune to its author's taste, or lack thereof. Thus the pleasure in poshlust cinema comes simultaneously from the buzz of the cultural associations it makes and the recognition of their surplus value, their reverberating emptiness. The art film's revisiting of high culture in this finger-pointing way was, of course, an aspect of burgeoning postmodernity, but also of the post-war autodidact intoxification with high culture. Losey took himself too seriously at this time to inflect his passions with much intended irony - he was, after all, sincerely in love, not only with Venice but with Moreau too - but some of his audience, in tune with the 1960s and 1970s interest in camp, supplied the irony themselves.
You can feel the embarrassment in Losey's assessment of his motives: "Things went into that film on a very emotional basis. The Bible, the shame, the heterosexual-homosexual aspects, the marriage's destructiveness, the beauty destroyed, the impurity, the blasphemy, the destruction of icons, the bells, all these things - they all just sort of splurge out at that moment."
But in this sweeping sketch of the Losey-Pinter years I want to show a positive side to poshlust influence. Many 1960s and 1970s films exploited the licence to artistically astonish that is first found in Eve. An aesthetically adventurous type of art cinema developed that shared Losey's tastes: the sheen of decadence, high-culture artefacts, slippery sexual power games, low deeds in chic places, the class system enjoyed for the panache with which it purportedly faced its doom. Sometimes pretentiousness is just a rehearsal for brilliance, the brilliance you find in, say, Nicolas Roeg's 1973 Venice thriller Don't Look Now.
The Servant, 1963
The hallway of a house in Chelsea's Royal Avenue; the unlocked front door opens at the push of a finger. In comes a neat man wearing a pork pie hat and a dark raincoat. This is Barrett. The camera backtracks away, around a corner into a room from which we can see a side-on view of the bottom of the stairs. Barrett comes back into view. He goes to the stairs, puts his hand on the banister and peers upwards, seemingly about to ascend.
The Servant is about the obsequious Barrett's slow takeover of his upper-class master, Tony, and his well-appointed home. Barrett's tactics are simple but effective: undermining Tony's girlfriend by bringing in housemaid Vera, a seductive young slut, and making his indolent master increasingly dependent on his ministrations, eventually including booze and drugs. Pinter's claustrophobic scenario enabled Losey to employ all his European art-cinema riffs at the service of a very English interior made sinister - the London house as a kind of nightclub cum prison - and a very English problem: the class system.
In their creative relationship, neither Losey nor Harold Pinter was master or servant. "I'm not accustomed to writing from notes and I don't like this," Losey reported Pinter saying at their drink-fuelled first script meeting. Pinter's version was as follows: "I went to see [Losey] at his house in Chelsea. 'I like the script,' he said. 'Thanks,' I said. 'But there are a number of things I don't like.' 'What things?' I asked. He told me. 'Well why don't you make another movie?' I said, and left the house." Two days later they patched it up and, as Pinter says, "over the next 25 years we worked on three more screenplays and never had another cross word."
Insomniac Losey could be prickly, a burly man whose emotions often ran to tears. Harold Pinter was the self-contained truth tester, a precise and correct writer at the top of his game; an actor too, who knew what actors could do with cadence and diction. It was another actor who brought them together, Dirk Bogarde, instrumental in so many ways in The Servant's groundbreaking - standing in for Losey when he had pneumonia (only to see most of his scenes reshot), bringing James Fox in as Tony. Bogarde used The Servant to trade in his matinee idol image - already made questionable by his brave turn as the homosexual barrister in Victim. Following his scheming turn as Barrett, he instead became the weather-changeable face in semi-decadent art films such as Darling (1965), Accident (1967), Justine (1969), Visconti's The Damned (1969), Death in Venice (1971), The Serpent (1973), The Night Porter (1974), Providence (1977) and Despair (1978).
