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Losey, Joseph Waltonlocked

  • Bruce Babington

Joseph Walton Losey (1909–1984)

by Norman Hargood, 1963

© reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Losey, Joseph Walton (1909–1984), film director, was born on 14 January 1909 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA, the first of two children of Joseph Walton Losey (1879–1925) and his wife, Ina Higbee (c.1879–1959). An unhealthy, asthmatic child, his upbringing was middle-class and Episcopalian, though as a young man he abandoned religious belief for Marxism. His first four decades were lived in the USA, and, though he left in 1951, never to return to live or to make films, he remained an American citizen. ‘British’ only by prolonged residence (from 1953 to 1975, and then again at the end of his life from 1983 to 1984), despite much operating in the world of international film production, he directed enough films of British subject matter, from a British base, with British actors and other collaborators, to be considered a British director. Indeed in the three major works he directed from scripts by the English dramatist Harold PinterThe Servant (1963), Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1971)—he made films which must be accounted in the top echelon of British productions of the second half of the twentieth century.

Aged forty-four when he settled in Britain in 1953, Losey had already had two careers, the first in New York theatre (1933–8) and radio (1937–43), the second as a Hollywood director with films released between 1948 and 1951. Educated at La Crosse High School, then Dartmouth and Harvard universities (at the first of which he switched from medicine to arts), he developed theatrical interests which he followed up on the New York theatre scene, as a critic, then as a director. Though less sensationally successful, his progress paralleled that of his contemporary Orson Welles. Both established reputations in the febrile off-Broadway theatre, both worked in radio, and both showed little initial interest in film. However, where Welles's work was fundamentally apolitical, Losey's was allied to left-wing projects, most famously The Living Newspaper documentary theatre. In 1936 he got to know Bertolt Brecht, who was visiting the USA, an association that was to reverberate throughout his life, politically and aesthetically.

Losey's introduction to film came through two ideologically clashing routes—first, the animated cartoon Pete Roleum and his Friends (1939), propaganda for American oil interests, and second, work for various progressive educational foundations on documentaries (1940). In 1943 he was invited to Hollywood by MGM, where his career, slow to start, was interrupted by brief wartime military service (ended with an honourable discharge for health reasons). Though initially frustratingly inactive in Hollywood, he directed, under Brecht's supervision, the now legendary stage production, starring Charles Laughton, of Brecht's Life of Galileo in Hollywood and New York (August, then December, 1947). On returning to film, he worked across a number of studios. Losey's first feature film was The Boy with Green Hair (1948), an inventive socially conscious allegory. Four films followed, of which The Prowler and M (both 1951), both thrillers, the second an Americanization of Fritz Lang's famous film, are best-known, and already mature and highly disturbing works. However, Losey's communist activities, including his friendship with Brecht and Hanns Eisler, which had led to his being under FBI surveillance from 1943, and the growing House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) pressure on Hollywood culminated in Losey's being subpoenaed to testify at the hearings, and led him to abandon his American career. Though he later painfully revoked his Stalinism, and indeed dropped all formal political commitment, the HUAC were not misled about his beliefs at this point.

As a blacklisted film-maker, Losey's earliest work in Britain had to be done under pseudonyms. After minor television work his British film career began, dogged by financial and residency problems, with a string of mainly low-budget films: The Sleeping Tiger (1954), The Intimate Stranger (1956), and Time without Pity (1957; the first made under his own name). These won him a three-film contract and a near £1 million budget from Rank for The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958), but its lack of success resulted in Rank settling the contract. Then followed Blind Date (1960), and two films, The Criminal (1960) and The Damned (1963), which enhanced his reputation in Britain and, particularly, in France.

Eve (released in Europe as Eva, 1962–3) was a watershed in Losey's career. It marked his beginnings as an international director, using major international stars (here Jeanne Moreau; later Monica Vitti, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor), and moving into the hazardous world of internationally financed big-budget films. Eve, disputed over by director and producers, displays some of these hazards, finally cut without directorial approval, and not available for viewing in its original form until a sole surviving (Swedish and Finnish subtitled) copy was released on American DVD (2002). Back in Britain, Losey made The Servant (1963), then the trenchant King and Country (1964), where he found in British class relations a complex and psychically violent reality to match the entrapments of the American psyche in a film such as The Prowler. He then made that wittily playful product of the ‘swinging 60s’ Modesty Blaise (1966), and between Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) pursued two expensive star-laden projects, Boom! (1968; with Burton and Taylor and a Tennessee Williams script) and Secret Ceremony (1968; with Mia Farrow, Taylor, and Robert Mitchum), films both admired and heavily criticized for their mannerism, adding to the debate about the meaningfulness of the ‘baroque’ elements in Losey's visual style.

