Un-American Activities… Joe Losey’s TIME WITHOUT PITY And SECRET CEREMONY Reviewed

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Secret Ceremony. BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

Indicator have been fair rattling out Joseph Losey titles recently, including The Damned aka These Are The Damned (1962) as part of their fourth Hammer BD box. Losey’s filmography is a notoriously uneven one, inevitably compromised by his Hollywood exile (for standing up to McCarthyite witch hunters) and subsequent search for a more convivial environment in which to make movies, scarcely less by his continuing adherence to Brechtian notions of alienation after he did settle in the UK.

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Like any Lefty worth his salt, Losey was fascinated by the power relations within social groups. In These Are / The Damned his scrutiny ranged from Clockwork Orange before their time biker gangs to deep state bigwigs dictating the fates of nations. Time Without Pity (1957) concerns itself with the plight of the individual in conflict with The State / Society (a pretty extreme / capital case thereof), which is inextricably connected to the state of that individual’s relationship with his father. Secret Ceremony (1968) zones straight in on the treacherous terrain of power and corruption within one family.

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In TWP David Graham (Michael Redgrave) is a failed writer and an even worse excuse for a father. The only field in which he excels is alcoholism. He ends up attempting to dry out in Canada, in a joint so strict that he’s not allowed any mail whatsoever, even mail informing him that his son Alec (Alec McCowen) has been convicted of murdering his girlfriend Jennie (Christina Lubicz) and condemned to hang. Discharged from Rehab (but still drinking like a fish), Graham arrives back in Blighty on the eve of the execution and embarks on a frantic mission to stay the hangman’s hand, with the aid of his solicitor Jeremy Clayton (Peter Cushing). Alec seems resigned to his fate and is contemptuous of his deadbeat Dad’s sudden concern for his welfare but convinced of junior’s innocence, Graham begins to focus his suspicions on brash industrialist Robert Stanford (Leo McKern), at whose property the murder took place

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Watching TWP, I was reminded of Jorge Grau’s lesser known 1974 effort Pena De Muerte (= “The Death Penalty” but ludicrously retitled “Violent Bloodbath” in Anglo territories), a film which debates the rationale of capital punishment in any country whose judicial system is seriously skewed along class lines. In Losey’s picture Leo McKern gives a driving (in every sense of the term) portrayal of precisely the kind of swashbuckling, feckless entrepreneurial psychopath we are encouraged to worship these days, yay, even unto bailing them out for their fuck ups and financial car crashes.

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I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog that some of the awkward characterisations and conspicuous miscasting in other Losey films might be intentionally connected with his fixation on Brechtian alienation but there’s no need for any such get out clauses here, with a great cast doing their stuff impeccably. Jeremy Clayton was Cushing’s last role before Trence Fisher’s The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) transformed his career and the face of cinematic Horror forever. Redgrave’s Graham finally redeems himself in a barnstorming final twist which has a touch of the Sydney Cartons about it. Tis a far, far better thing he does…

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This cracking British noir was the first film that Losey made in exile which was released back in The States with his real name on it. From one Joe to another… up yours!

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Secret Ceremony, on the other hand, does have more than a smidgeon of Bertolt B. polemics about it. Mia Farrow (fresh off of Rosemary’s Baby) is Cenci, a childlike and plainly disturbed young woman who lives alone in an improbably opulent mansion in Holland Park. She encounters Leonora (Liz Taylor) on the top deck of a bus and becomes fixated on her on account of her resemblance to her late mother. As chance (and screenwriter George Tabori, adapting Marco Denevi’s short story) would have it, Taylor is also mourning a dead daughter whom Cenci resembles. Accepting her offer to move in (which sure beats living as a homeless prostitute), Leonora finds herself in a scathing battle of wits with the deranged girl.

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Suggesting that Losey had been boning up on his R.D. Laing (both men were former philosophy students), Secret Ceremony locates the source of Cenci’s malaise squarely in the family matrix. Leonora soon encounters and has to contend with her covetous Aunts (Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown) then along rolls Albert (Robert Mitchum), the sleazy step father who’s been molesting Cenci since childhood (not too difficult a bombshell to have anticipated, given the naming of Farrow’s character). Rough justice, of a sort, is finally served, though the final scene is open to a variety of interpretations.

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Taylor takes a lot of stick for many of her performances and this one is often singled out for particular derision, unjustly so in my opinion. Mitchum slides into the role of the cynical nonce with his accustomed louche alacrity and Farrow could have been born to play Cenci (though in fact she only got the part when Julie Christie turned it down). It says a lot for the quality of the cast that actresses of Ashcroft and Brown’s calibre are restricted to such minor roles. Much more fuss is made of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) but this neglected oddity is every bit as compelling.

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If only all films of this vintage looked this good on Blu-ray. Indicator have managed a beautiful rendering of Gerry Fisher’s cinematography. Thankfully this is the unadulterated Secret Ceremony, minus the extra (non-Losey) scenes that Universal tacked on in an act of vandalism that they hoped would make the film more agreeable to American TV networks. You want to know about the special features on these discs? Of course you do and here, by the miracle of cut and paste, they are…

Time Without Pity, HD remaster

  • Original mono audio
  • The John Player Lecture with Joseph Losey (1973, 80 mins): the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with film critic Dilys Powell at London’s National Film Theatre
  • New and exclusive audio commentary with Neil Sinyard, co-author of British Cinema in the 1950s: A Celebration
  • The Sins of the Father (2019, 16 mins): filmmaker Gavrik Losey, son of Joseph Losey, discusses Time Without Pity
  • Horlicks: Steven Turner (1960, 1 min): vintage commercial for the malted milk drink, directed by Joseph Losey
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Robert Murphy, Joseph Losey on Time Without Pity, Jeff Billington on the MacMahonists and Time Without Pity, an overview of critical responses, and film credits
  • World premiere on Blu-ray
  • Limited edition of 3,000 copies

Secret Ceremony, HD remaster

  • Original mono audio
  • Audio commentary with authors and critics Dean Brandum and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (2019)
  • Archival Interview with Joseph Losey(1969, 15 mins): extract from the French television programme Cinéma critique, featuring the celebrated director promoting the release of Secret Ceremony and an appreciation by critic Michel Mourlet
  • The Beholder’s Share (2019, 25 mins): interview with Gavrik Losey, son of Joseph Losey
  • TV version: additional scenes (1971, 18 mins): unique epilogue and prologue produced for US television screenings, with Robert Douglas and Michael Strong
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Larry Karaszewski trailer commentary (2015, 3 mins): short critical appreciation
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity material
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Neil Sinyard, an archival location report, Joseph Losey onSecret Ceremony, a look at the source novella, an overview of contemporary reviews, and film credits
  • World premiere on Blu-ray
  • Limited edition of 3,000 copies
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