The Servant (1963) is Joseph Losey’s signature film. With his 15th feature, at age 54, Losey scored his first international success, and in Harold Pinter found his ideal scriptwriter. This was the 10th European film for this exile from the blacklist (the first three had been released under directorial pseudonyms). The Servant, a spellbinding Faustian black comedy about class war, concerns a crafty cockney manservant (Dirk Bogarde, in the performance of his career) who corrupts his effetely indolent young socialite master (James Fox). The moral of this elegantly crafted demonstration of human destructiveness: Be sure the gentleman’s gentleman you hire is a gentleman.
The U.S. premiere of The Servant at the New York Film Festival was a remarkable occasion for Losey: The Wisconsin native was on American soil for the first time in 11 years. He had come of age professionally in the intellectual climate of the New Deal and the Depression, working in political theater and radio drama. In 1947, he became the first director to stage a Brecht play in English, and Brecht’s influence on his career was considerable. Losey’s reputation as a movie director rests largely on the films he made in Europe, while his initial phase—five pre-exile Hollywood features—has been seriously underrated. The first of them, The Boy With Green Hair (1948), in spite of a few blatantly sentimental moments, is an appealing little fable about racial prejudice. It was followed by The Lawless (1950), a muckraking drama on mob violence, and The Prowler (1951), a tabloidy thriller that deals with the dark underside of the American dream.
M (1951) relocates Fritz Lang’s classic early sound film from Berlin to contemporary Los Angeles. Losey’s M is a chillingly creepy work in its own right, by far his best American picture. His flair for dramatic use of decor is put to great effect during the final manhunt, when the magnificent Bradbury building in downtown L.A. becomes a major character. Losey’s surprising choice for the lead, David Wayne, an actor best known for light comedies, paid off—he’s unforgettable as the pathetic and tortured outsider. By the time M was released, Losey, screenwriter Waldo Salt, and several members of the supporting cast had all been blacklisted. The director’s last American film, The Big Night (1951), is a bleak noir starring John Barrymore Jr. (Drew’s dad) as a fevered adolescent seeking revenge for the violent beating of the father he hero-worships. Wildly over-the-top, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and in its shocking opening scene introduces an element of sadomasochism that became a leitmotif of Losey’s later work.
Nearly all of that work is in the Walter Reade series—25 of his 31 features are on view. Among other standouts, Accident (1967), another collaboration with Pinter, is an oblique study of muted passions in stately homes played out during the deceptive calm of a beautiful Oxford summer. In the deliriously nutty Secret Ceremony (1968), Mia Farrow is a disturbed orphan, Robert Mitchum her disturbing stepfather, and Elizabeth Taylor a devout fading whore, but its main character is the setting: London’s most loopily decorated turn-of-the-century mansion. There’s not a wholesome human being in sight, but oh, what furniture!
Even Joe Losey had his bad days, when no miracle of mise-en-scène could triumph over weak scripts or casting blunders. Boom! (1968), based on a lame Tennessee Williams play, is an unwatchable brew. This one is only for absolute completists.