The Collaboration: Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter
With Sight & Sound’s June feature on Joseph Losey and his collaboration with Harold Pinter¹, the film world is posed to rediscover one of the great filmmakers who worked in the United Kingdom. Individually, both of their work explores issues of class, emotional and psychological competition and the role of personal identity in society.
Though born in Wisconsin, Joseph Losey would spend most of his adult life on the other side of the pond. He studied in Germany with the famed Bertolt Brecht and directed theatre and shorts before he made his first “hit”, The Boy with the Green Hair (1948). Only a few years later, he was called to testify for the House of Un-American Activities, and refused, opting instead to exile himself in England where he would continue his film career. His Hollywood blacklisting haunted him even in England however, and for much of his early career, he was forced to use pseudonyms and many actors and producers refused to work with him for fear they, too, would be blacklisted. Though he made a few great films during the 1950s, his career only really took off with his first film with Harold Pinter in 1963.
Born in 1930, Harold Pinter was already writing and performing his work in high school. His career in theatre began as an actor in the early 1950s, but by the end of the 1960s, he had already two of his best-known works, The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. He began to write for television in 1960, making the transition to film in 1963, when he would adapt a version of his own play, The Caretaker, for the screen, and write the adaptation of Robin Maugham’s novel, The Servant.
Pinter and Losey’s partnership was apparently very amiable, and their own sensibilities and backgrounds complimented each other. Pinter himself cited only one argument between them, very early in their attempts to adapt The Servant, afterwards, things changed. In his words, “Over the next 25 years we worked on three more screenplays and never had another cross word.”
In the case of two of their collaborations, there was a key third man involved, the actor Dirk Bogarde. Bogarde’s career had begun in the late 1940s, and he was mostly known for his boyish good looks and romantic charms. A writer in his own right, Losey saw something in him, and he was able to bring a new dimension of intelligence and sex appeal to his film’s. Bogarde seemed to understand intuitively what was needed of him; his characters were often morally ambiguous, desiring complete control over all that surrounded them. He understood the games that were being played, and the many levels from which they were being channeled.
The Servant (1963) is a film that goes far beyond class. It is the story of a man hired as a servant, Barrett, who slowly reverses roles with his master, Tony, so that he is in complete control. However, he doesn’t mean to control him solely because he envies or desires his power; it’s almost a prehistoric need to be the alpha male. Instead of using his brute force, he uses his intellect to take complete control over his household. What elevates this film, as well as the other collaborations between Losey and Pinter, is the strong sexual connotations of their scenarios. Barrett’s main opposition in this film is his master’s fiancée, Susan. He is not only trying to drive her away, but in a way, is trying valiantly both to undermine and replace her. Barrett takes on very much the traditional gender stereotype of a woman in this film, at least in how he behaves and cares for his master. He feeds him, cleans up after him and takes care of him, in the way a mother or a wife would. It’s actually quite an interesting commentary on gender relations, and where the power in traditional heterosexual relationships actually lies. He slowly weans his master onto alcohol and drugs, as a means of further maintaining control, as well as alienating Susan.
Barrett also integrates sex as a means of creating control in The Servant. First, he brings to the house his “sister”, who is really his lover, which is at once a tool to undermine his master’s authority, but also a tool, not unlike the drugs to dominate his life. Barrett’s own relationship with women is complicated, as we see him use his girlfriend as a tool, and though he seems to be physically attracted to her, he takes far more joy in dominating Tony than he does having sex with her. In a way, he has already established full control over her, and she is no longer interesting, though many have read into the possible homosexual subtext that suggests that for Barrett, dominating a man is both more interesting and arousing. This theory is perhaps further aided by both Barrett’s irrational cruelty towards two girls waiting outside of his telephone booth, as well as his need to replace Susan, rather than Tony.
The film becomes more claustrophobic as it goes on, until it becomes just Tony and Barrett arguing and fighting alone in the now filthy house. They seem to be on the same plain, but make no mistake, Barrett always has the upper hand, and he will not only win this game, he will humiliate Tony in the process.
Accident (1967), much like The Servant, is at its barest a competition between two men. In this case, two upper middle class intellectuals, who are constantly competing sexually, financially, and emotionally. It takes on the issue of personal identity within a society, as Stephen is an aimless and rather insecure middle aged man, who falls in love with a student, only to be re-invigorated by what he perceives as his continued desirability. His affection for this girl sours most of the rest of his life, from his marriage and family life to his friendship with another student, William. The film is told mostly from his point of view, and we are allowed to see and understand his growing dislike of the people who surround him as he becomes more self-absorbed, as well as their complete ignorance of the world he now inhabits.