It was Losey who first showed Robin Maugham's novelette The Servant to Bogarde in 1954. Originally separately commissioned by director Michael Anderson, Pinter stripped it of its first-person narrator, its yellow book snobbery and the arguably anti-Semitic characterisation of Barrett - oiliness, heavy lids - replacing them with an economical language that implied rather than stated the slippage of power relations away from Tony towards Barrett. In 1962 Bogarde read Pinter's script and rang Losey, who was shooting Eve. By the time director and writer were brought together, Losey was seething with fury at the Hakim brothers' mutilation of his beloved Eve. But that's another story.
To focus instead on Losey's pretentious leanings, the standard view is that Pinter saved Losey from his excessive tendencies. Losey himself felt differently. "It took me many, many years to get over the feeling that The Servant was inferior to Eve," he said to Michel Ciment. "It cost a lot less, of course; it was less elaborated, less personal, and in many ways it's a kind of remake." As in Eve, degradation and sexual revenge are present, but here they're not so heavily signalled. The restraint that Pinter's disciplined dialogue imposes - along with the lower budget and the one-house set - reined Losey in to powerful effect; he is quite mistaken about The Servant's inferiority.
The Servant's fusion of Losey's sensitivity to spaces and objects with Pinter's stark approach to image and language - seen through cinematographer Douglas Slocombe's magnificent black-and-white photography - initiated a new kind of cinema in the UK, one distinctly more ambitious than the social realism of the Woodfall films. The Servant transformed Bogarde's image, cemented Losey's fruitful partnership with Pinter and launched the cinema careers of James Fox and Sarah Miles (who played Vera). A few years later Fox would play a lost young thug opposite Mick Jagger's reclusive rock star in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's Performance (1970), the quintessence of the kind of cinema under discussion here.
The senior common room of an Oxford college, galleried and with high ceilings, yet narrow and crammed with books. Casually reading around a low table are Charley and Stephen, who are both dons, another colleague and the Provost. Seconds pass to the tocking of a grandfather clock; then Charley speaks:
"A statistical analysis of sexual intercourse among students resident at Colenso University, Milwaukee, showed that 70 per cent did it in the evening, 29.9 per cent between two and four in the afternoon and 0.1 per cent during a lecture on Aristotle."
After a pause, the Provost says, "I'm surprised to hear Aristotle is on the syllabus in the state of Wisconsin."
Joseph Walton Losey III was born in La Crosse Wisconsin, so the joke was for him, but by the time he made Accident he considered himself semi-British - he had lived in Britain for 14 years and his son Joshua had been brought up and educated here. Thus of all subjects the British class system fascinated him most, and Pinter, having been brought up in Hackney, had his own reasons for viewing the class system with what Michael Billington called "a mixture of moral disapproval and grudging fascination".
I regard Accident as Losey's finest film, one that's grown more resonant with time. Despite some implausibility in its depiction of the lives of Oxford dons, its barbed wit and formal complexity make it stand out from all other films dealing with class and sex among the English county set. Though its setting is less obviously decadent than Venice, Accident's 'dreaming spires' of Oxford contain a potential for degradation as yet unimagined by Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse.
Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), a young student (and Austrian princess, no less), willingly becomes the focus of a sexual power struggle between two married dons and a student. Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) is her handsome but effete tutor; William (Michael York) is a well-born fellow student; Charley (Stanley Baker) is Stephen's athletic friend and rival. Losey brought Bogarde and Baker together, but not without tension. "They disliked each other very much," Losey claimed, and Bogarde bemoaned Losey's "passion for bullying actors". But in Accident Baker shows much greater subtlety than anything he gives us in Eve - he seems embarrassed by his susceptibility to lust and is lost amid slipperier colleagues. Both actors, in their contrasting ways, show their mastery of how to make Pinter's lines seem naturalistic while striking sparks off one another.
