April 8, 2014


With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has  fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.

This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.

Paul Muni, Joseph Losey, Henri Alekan

Stranger on the Prowl came about because a group of blacklisted artists started a production company to make films overseas. Director Bernard Vorhaus, agent John Weber, and the husband-and-wife writing team of Ben and Norma Barzman formed Riviera Films as their names kept appearing in HUAC testimony. It was the same for Losey, who was wrapping up his last Hollywood feature, The Big Night (1951), which completed retakes in June of 1951. As they were all being red baited in the trades, they knew their opportunities for stateside work were dwindling. So Riviera Films started two Italy-based productions, A Bottle of Milk for Losey, and Finishing School for Vorhaus, both with Barzman scripts. A Bottle of Milk (later changed to Stranger on the Prowl), adapted from a story by French crime fiction author Noël Calef (Elevator to the Gallows), follows an unnamed stranger (Muni) who skulks around a port city trying to sell his rusted out gun. After committing a crime out of severe hunger, he is chased through the city’s honeycomb of slum housing, befriending a poor boy who is bringing a stolen bottle of milk home to his mother. The scenario has the raw sentimentality of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and Losey mimics the street-shooting style of that neorealist classic. To aid him was the cinematographer Henri Alekan, who shot Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Roman Holiday and Wings of Desire. Though he preferred grand expressionistic effects (his mentor was Eugen Shüfftan, the creator of Metropolis’ special effects), he was also adept at more “realist” styles, as evidenced by his work in Rene Clement’s La Bataille du Rail, in which railway workers re-enacted their roles in the French Resistance during WWII.

Stranger on the Prowl

Alekan did not speak English, so the camera operator had to translate Losey’s instructions, but both valued their time working together. In the historical survey Hollywood Exiles in Europe (the main source for this article), author Rebecca Prime quotes Losey calling Alekan “a great gift”, while Alekan described their collaboration as “total and unreserved”. Their camera nimbly navigates the narrow streets and alleys of the Stranger and the boy’s elaborate escape, shot mostly at Tirennia Studios, outside Pisa. Using a mix of handheld and tracking shots, the film is more stylized, less immediate than its neorealist model, especially in the dramatic finale, a chiaroscuro suspense sequence shot on the slum roofs. Though the images impress a sense of alienated isolation, the sound is muddy and marred by poor dubbing of the local actors’ dialogue. For many scenes the boy is unintelligible. The audio was one of the casualties of the patchwork funding of the feature. The money initially came from Andrea Forzano, whose family owned the studio in Pisa, but when his cash ran out, they tapped an Italian-American businessman named Albert Salvatore. As Prime writes, both producers had ties to Mussolini, making Stranger On the Prowl a half-fascist, half-Communist film. Riviera Films had so much trouble raising money many of them got work dubbing Italian films into English to make extra cash.


Though shot on the streets, nothing feels off the cuff. It is a highly composed, artificial kind of neorealism, unaided by the presence of former Hollywood fixture Paul Muni. Though no longer a star, Muni was still a name, at least enough to get the film financed. Muni was happy for the work, but reportedly terrified of being associated with Communists, according to Losey. His terror translates to the screen, in which the already frog-faced actor uglies himself up more, skulking around corners with oily hair, deep pockets under his eyes, and a wardrobe seemingly carved out of a potato bag. He is haunted and hunted by the whole town, a seemingly stateless specter shadowing Europe. It’s a moody metaphor for Losey’s in-between status at that point, a freshly blacklisted artist with no visible means of support outside of the US.

If he had harbored any hopes about returning home, it is not exhibited in the human wreckage of Muni’s exiled loner. Losey’s exile status may have been cemented by a two page spread afforded him by the Italian Communist newspaper L’Unita. Prime reported that soon after the article was published, HUAC announced that Losey was one of the people still unserved with a subpoena to appear before the committee. United Artists had distribution rights to the film in the U.S., but could no longer release the film with all of its Communist associations. The AFL Film Council had already submitted to HUAC a petition to ban films made overseas by Communists of fellow travelers. So UA’s Arthur Krim changed the names of the crew to those of the film’s Italian backers. So Joseph Losey and Ben Barzman became “Andrea Forzano”, while Henri Alekan turned into “Antonio Fiore”. Losey was being erased from U.S. screens, his fate as an exile sealed, just like the film’s wandering Stranger.


