April 3, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Joseph Losey’s The Lawless

The Lawless. 1950. USA. Directed by Joseph Losey

These notes accompany the screenings of Joseph Losey’s </i>The Lawless</a> on April 4, 5, and 6 in Theater 3.</p>

Today marks the return of our series, and my weekly posts; a recent illness caused me to miss a couple dozen postings, which I hope to make up in ensuing months. We are also now entering what may be cinema’s most interesting decade, the 1950s, during the course of which many major Hollywood directors reached full maturity, and a plethora of foreign films reached America, as the giant studios began to dissolve and give way to television. The international market was flooded by fresh filmmaking talent from France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and several other countries. Tried-and-true geniuses like Jean Renoir, Carl Th. Dreyer, Max Ophuls, Fritz Lang, and Luis Buñuel showed that they were by no means done. By the end of the decade a “New Wave” flowed from France into other countries to suggest an imminent rebirth of the movies.
Joseph Losey (1909–1984) represents a particularly interesting example of the turbulence and promise of the times.

With his origins on the stage and in leftist politics, Losey was not destined to be an easy fit in a Hollywood that was struggling to survive. Indeed, after just a few years, he was blacklisted. Fortuitously, London beckoned, and his career was reborn. Losey made five films in Hollywood, of which The Lawless was the second. How much America may have lost when its left-wing cinema was slaughtered during the HUAC/McCarthy period we probably never can measure: the departure of Losey, who turned out to be a major talent, was obvious, and even the great Charles Chaplin was stifled. Abraham Polonsky didn’t get to direct another film for 20 years after Force of Evil. How many contemplated projects by other directors were aborted out of fear or frustration?

The Lawless is a small and rather rough film, but it’s quite modern in relation to today’s ongoing issues of racism and vigilantism. That Losey would transform himself into the elegant, suave, and underspoken director of The Servant, King and Country, and Accident remains a small miracle. For this film, he did have MacDonald Carey—who had lucked into Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt early in his career—and the lovely but tragic Gail Russell.

I learned only recently of the uncredited involvement of the great animator (and Losey’s fellow Wisconsinite) John Hubley on the film (and also on The Prowler and Losey’s remake of M). (Full disclosure: John’s daughter, the animator Emily Hubley, is one of my best friends, as was her late mother Faith Hubley; I have been designated an “honorary” Hubley by the family.) Both Losey and Hubley came from similar backgrounds, and they had actually worked together on the 1947 stage production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, with Charles Laughton. (Losey later directed a 1973 film version with Topol.) Apparently Losey felt himself to be visually deficient, and Hubley was able to contribute ideas for the look and movement of the Losey films on which he worked. At the time, Hubley was in his Mr. Magoo/UPA period, prior to the establishment of his own animation studio. With regard to The Lawless, Losey recalled time spent with Hubley looking at photos of the rioting that ensued from Paul Robeson’s postwar concerts in upstate New York. The working relationship between the two men established a pattern of pre-designing sequences. Losey found this immensely helpful, and expressed his debt to Hubley, comparing their collaboration to a marriage. This set the pattern for Losey’s later work with Richard Mac Donald, who would work as his art director or production designer for over two decades.