The film starts with Stephen alone at home in his country house at night (his wife Rosalind is at a maternity unit, waiting to go into labour). He hears a car crash and finds a white two-seater sports car on its side. William (Michael York) is clearly dead, but Anna, the other occupant, seems OK. Stephen climbs on the car and helps her out, at one point shouting: "Stop, you're standing on his face." After the police have arrived and Anna has mysteriously disappeared, the story is told in retrospect, returning to the night of the crash only at the end.
It is William who first exacerbates Stephen's passion. He and Anna are punting on the river; he invites Stephen to join them. Anna's proximity so affects Stephen that he invites them both to Sunday lunch. The day comes and Charley arrives too, unbidden. Stephen soon finds himself alone with Anna on a walk but, as Raymond Durgnat noted, he is a "not quite" man, and soon he's simultaneously complicit in an affair between Charley and Anna and in William's plans to marry her.
Accident may be Losey's most restrained film. Low-key design emphasises Stephen's pleasantly anodyne lifestyle; a peevish Sunday afternoon of curdling cordiality becomes suffocating; games of tennis and cricket act out suppressed feelings. As Losey said, "This is a sort of Sunday afternoon brothel where nobody is pretending to play tennis - they're playing sex." So deft is the use of time and memory in Pinter's script that Losey avoided the alienating angles of Eve and The Servant. Allusion and stylish indirection dominate - take, for instance, Stephen's adulterous interlude in London with an old girlfriend, played by Delphine Seyrig: images of their unheard conversations play against an exaggerated formal dialogue in voiceover.
French starlet Jacqueline Sassard is the only false note. 'Discovered' at 15 years old, she had appeared in a few Italian pictures and seems to have been cast because of her large eyes and peculiar erotic lassitude. To Losey she was "never more than an instrument", and her somnolent performance - she says little because her English wasn't good - is below the film's very high standard, set not least by Pinter's then wife Vivien Merchant, note-perfect as the all-seeing Rosalind.
What happens to Anna after the accident is a source of controversy. When the police have gone, Stephen finds her lying on his bed and takes advantage. Nicholas Mosley, whose impressionistic novel was the source for Pinter's screenplay, thought the semi-rape a "false note". Bogarde says that Losey "wanted that cruelty". But those who see nothing but blatant sexism here are missing the point. According to critic Penelope Gilliat, the women in Accident are "the most powerful combatants of all". The privileged Anna will be protected her whole life by her "pristine lack of imagination and a drowsy greed".
Exemplary of Losey and Pinter at their best, Accident takes its time exploring a complex milieu. Occasionally it displays a caressing attitude to the privileges it imagines accrue to randy Oxford dons, but it is otherwise restrained in its use of objets d'art and astringent about the world it describes. Certainly for Losey it indicated the way forward, describing its structure as "the kind of thing that I hope to do and will do maybe in Proust".
The Go-Between, 1971
From the path to their bathing spot the party from Brandham Hall see a figure dive into the broad.
"What cheek," says Denys. "The man's trespassing. What shall we do?"
"Order him off," says his companion.
"What cheek," Denys repeats.
Their two female companions walk by.
"Who can that be?" says Eulalie.
"I don't know," says Marian.
"He's a good swimmer," says Eulalie, "and really rather well built, don't you think?"
Made the year after Ken Russell's D.H. Lawrence romp Women in Love, The Go-Between (1971) seems restrained by comparison. Though the cross-class affair is blatantly Lawrentian, the film leans more towards a Proustian variety of remembrance, taking us back to the hot summer of 1900 when L.P. Hartley's autobiographical schoolboy Leo goes to stay with a friend in Brandham Hall in Norfolk and becomes besotted with his host's teenage sister Marian. She exploits Leo as a messenger between her and her lover Ted (Alan Bates), a local farmer and the swimmer in the scene above. The novel was largely written in Venice and its subject is the nature of nostalgia. This particular summer damages Leo unforgettably and is also, of course, the long Edwardian summer of imperial apogee that England will never have again. A generation was growing up unaware of its eventual fate on the battlefields of the Somme. It's a moment often revisited in cinema from the 1970s to 1990s.