May 22, 2012

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The post-WWII economic expansion exploded in 1950, as the GI Bill’s low mortgage rates stoked a housing boom and pent-up consumer demand propped up retail. Success was there for the taking, but not for all. Two early 50s films that are hitting home video in impressive transfers,  Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950, on DVD 5/29 from Olive Films) and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953, now out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time), documented some of the anxieties caused by this enormous upheaval in American life, what would be the start of the greatest stretch of economic growth in U.S. history. More money meant more crime, and The Big Heat is a nightmare rendering of the American Dream, as good cop  Glenn Ford loses his nuclear family and just goes nuclear. The Lawless is an earnest morality play about the plight of migrant fruit pickers in Southern California, doing the work Americans left for office gigs (by 1956 a majority of U.S. workers held white rather than blue collar jobs).

The Big Heat is premised on a divide, the one between Detective Dave Bannion’s middle class abode, a blandly utilitarian ranch house, and the glittering homes and hangouts of the criminal class, like hired muscle Vince Stone’s (Lee Marvin) plush penthouse apartment. As Tom Gunning wrote in his seminal Films of Fritz Lang, The Big Heat, “moves through this contradictory environment whose smooth surfaces mask the fissure  between the good life for the few and the cramped and hectic worlds of the mass of people”.

It was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. The script was written by Sydney Boehm before Fritz Lang was officially hired on to the project in mid-February of 1953. Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Boehm was a police reporter on the New York Evening Journal, and that “his specialty was crime…”. The script he delivered was a spare, unflinching tale of corruption, that which kills the wife of Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), and leads to his vigilante-like quest to take down Mike Lagana’s (Alexander Scourby) crime syndicate. Lang renders Boehm’s straightforward revenge tale with an abstracted intensity, the cold open suicide rendered in massive disembodied close-up of a hand on a revolver, followed by an off-screen gunshot. Lang does not use an establishing shot, breaking the film into pieces that Detective Bannion will struggle to re-connect.

Ford is unduly stressed throughout, on the perpetual edge of exhaustion, his speech clipped into little shotgun blasts of bile that anticipate Charles Bronson’s monotonal delivery a decade or so later. Even when in possession of his nuclear home, he seems uneasy, the jollity forced. His wife, played by Jocelyn Brando, emits a generic housewifely cheer, as if Bannion just wandered onto the set of the Donna Reed Show (which wouldn’t premiere until 1958, but please indulge me). When Bannion’s home is emptied out, it feels more like reality, and the middle-class fantasy the dream. Seeing the rage in Bannion’s eyes, an ex-partner on the force tells him, “you’re on a hate binge.” And so he is, blithely stampeding into Lagana’s nightclubs and mansion, more locales in which he doesn’t belong, with his old dark trenchcoat and faded fedora, suspicious of everyone and belonging nowhere. It is with the entry of Debby Marsh, that childishly erotic creation of Gloria Grahame, that Bannion finds another lost soul, uncomfortable in furs and then in her own skin, when Vince Stone famously scars her face with a pot of coffee (off-screen, like the suicide). Their bond is brief but intense, as each have been ripped away from their place in society. Debby tells a fellow female schemer that they are “sisters under the mink”, but she and Bannion are comrades in hate.

The Lawless was the second film Joseph Losey directed in Hollywood, and he would only be able to make three more before he was blacklisted and had to move overseas. He followed up the anti-war fable The Boy With Green Hair (1948) with this socially conscious drama, which he shot on location in Marysville and Grass Valley, CA in 18 days. He would continue to exploit real locations in his work, used to spectacular effect inThe Prowler (1951) and his remake of Lang’s (1951), in which Southern California becomes a tomb of broken American dreams.

The script was written by Daniel Mainwaring (using his  pseudonym as a mystery novelist, Geoffrey Homes), who would also come under some scrutiny by HUAC, although he was able to work sporadically during that period. Mainwaring’s script hearkens back to the social-realist films of the ’30s, like King Vidor’s ode to communal living, Our Daily Bread, within a completely different political landscape. Anything that smacked of Communism was suspect, so the film’s plea for racial tolerance, and unflattering portrayal of the local police force, came under scrutiny from the Production Code Administration’s Joseph Breen. Here is his amazing note to the film’s distributor, Paramount, as reproduced in the AFI Catalog:

The shocking manner in which the several gross injustices are heaped upon the head of the confused, but innocent young American of Mexican extraction, and the willingness of so many of the people in your story to be a part of, and to endorse, these injustices, is, we think, a damning portrayal of our American social system. The manner in which certain of the newspapers are portrayed in this story, with their eagerness to dishonestly present the news, and thus inflame their readers, is also, we think, a part of a pattern which is not good. The over-all effect of a story of this kind made into a motion picture would be, we think, a very definite disservice to this country of ours, and to its institutions and its ideals….This whole undertaking seems to us to be fraught with very great danger.