His competitor, Charley, has just separated from his wife, but has a far more successful career than Stephen. Though completely unremarkable and even annoying at first, Charley proves to be more conniving than he appears, and soon seduces Anna, Stephen’s beautiful student. They begin a sexual relationship that Charley reveals to Stephen by bringing her to his house, and having sex with her while the former is out, only to be “accidentally” discovered. The two never come to the point of a physical fight, preferring instead to intellectually and emotionally devastate their opponent. Career and family come into play in their competition, but it is largely about sex, as both try to win the affections of the rather naive Anna. For nearly the entire running time, Charley seems to be ahead, but after the film’s titular namesake, Stephen wins without a shadow of a doubt, as he takes complete control and advantage of another human being.
As in The Servant, Accident, showcases a situation where individuals use other people as tools and means of personal gratification. There is little regard for life, let alone feelings or emotions. In that sense, Losey’s films always come back to war, how soldiers were expendable, and the living dead, simply waiting for someone of a higher rank to throw you away as a means of motivation or their own personal success. Losey explores this to serviceable results in King & Country (1964), but it’s really in these personal dramas, where people wage emotional wars against each other, that the true cruelty and hypocrisy of the scenarios are revealed.
Their third and final collaboration was also their only venture without Dirk Bogarde. Taking a rather unprecedented twist on a romance between a farmer, Ted Burgess, and a woman of high class, Marian, The Go-Between (1970) drags both characters down to the same level, which is not quite evil, but still selfish in much the same way Stephen’s character was in Accident. Perhaps their own shallow gratification is harsher, as they see nothing wrong or perverse about their treatment of a child who they use to deliver messages between them. He is nothing but a tool, one that could be coddled or bribed to do what they want, without much consideration for his own personal happiness or individual development.
The film is told from the perspective of a naive child, Leo, who sits beyond the class of the house he is staying at for the summer. At first he doesn’t quite understand the differences, though his pride in refusing to admit his mother could not afford to buy him many nice clothes shows hints already of social containment. Turning thirteen in a very short amount of time, the young boy is suddenly aware of new feelings and desires that by lack of knowledge and general adolescent confusion that he cannot quite grasp. By virtue of his soft-spokeness and kindness, the boy becomes the messenger between the two lovers, the willing player in their game. He doesn’t quite understand what he is doing, as he is motivated mostly by a crush on Marian, and when he becomes aware that there is something at work beyond just a business arrangement, he is only met with more questions. His inquisition puts into perspective the nature of the love affair, which the filmmakers seem to indict as a carnal thirst motivated by greed and carelessness. The class difference sheds little light on the emotions and actions of the affair, which is approached largely with coldness. Losey has a particular approach to emotion, one of detachment and understatedness. There is no denying that the couple feels for each other, but if it’s just sex or something more is never quite as clear. Leo’s own confrontation with sex for the first time, watching the two lovers fornicate in the barn, marks him severely; He feels betrayed and confused, and the day with all its painful reveals haunts him for the rest of his life.
The film’s final moments reveal very much about Losey and Pinter’s personal feelings towards the love affair. They do not indict the couple for crossing the uncrossable boundaries of class, but rather their self-centered use of the boy. Not in the original novel, a segment set several decades in the future is added to the script. Leo has been invited to visit Marian, and he listens with a burning hate in his eyes as she recounts how beautiful and pure her love was. Though perhaps a touch melodramatic, it’s made very clear that he has never taken on a wife, perhaps never even a lover, and the source for this pain and confusion were the events of that summer. Though still a strong and beautiful film, it is perhaps the weakest of their three films, lacking in part the bite and claustrophobia of their two previous efforts.
After The Go-Between, Pinter and Losey parted ways. The former would continue to pen some well love films such as The Homecoming (1973) and Betrayal (1983), while Losey’s career mostly took a downward turn, as he made some of his better known, but famously mediocre films. Though the two perhaps had a good film or two after their collaboration, neither was ever able to reach the same heights of cinematic compatibility and insight as when they were working together.
Edited by: Matt Schneider
1. Losey would also collaborate briefly with Evan Jones on two films in the early 1960s, The Damned (1963) and King & Country (1964).