The pre-eminent films of Losey's British period, The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between, were wholly individual in tone but linked together by their intense reworking of preoccupations evident in the earlier British films—thematics of power relations mediated by class and sexuality, and formal inventiveness with regard to mise-en-scène, sound, and various distancing devices. These expanded under the acknowledged influence of Resnais's film Muriel (1963) into an appropriation of avant-garde elements, in particular the temporal dislocations of the two later works, ingenious but muted enough to avoid too much narrative disturbance. In this Losey successfully negotiated between the worlds of high popular and art cinema. Of the trio of LoseyPinter collaborations, The Servant was distinctive in its evocation of early 1960s London decadence, an enigmatic parable of decline suffused with class hostilities in which an indolent upper-class James Fox is subverted by his butler Dirk Bogarde, and the sexuality of Sarah Miles. Accident, shot in colour, like The Go-Between, enacted its more subterranean violences in Oxford settings, as Bogarde and Stanley Baker, playing academics, jostle for personal predominance with an enigmatic foreign student. While both films explored the atmospherics and mores of very different areas of contemporary England, their successor, The Go-Between, adapted from L. P. Hartley's novel of childhood trauma and its adult consequences, recreated a pre-First World War Edwardian past. If its eye for nostalgic beauty suggests aspects of what has been later identified as ‘heritage cinema’, those typical ever-present Losey elements of mordant class relations, sexual struggle, and violence—both covert and overt—and the discreet glimpses of the ruined protagonist in the present, refuse the viewer easy luxuries. All three films, in the performances of Dirk Bogarde, Stanley Baker, James and Edward Fox, Sarah Miles, Julie Christie, Margaret Leighton, and others, confirmed Losey's reputation as a great director of actors.

In the last phase of his career Losey worked predominantly outside Britain, first on The Assassination of Trotsky (1972; with Burton), A Doll's House (1973; with Jane Fonda), Galileo (1975; reworking the 1947 stage production), and The Romantic Englishwoman (1975). Losey's late residence in Paris (1975–82) led to a number of French-language films—Mr Klein (1976), Les routes du sud (1978), and La truite (1982). Of these Mr Klein, set amid the antisemitism of Nazi-occupied Paris, gained wide critical acceptance as a late masterpiece, alongside Don Giovanni (1979), a version of Mozart's opera, which has claims to be the greatest opera film of all. Now gravely ill, Losey directed only one more film after returning to Britain in 1983, Steaming (released in 1985).

Joe Losey was a large, physically imposing man, described more than once as looking like a Red Indian. He suffered continually from asthma, and in later life heavy drinking contributed to failing health and difficult professional and personal behaviour. Such characteristics were no doubt exacerbated by the strain of dealing with collapsing projects. Accounts of him by his contemporaries—in their statements, often contradictory, of admiration and dislike—vary more than with more serene personalities.

Like his professional life, Losey's personal life was less than serene. He married four times. On 23 July 1937 he married Elizabeth Jester, née Hawes (1904–1971), a fashion designer, journalist, and author. They were divorced in 1944. The marriage produced one son, Gavrik (b. July 1938). Losey's second marriage, to Louisa Stuart (Louise Moss), an actress, on 19 October 1944, was dissolved in 1953. He then married Dorothy Bromiley, also an actress, in Britain on 16 June 1956; they were divorced in 1963. Losey's second son, and last child, Joshua (b. 1957), was the product of this marriage. Losey's last marriage, to Patricia Mohan, née Tolusso (b. 1930), on 29 September 1970—like his previous two wives, she was considerably younger than Losey—lasted until his death. She has a credit as screenwriter on Steaming.

Losey's career was symptomatic of the pressures operating on the independent high commercial film director with artistic aims but working in the market place on large projects demanding expensive stars. The list of abandoned Losey projects (usually when finance fell through) is very large, several for every film made. The best-known of these was the collaboration with Pinter on a version of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

Losey's films are distinguished by the psychic violence of his characters; by the pessimism, including a marked sexual pessimism, of his narratives; by an ambivalent attraction–repulsion to the high bourgeoisie who were often his subjects; by his brilliant work with actors such as Stanley Baker, Jeanne Moreau, Dirk Bogarde, and Alain Delon; by creative use of sound and fastidious attention to details of photographic reproduction; and by inventive and meticulous mise-en-scène (there are many stories of his extreme attention to details others felt would not be noticed). Though Losey wrote no autobiography, his intellectuality and articulateness made him a suitable subject for extended interviews by critics. In these he gave much biographical and artistic information about himself. A well-researched biography by David Caute (1994) adds much further information, though its hostility to its subject makes it a complicated source. Before he died the film-maker lodged his archive of materials related to his films at the British Film Institute.

Losey remains a controversial figure, for most critics one of very uneven production, but certainly one who made major films in each of his main periods, and a dominating presence on the British and international film scene from the 1960s to the 1980s. He died of cancer at his home, 29 Royal Avenue, Chelsea, London, on 22 June 1984, and was cremated at Putney Vale crematorium.


  • D. Caute, Joseph Losey: a revenge on life (1994)
  • T. Milne, ed., Losey on Losey (1967)
  • M. Ciment, ed., Conversations with Losey (1985)
  • BFI, Joseph Losey collection
  • D. Bogarde, Snakes and ladders (1978)
  • V. Navasky, Naming names (New York, 1980)
  • M. Riley and J. Palmer, The films of Joseph Losey (New York, 1993)
  • H. Pinter, Five screenplays (1971)
  • F. Hirsch, Joseph Losey (Boston, 1980)
  • R. Durgnat, A mirror for England: British movies from austerity to affluence (1970)
  • d. cert.


  • BFI, corresp., papers, scripts


  • BFINA, Cinema, 2 Sept 1971
  • BFINA, ‘il cinema di Joseph Losey’, 1981


  • BL NSA, recorded talks


  • N. Hargood, photograph, 1963, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1968, Hult. Arch.
  • double portrait, photograph, 1969 (with his wife), Hult. Arch.
  • A. Springs, bromide print, 1979, NPG

Wealth at Death

£2844: probate, 24 Sept 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]