However great the danger, Paramount did not greatly alter the film, in which circulation-obsessed newspapermen rile up the public into a frenzy around the story of Mexican “fruit tramp” Paul Rodriguez (Lalo Rios), accused of killing a cop. Already convicted in the court of public opinion, only the stalwart editor Larry Wilder (MacDonald Carey) stands to defend the kid, inflaming the populace to ransack his office. It’s a scene of destructive power, one of the few instances where the theme is illustrated by action rather than static speechifying. This reckless, irrational demolition of a newspaper office, fueled by race hatred, dwarfs the liberal pieties of the rest of the film, which turns Wilder into the hero at the expense of Rodriguez. In plotting action, mostly in long takes, Losey proves he could express his social critique through more subtle means, which he would succeed at in the haunting machinations of The Prowler, one of the great films of 50s middle-class malaise, right alongside The Big Heat.


October 5, 2010


Every Friday night this month, TCM is showing a slate of Hammer Horror films, so we at Movie Morlocks have been saluting the venerable production company’s work. Hammer Films, launched in 1934, has an imposingly large filmography, and has just re-started after a 30 year hibernation.  Let Me In (the remake of Let the Right One In (2008)) is its first production to hit U.S. theaters since their 1979 version of The Lady Vanishesstarring Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould. They claim to have 25 projects in preparation, and they just inked a deal to publish horror novels with Arrow (an imprint of Random House). I’m going to dip into their past, though, and focus on the 1963 Joseph Losey film The Damned (re-titled These Are the Damned in the U.S. It airs October 22nd at 11:15PM. It is also available on DVD).

It’s a strange beast, a youth-in-revolt drama that morphs into a sci-fi dystopia fueled by nuclear panic. Based on a story by H.L. Lawrence (The Children of Light), and adapted for the screen by Evan Jones, it stars Macdonald Carey as Simon Welles, a rather dissolute American traveling to the graying resort town of Weymouth, in England (a stand-in for the blacklisted American exile, Joseph Losey). There he meets Joan (Shirley Ann Field), who lures him into a mugging by her brother King’s leather-clad Teddy Boy gang. King (played with neurotic smarminess by Oliver Reed) is a sexually-repressed type, tyrannically controlling his sister’s love-life and channeling his own lust into bits of random violence. Joan runs off with Simon, and they hide out in the cliffs, where they discover a secret government experiment to forge children who could survive a nuclear holocaust. King chases them into the same nightmare.

The experiment is lorded over by Bernard (Alexander Knox), an avuncular and nihilistic scientist convinced that nuclear destruction is unavoidable, and one suspects he thinks necessary as well. He tells Simon after his mugging that the “age of senseless violence has caught up with us too.” This statement, ostensibly about the Teddy Boy gang who jacked up Simon, is also writ large on the geo-political stage. Bernard wants to start the world from scratch with his miracle children, who have survived irradiation, are cold to the touch, and whom he treats as his students, although he locks them inside a cliff.

Joseph Losey was not thrilled to take on the project. He tells Tom Milne in “Losey on Losey” that:

I undertook The Damned, from a novel I thought confused and good, because several other projects had fallen through at that moment and it was a difficult period in my life. This has never been sufficient for me to take on anything; but I did, because I thought the novel spoke passionately and felt passionately about the irresponsible use of the new atomic powers put into the hands of the human race… I knew I was making it for a company distinguished for making pretty horrid horror films. I…was interested in parallel levels of violence. …These were the things I wanted to play on; the science-fiction aspects of the story didn’t interest me at all.

Despite his low opinion of Hammer Films, the company still did all it could to satisfy him. The original script was written by a former collaborator of Losey’s, Ben Barzman, which Columbia had approved, but he rejected it on the set, and moved forward with a new script from Evan Jones, which Denis Meikle says was “written on the hoof” in his A History of Horrors. Producer Tony Hinds left the production because of this radical change, to be replaced by Michael Carreras. But whoever was in charge, only Losey and Jones knew what the story was any longer.


