On the Prowl

The choreography of conflict in Joseph Losey's Blind Date
by David Cairns  posted July 24, 2008
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The Complete Joseph Losey,
Harvard Film Archive, July 12-August 11, 2008

The American moviemaking diaspora of the 1950s, composed of those writers and directors fleeing the blacklist, gave rise to many unlikely oeuvres: Cy Endfield’s robust approach to genre in varied British potboilers; Jules Dassin’s peculiar slant on the European art film; the peripatetic and unclassifiable career of John Berry. Joseph Losey chose his own, more perverse path. Having concentrated on socially aware noirs in Hollywood, he settled in England and set about becoming a very un-British kind of European auteur. Working across various genres, sometimes in the same film (e.g. the 1963 sci-fi/juvenile delinquent drama These Are the Damned), and with just about every production company in the land, he slowly reinvented himself as an arthouse auteur with traits of both Resnais and Antonioni, evolving from the psychosexual chamber drama The Servant (1963) to high-gloss head-scratchers like Boom (1968), and finally becoming an actual continental filmmaker with Mr. Klein (1976).

In Blind Date (a/k/a Chance Meeting, 1959) we can already see Losey morphing from one persona to the other. Handed a conventional murder mystery treatment, he had the piece extensively remodeled by fellow blacklistees Ben Barzman and Millard Lampell. The crux is a psychological battle between two characters (a perennial Losey theme), in this case bumptious young artist Hardy Krüger, the first of a long line of displaced Europeans in Losey’s work, and splenetic police inspector Stanley Baker, who suspects him of murder. Losey's genius was for scenes of confrontation, with tense framing and elaborate camera moves mapping out a choreography of conflict. Some inner perversity often caused him to choose characters without any clear appeal to audience sympathies, so the viewer perceives his dramatic flourishes from an unusual emotional distance.

The film starts improbably with a jazz-flute-accompanied trek across London tourist spots (Parliament, the inevitable Buckingham Palace) by a frisky young Krüger (playfulness was never Losey's most comfortable mode), climaxing with a moment filched from Singin' in the Rain (1952) as Krüger's prancing is stilled by the ominous appearance of a policeman. But the mood transforms as the young antihero enters a mews flat, which opens up into a pan-European shagging palace of TARDIS-like expansiveness. Chandeliers, modernist lamps, stars on the ceiling, the bathroom a baroque grotto—it’s an improbable dwelling but an exciting arena for the conflict to come. Losey always despised naturalism.

The sequence that follows shows Losey at his most idiosyncratic. Throwing his coat on a divan (the camera lingers, perplexingly), Krüger puts on a record (people always do this in Losey films, and then they have to shout) and more Richard Rodney Bennett cascades onto the soundtrack. A dramatic drum solo at first appears to be non-diegetic music underlining the significance of a closed bedroom door, then turns out to be merely the intro to a piece of enthusiastic, upbeat source music. But every time the drums crash in, it feels like a new detail of the setup is being stamped with sinister significance. Krüger then just kind of mooches around the flat, foreshadowing the long scenes of Jeanne Moreau's sultry, solitary swaggering in Eva (1962). Designers must have loved the attention Losey's camera paid to sets, which become not so much characters as stars in their own right. The surreal villa of Boom so impressed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor they sought to buy it as a home, despite its lack of such basic amenities as plumbing and ceilings.

The prowling around in this scene far exceeds any narrative need to establish place, and shows Losey's obsession with moving the viewer through space, almost for the sake of it (no wonder Last Year at Marienbad would impress him so deeply in 1961). But tracking movements that appear to be purely exploratory have a way of resolving into narrative devices or emotional cues, creating a subtle but escalating sense of unease, which as yet has no clear source (but that closed door has impressed itself as significant somehow). Then the police invade, and Losey's elaborate blocking, his sinuous and sinewy camera moves, come to anticipate the opening persecution of Welles's The Trial (1962), where each new framing adds to an escalating sense of a man penned in, pushed down, and picked on. And though Losey had a fondness for "artsy" shots involving mirrors, here he avoids baroque excess, though Christopher Challis's high-contrast, deep-focus photography does allow a Wellesian sense of distortion and suppressed violence.

As Krüger, in close-up, drifts into a musical reverie, he rolls over on the divan, and Losey match-cuts to a wider shot showing two police constables already, disconcertingly, in the room. The long shot emphasizes their incongruity in this location and allows a moment of dramatic irony as we wait for Krüger to notice them. A frozen pause as everybody takes the situation in. The bad jazz still hammers away, forcing the first cop (stalwart Gordon Jackson) to shout the first of many questions.