At first Pinter felt he couldn't adapt it: "It's too painful, too perfect," he opined. But he relented, the pull of its ideas about the past influencing the present too strong. Yet maybe Pinter's instincts were partly right. His main innovation - an intermittent use of flash forward to a mysterious figure in a present-day limousine arriving in Norfolk - seems moot now. Julie Christie said she was too old at 29 to play the teenage Marian, and her behaviour consequently seems implausibly petty. There are also signs that Pinter himself had become infected by Losey's tendency to overreach, for the film, though admirable, feels pristine rather than poignant. It never moves as much as Hartley's novel moved Pinter: he could not stop crying.
Since The Go-Between makes regular appearances in the television schedules it can be seen as some kind of classic. It was also a harbinger of the modern British costume drama, or heritage film. As such it couldn't be more distinct from the poshlust symbolism of Ken Russell's composer films of the time - The Music Lovers (1970) and Mahler (1974) - or his apotheosis The Devils (1971); all nonetheless unimaginable without Losey.
Backstage at the awards ceremony in Cannes 1971: 'The Go-Between' has beaten 'Death in Venice' to win the Palme d'Or. Though Losey has felt a personal enmity between Visconti and himself since they first met in the early 1950s, Patricia Losey persuades him to approach Visconti. Both men are wearing full black tie. They embrace awkwardly.
When Losey arrived at Cannes he found a card from Bogarde: "Welcome - love, and I hope you don't win!" Bogarde thought that he and Visconti had made a 'masterpiece' and Losey had not. He was wrong. Though visually ravishing, Visconti's film - and this could be the fatality of Venice itself - is pure poshlust. Visconti gives us the visual imagery of Thomas Mann's novella about an ageing writer who is enraptured by the beauty of a young boy (though he changes the writer to a composer), but not its interrogative interior monologue. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith observes, "the spectator is made aware that there could be meanings in the events and in the narration but is never quite clear what meanings and where to locate them." When the Cannes jury, whom Visconti had allegedly tried to bribe, gave the vote to Losey's film, Visconti packed his bags and fled to the airport, only to be called back for a 'special prize' invented for him.
Death in Venice is important to the Losey story precisely because his and Visconti's tastes in actors and projects became increasingly similar during the 1960s and 1970s. Poshlust's pinnacle comes with Visconti's famously kitsch scene on the beach in which Bogarde's composer, made-up to look younger, stares at the boy Tadzio, who's doing his best impersonation of Botticelli's Venus, as the maquillage melts in the choleric sweat of Bogarde's face. Visconti always had the advantage over Losey by being the son of a real duke, therefore having the kind of instant access to palaces and flunkies it took years for Losey to negotiate. Losey would soon be following in Visconti's footsteps around the real places that inspired Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. But might not Losey and Pinter too have succumbed again to overreaching if they had made their Proust film? As David Caute puts it, for the Proust adaptor, "the great trap [is] obvious milieu and mannerism, decadence and ennui, pursued as ends in themselves, an atmosphere of idle arrogance and sexual ambiguity."
The Proust Screenplay
With three artistically successful films and a Palme d'Or under their belt, the Losey-Pinter partnership contemplated literature's labyrinth. Raymond Carr, the don who was the model for Stephen in Accident, said of Losey: "I had been told that he was 'left wing' and opposed to the establishment. I came to the conclusion that he was a cinematic Proust, fascinated by the upper crust, even a snob." There is evidence too of a Proustian self-portrait in Eve, when a critic describes to Branco the genius of his unseen Tyvian-written film: "Signor Branco, I think your film is a significant advance on the problem of telling a story at different levels of time and consciousness."