Regardless of the chaotic production, and Losey’s demurrals, it’s a striking and unsettling piece of work. It’s the first film he shot in the 2.35:1 ratio (here called HammerScope), but he and DP Arthur Grant had a firm sense of its possibilities. There is the deep focus of the shot that headlines this piece: of the gang randomly destroying an object in the deep background (a mutating mass of violence) while Joan contemplates fleeing in the foreground (an alienated, isolated presence). This composition repeats insistently in the first part of the film, in which Joan latches on to Simon as an escape hatch.  The leathered gang is always shot as a group, usually in long shot, and like automatons whistle and sing their killer theme song, “Black leather”.

Losey’s work in the first half is highly mobile and engaged. The gang straddles a unicorn statue, sneering to the passersby. In the same take the camera glides up the monument to George III, another icon emptied of meaning to these bored youth. Then Losey cuts straight from George to Joan enticing Simon to follow her to his doom.   As in his U.S. masterpiece The Prowler, institutions are losing power to induce obedience to the law, as endemic corruption has undercut any sense of legitimacy.

With the introduction of Bernard’s destructive paranoia, the gang’s distrust of authority seems apt, if not directed very constructively. Their violence is a microcosm of the battles that are threatening to devour the world, and which triggers Bernard to enact his megalomaniacal experiments. He drills his irradiated orphans with military precision – in art, history and literature, an a futile act of cultural preservation. But the kids are ignorant of their fate, and completely cut off from the world outside. They construct “parents” from magazine photos and their own crude drawings. Even if Bernard’s predictions come to pass, it’s unlikely these desperate children could forge the kind of society he envisions.

Losey’s attention seems to flag with the sci-fi sections, stuck with flat cave interiors, rote plot machinations and an overdetermined political allegory dragging things down. The film was a reaction to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a vocal activist group in England, formed in 1957, that agitated for unilateral disarmament by the UK (their logo was adopted later as the worldwide emblem of peace). Bernard’s post-hawkish acceptance of a nuclear war is the ideal straw man for CND to knock down.

The rich imagery of social decay pops up only occasionally in the second half, almost entirely in the sculptures of Bernard’s sometime lover and full-time bohemian, Freya, played with cynical resignation by Viveca Lindfors. She constructs desiccated, unpolished works of  human and animal forms, splayed menacingly against Weymouth’s dreary landscape. A shadow of her bird lands behind Bernard in one of the images above. They are portents of death that everyone ignores, even herself.

While the ending is too pat – an everyone loses wake-up call that now looks forced, the film contains an irreducible creepiness, as well as Losey’s inspired sections of societal rot and cycles of violence that he is able to convey almost entirely through the image. Afterward he would move on to a string of art-house hits with his Harold Pinter adaptations starring Dirk Bogarde, but I don’t think any other of his British productions contain the same uncanny power as The Damned.


March 23, 2010


The Prowler was made by disillusioned men. Director Joseph Losey, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and visual consultant John Hubley were all eventually blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo was already tarred, so his writing credit was given solely to Hugo Butler – while Losey and Hubley were pushed out of Hollywood soon afterward (Losey made one more film, The Big Night, before moving to Europe, while Hubley turned to uncredited work in commercials). Every major American institution is treated with a disdainful eye in The Prowler, a despairing document reflecting the state of the political Left in 1951, making it one of the bleakest film noirs ever made. James Naremore quotes Losey in describing the Hollywood liberal that year:

The Left in Hollywood was utterly demoralized by Truman, the atomic bomb, and the HUAC investigations, and it was beginning to recognize “the complete unreality of the American dream”.

The protagonists of this sleazy little drama are Webb Gardner (Van Heflin), an oafish cop fueled by class resentment, and Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), a plasticine blonde bored with her milquetoast husband. Or, as Manny Farber described them, “an amoral rookie cop” and a “hot, dumb, average American babe.” Either way, they were born to torment each other. In the opening shot, Susan stares off camera, shrieks, and pulls down the shades. There’s a prowler outside, and we’re out there with him. After this self-reflexive jape, literally putting us in the shoes of a voyeur and jokingly incriminating the whole movie-going enterprise, Losey pulls back to the larger narrative.

Susan calls the police to investigate the prowler, and Webb arrives along with his folksy, contented middle-class partner, Bud (John Maxwell). Sweeping the grounds outside, Webb circles around to the window in her bathroom. In a reversal of the opening shot, the camera is placed inside the window looking out, and Van Heflin takes our offending place where the peeper was first spotted. It establishes his perversity – he’s got a smarmy grin on his face – and re-enforces the possibility of ours. It’s the first of many shots where Webb is shown in transitional spaces – doorways, hallways and windows. The problem is that he always gets closer.

