I have been spending a lot of time lately with Joseph Losey (1909-1984). He is a director who completely confounds the old, received principles of the auteur theory. His 37-year feature film career changed its course so often, and took so many bizarre twists, that it seems to disprove everything we once learnt about how to identify a filmmaker through his or her 'recurring themes' or 'signature style'.
The McCarthyist hysteria pushed him out of USA and over to UK; ultimately, he was based all over Europe. Certain 'strings' of titles in his filmography came from getting along with certain actors (Dirk Bogarde, Elizabeth Taylor, Alain Delon) or a certain famous playwright (Harold Pinter). In 1950s US he made noir (the M remake), and in '50s UK he made melodrama (The Sleeping Tiger). At one moment in the '60s he was a Pop/Camp specialist (Modesty Blaise, Boom!), then in the '70s he became a flagship of internationally co-produced art/prestige pictures (The Assassination of Trotsky, Don Giovanni).
Losey merely proves what is true of a vast majority of filmmakers: their road is paved, primarily, not by their own desire, choice or will, but by circumstance, luck (good or bad), opportunity — the normal (or abnormal) contingencies of any lived history. Thomas Elsaesser noted this truth back in 1985: Losey "only troubles a certain conception of the auteur for which coherence is a matter of hermetic closure". Why do we ever imagine a lofty, 'sovereign' path for a director, when we never project the same fantasy onto any screenwriter, film editor, screen composer or actor? Losey knew it well: 'You have five projects in preparation, and it is the sixth you will get to make'. So we need a 'Project 6' auteur theory!
Strangely, but very poetically, the chronic 'homelessness' that afflicted Losey's career seems to have fed directly into the texture of his scattered work. Watching a bunch of his movies, I was struck by the feeling, again and again, of an unsettled and truly uncanny relation to place, any place of dwelling.
The initially inexplicable shots of cars and pedestrians 'clearing out' of French streets in Mr Klein (1976) — a preparation, as we will later learn, for the ghastly, historic Vel d'Hiv round-up of Jews — are among the most eerie in all cinema. Figures in a Landscape (1970) — so like Jerzy Skolimowski's recent Essential Killing (2010), since it is shot almost entirely 'on the run', outdoors — spreads this uncanny aura to the entire natural world. And its shots of Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell at windows, looking into domestic scenes, express intense longing for a home they probably never had.
Except that, for Losey, there is truly 'no place like home' — home is a lost ideal, maybe never a reality for anyone in the past, and certainly not very warming or comforting for anyone who dwells in one in modern times. In the vast, cold mansion of Secret Ceremony (1968), Mia Farrow shrinks into a chair like she has never belonged in this space — even though she has been within its walls her entire life.
Project 6 Auteurism would need to be on the lookout, at all times, for what Raymond Bellour once called the indirect aim in a director's work: the often secretive, devious ways they found to make a given subject somehow 'theirs'. In The Prowler (1951), Losey may have already hit upon his private key. From its very first frame (a woman disturbed by a voyeur) to almost its last (the same woman, abandoned, in a desert shack), the film is about the transformation and evacuation of a domestic space. Yet no place is truly 'homely' in this movie: all dwellings are haunted, soulless, troubled. The couple, the family, the welcome visitor: all are empty, 'let's pretend' fictions in Losey. Mr Klein/Delon seals his own fate by renting the home of his ghostly double, which is a filthy hovel...