Cut to a big close-up of Krüger's blinking, uncomprehending face—and the enervating music ends. Losey returns to the three-shot only to break it, as Jackson marches across the cavernous lounge, pulling the camera with him, and looks into the other rooms. Returning to Krüger, he creates a "flat two" composition—the men face each other in profile—generally considered the least expressive of all approaches to dialogue. Losey holds the two-shot as the men question, and fail to answer, each other, creating tension from the very rigidity and blankness of the framing. Krüger tries to break out of the stifling shot but Jackson nimbly heads him off and the camera pulls in, tightening the noose, and underscoring Jackson's anger with his recalcitrant suspect.

The result is an over-the-shoulder shot favoring Jackson, which Losey now intercuts with a matching shot of Krüger, the few steps leading from the front door raising Jackson so that he towers over his prey. When Krüger turns away from this confrontation, Losey goes wide, again using Jackson's stance on the stairs to make his hero appear diminutive. As the young man slopes around, vainly trying to re-establish control over his space, the policeman retains an exaggeratedly stiff posture, a sentinel who dominates the situation by doing nothing (somehow his stance also suggests the immortal sarcasm of the British copper). Losey holds this shot for over a minute, completely static except for a slight movement at the end when Krüger goes to sit down.

Losey’s fondness for long takes with intricate camera movements dates back to his third feature, The Prowler (1951), shot in 17 days, which achieved an eerily compulsive, insinuating effect, using elaborate camera moves to bring visual variety to long sequences without the need for time-consuming coverage. Losey ends the long take by cutting to a medium shot on the brooding Krüger, who jumps to his feet (cue another long shot) and protests, "In this country the police can't just walk into somebody's house—" but breaks off as Baker, in detective mackintosh, does just that. Now we have another flat two, with nearly all the screen taken up by the vast space between the two leads.

Then there’s more elaborate blocking, as Jackson re-enters, Krüger advances, and Baker moves deeper into the room. As the distance between the antagonists shrinks, Losey’s camera pushes closer too. Baker and Krüger pass each other so that Baker occupies the solid right-hand side of the frame. He violently frisks the suspect and pushes him across the room to the kitchen door. A sound from the street leads the policemen into the kitchen to look out the window, while a thoroughly discomfited Krüger waits in the foreground. Losey has held this shot for 69 seconds.

The end frame serves as a sort of wide over-the-shoulder shot, so Losey cuts to a reverse favoring Krüger, which develops as he steps closer to confront Baker. Then Baker turns away to sneeze (his character suffers from a cold throughout the film), and walks back into the kitchen, pushing the camera ahead of him, while Krüger shrinks further in the background. Two more officials arrive, effectively pinning Krüger in the center of the frame, weak, exposed, and surrounded by enemies. But as the newcomers start to discuss the case with Baker, Krüger finds himself shut out behind a wall of backs, unable to be a party to a conversation his fate may hinge on.

Losey’s theatrical background made him adept at staging dialogue, positioning actors so all their faces could be seen from a single vantage point. Here, Baker pulls the standard movie detective inspector trick of looking for clues, only occasionally glancing at his conversational partners. Krüger becomes the quiet man in the background, observing the other characters and offering a mirror to the audience—until Baker remembers his presence, and he and the camera close in to jam Krüger against the kitchen entrance in an intimidating and sudden attack.

This antagonistic pairing, the bohemian and the boyo, will be the heart of the film. Soon Krüger will be telling the story of his affair with a rich woman, with editor Reginald Mills (The Red Shoes, 1948) jumping into flashbacks with direct cuts, suggesting that Losey was absorbing the influence of the nouvelle vague well before most of his contemporaries. In those flashbacks we get a relationship with an older woman, featuring surprising sexiness (a racy naked embrace with Micheline Presle), art criticism, and class war, while in the framing story there is police corruptibility, misogyny, and an energizing plot twist. It’s all organized with the same dramatic flair as the opening interiors, showing much of Losey’s potential, even though this modest mystery’s anticipation of the gnomic wonders of Accident (1967) or the terrible melancholy of The Go-Between (1970) is pretty tenuous. Losey’s talent was visible in his handling of genre conventions. His genius burst out around the edges, in stray moments of eccentricity like Krüger’s walk around the flat. 


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Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Hardy Krüger prowls the boudoir in Joseph Losey's Blind Date
Photo Gallery: On the Prowl


July 12-August 11, 2008 The Complete Joseph Losey


Joseph Losey  |  film review


David Cairns is a writer, director, and blogger. His short film Cry For Bobo (2001) has won 24 awards around the world. He has written for several UK TV series including Intergalactic Kitchen and Twisted Tales. His articles have appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, and Senses of Cinema.

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Author's Website: Shadowplay