When he returns later that evening, she allows him in her living room, which the script described as “comfortably and tastefully furnished in Barker Brothers’ more expensive style of four years ago. There are overstuffed chairs and a couch; two bad landscapes on the wall” (quoted in “Un-American” Hollywood by Frank Krutnik).

Susan lives in one of the knockoff Spanish Haciendas favored by the upper middle classes in L.A. following WWII. The design is bland, second-hand, and forgettable. In a sly bit of set design, Diego Rivera’s The Flower Carrier [left] hangs over her dining room table, an artwork depicting labor exploitation tamed and turned by middle class apathy into mute wallpaper. Krutnik weaves a whole interpretation around the placement of the painting, which is available to read in his book’s Google preview.

This is the life Webb had been seeking, a life of quiet contentment in a “tastefully furnished” apartment, with a well-dressed blonde at his side. Over coffee, his class resentments come pouring out. He mews that being a cop is no better than a ditch-digger, money being his only bottom line. Susan ignites his jealousies further by revealing how she grew up in Indiana, in the same town as Webb, only she came from a wealthier family on a well-tended street.

It is this revelation that turns Susan into a prize – the ivory tower hidden from him because of his station in life. He becomes aggressive, animal, relentless. Susan resists meekly, than gives herself over entirely. Her own American dream, of raising a family, foundered in her husband’s infertile loins. Reduced to the life of a cloistered housewife, Webb’s meaty pawing feels like freedom. The husband only lives as a voice on the radio, as he’s the host of a popular nighttime music show, and an unwelcome presence during Webb’s ungainly seductions. In a small note of resistance, Losey cast Trumbo as the husband’s voice, his nasal tenor a ghostly presence even before his body gets knocked off in the Double Indemnity– inspired plot.

The Prowler spreads its sarcasm over the entire roll-call of American myths. Marriage, small-town life, the police force, and even capitalism itself are shown as empty, repressive forces. Susan and Webb are driven to each other, and then self-desctruct, all because of their unrequited love of the American dream. They want a perfect middle-class life, and Webb is more than ready to kill for it.

Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes provide two sterling performances of American indolence and greed. Heflin is especially mesmerizing, his wide-set eyes, gangly limbs, and lasciviously parted lips looking like a grotesque caricature of masculinity. His arms and legs seem to flail out of sequence when he stalks around Susan’s home like an uncaged gorilla, and his apartment is a bubbling cauldron of 50s macho-ness. There’s a target practice sheet on the wall, muscle mags on the desk, and an electronic razor incessantly buzzing around his reddened mug. Then when Susan calls seeking reconciliation for one of their flaps, he strokes the phone’s receiver around the edge of his mouth, his eyes burning with a look of sexual ecstasy. It becomes clear later that he’s been planning a murder. Evelyn Keyes has less to work with. Andrew Sarris describes the dilemma of the actress in a Losey film (thanks to Glenn Kenny for pointing me to this quote in his blog post on The Prowler):

The feminine role in Losey’s world is strictly subordinate because of the histrionic hysteria of his actors. Men simply cannot cope with their lives and social institutions, and they crack up with very lyrical results. Meanwhile the women stand by to pick up the pieces. They cope because of their ability to compromise with reality, an ability Losey frankly admires. Unfortunately, the best roles are the least stable. Hence, Losey’s actresses are usually denied the great scene-stealing moments of psychic dissolution.

This is all true for The Prowler, with Keyes having to swing between lassitude and disconsolate passion – no emotional match for Heflin’s demoniac dissembler. But in her own minor key, she is superb. In her cool apathetic demeanor she delivers lines with a lack of affect, as if her personality had been worn down over time. Her personal desires have been co-opted by those of her society, hence her bizarre decision to hook up with Webb and start a family on the edges of the world they so desperately wish to enter.

By the end they are pushed out of the middle-class suburbs and literally start to disappear. They are forced to go to a ghost town abandoned after a gold rush, where they enact a grim parody of the social roles of husband and wife – she does the dishes, he gets the food – and there’s a baby on the way. This section of the film is heightened both visually and narratively, as the events become more overtly symbolic and hallucinatory. The “door” to their room is a sheet that is beaten down by a raging storm. Webb has no other boundaries to cross, and now he simply wants the world to stay away. But the wind and rain keep busting in, and a simple country doctor brings their whole pathetic existence to a close – climaxing on a long climb up a short hill.