Joseph Losey is not a household name in the UK. American by birth, he left the USA in 1952 after being blacklisted by the Hollywood studios for his leftist sympathies and for having worked with Bertolt Brecht. He subsequently settled in Britain though his first British film, 1954’s The Sleeping Tiger, was released under the pseudonym Victor Hanbury to protect the reputations of some of the cast. His films offer often unsettling insights into the private lives of characters whilst simultaneously providing dissections of the social milieus they inhabit.
He is best remembered these days for The Servant (1963) in which young aristocrat Tony (James Fox in his first screen role) hires manservant Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) to look after him and his newly acquired Chelsea townhouse. Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) takes an immediate dislike to him and the situation is made worse when Barrett moves in his ‘sister’ Vera (Sarah Miles) as a maid, who soon proves irresistible to the master of the house. Although it is obvious to the viewer, Tony is unaware that Vera is in fact Barrett’s mistress, and when he returns home one night with Susan to discover them frolicking in the master bedroom he is outraged as much by the implications of incest as by his servant’s act of betrayal. When the real state of affairs is made clear to him, he throws them both out. Finding himself months later in the same pub as Tony, Barrett apologises and manages to work his way back into the house where he lives for a while apparently as Tony’s friend and equal, before bringing about the aristocrat’s downfall.
It is inviting to view The Servant as a fairly straightforward case of substitution with Barrett supplanting Tony as master. Their respective names suggest things should be the other way around and Losey’s preoccupation with showing the homoeroticism of their relationship implies a closeness that threatens to overturn the master/servant hierarchy. ‘Apart from the cooking I’ll need everything, general looking after, you know’, says Tony in their initial interview, to which Barrett replies, knowing more than Tony ever could at that stage, ‘Yes I do, sir’. However, the introduction of a third party in the shape of Vera adds a twist to this situation.
Throughout his career, Losey constantly examines the complex dynamics of erotic desire. In The Sleeping Tiger, psychiatrist Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox) invites young criminal Frank Clements (Bogarde again) to stay in his house instead of sending him to prison. It’s effectively a social experiment in rehabilitation, which goes drastically wrong when Frank becomes involved with Esmond’s wife, substituting himself for her husband, whose obsession with his work has made him neglect her. In Accident (1967), the situation is even more involved. University professor Stephen (Bogarde once more) falls for young foreign student Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), but he has already persuaded another of his students, the aristocratic William (Michael York), to ask her out. Stephen is already married, and his wife is expecting their third child. This doesn’t stop him from rekindling an old affair with the daughter of the university provost while another colleague, Charley (the wonderful Stanley Baker), begins an intense affair with Anna. It’s a messy situation with multiple substitutions revealing Losey’s interest in probing the hypocrisies that break out in closed environments: the house in The Servant, the cloistered setting of the university in Accident and the marital home in both Accident and The Sleeping Tiger.
Read the rest of the article in the summer 09 issue of Electric Sheep. Substitute is the theme of the new issue, with articles on the fraught relationship between Takeshi Kitano and ‘Beat’ Takeshi, the various cinematic incarnations of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, the dangers of false impersonation in neo-noir Just Another Love Story, the paradoxes of black and white twins in offbeat lost classic Suture, not to mention cross-dressing criminals, androids and body snatchers. Also in this issue: interview with Marc Caro, profile of whiz-kid animator David OReilly, comic strip review of Hardware, and The Phantom Band’s favourite films.