In 1970 Proust's work did the rounds as a film project. The rights were owned by Nicole Stéphane (who appears in Les Enfants terribles, 1950), a scion of the Rothschild family with her own access to mansions. She first went to Truffaut, who might have made the first volume Un amour de Swann (Swann in Love), and eventually Visconti, who had prepped Sodom et Gomorrah and then pulled out.
Pinter spent three months early in 1972 on what he admitted was an "almost impossible" task: condensing all of A la recherche du temps perdu into a single film. A Proustian scholar, Barbara Bray, was hired to assist. According to Bray, the structural idea Pinter adopted - of starting with the Prince de Guermantes' party in 1921 from the final volume and then flashing back to the 1888 childhood scenes from the first - came from Samuel Beckett. Among the many astonishingly ambitious aspects of Pinter's screenplay is an opening sequence of 35 shots without dialogue, the first few intercut with a yellow screen that proves to be a fragment of yellow wall from Vermeer's 'View of Delft'. Throughout the script certain locations, Venice among them, are presented as quick identifying images that then fade.
According to Billington, Proust's ideas about time, memory and the importance of art sounded a bell in Pinter. "It was a kind of homecoming," he said. Pinter called his time working on it "the best working year of my life… I was swallowed up by it." He did the usual Pinter thing of losing the first-person narration, and gone too was the famous tasting of the madeleine that opens the floodgates of memory. His script counterpoints Marcel's creeping disillusionment with a sense of revelation. Had it been made in the early 1970s it might have been the ultimate European art movie of its time, featuring the likes of Bogarde and Alain Delon and perhaps Alan Bates, James Fox, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, Donald Sutherland, and even, for poshlust's sake, the gorgeous but utterly camp Helmut Berger. Not Lord Olivier, though: he rejected the role of the old Duc de Guermantes, calling him a "filthy old snob and nothing else".
What killed the Proust project was its ambition. It would have cost four times as much as Visconti wanted for his version. Nowadays 445 shots doesn't sound like a lot for a feature, but Pinter's screenplay clocked in at an unacceptable three hours 58 minutes of expensively gorgeous settings. A lot of money had already been squandered in pre-production. Losey, who called it "the absolute height of [Pinter's] achievement", encountered all kinds of blocks. "I met your president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing," he told Ciment, "and he said to me, 'What makes you think you can adapt Proust? You come from the Midwest, you can't even speak French properly.'" Losey floated the possibility of doing it for television in episodes, thereby anticipating Brideshead Revisited, but Pinter wouldn't hear of it. Instead, Nicole Stéphane got her way at last: Volker Schlöndorf's Swann in Love (1984), with Jeremy Irons as Swann and Delon taking what might have been Bogarde's role.
Time Regained, 1999
The beach at Balbec; a middle-aged dandy standing on the steps leading down from the Grand Hotel turns away to watch an elderly bearded man in the middle distance, who himself watches a small boy cavorting at the sea's edge. All three figures are Marcel.
This is the final shot from Raúl Ruiz's adaptation of Proust's Le Temps retrouvé. It is perhaps a deliberate echo of the last shots of Death in Venice. The choice of Proust's final volume allowed Ruiz to reflect back on the rest of the work, albeit less thoroughly than Pinter's script, but it still clocks in at 162 minutes. For me Ruiz's film is as brilliant a summation of Proust's themes as Losey and Pinter might have achieved and acts as a kind of memorial to the European and British art cinema that Joseph Losey initiated, without itself dallying too much with decadence or overstatement. It's said that when Ruiz's producer Paulo Branco proposed the film to him, Ruiz said, "Ah, you want a Visconti film." He might equally well have said a Losey film.
The texts in italics above are my descriptions of the actual scenes on film, not quotations from the screenplays by Pinter and others. This article is indebted to the following books: 'Conversations with Losey' by Michel Ciment, 'Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life' by David Caute, 'Joseph Losey' by Edith De Rham, 'Various Voices' by Harold Pinter, 'Harold Pinter' by Michael Billington