No Speech From The Scaffold

I watched some films that were directed by Joseph Losey.

Time Without Pity (1957) starts with a terrified young woman getting killed in a flat, and a desperate man getting agitated about it. It is not immediately clear if he murdered her.

We then go forward in time to see David Graham, played by Michael Redgrave, arriving at the airport in London.

He soon meets his lawyer Jeremy Clayton, played by Peter Cushing. They discuss the trial and conviction of Graham’s son Alec for the killing of Jennie Cole, which we saw at the start. Alec has been found guilty and is due to be hanged soon. Relations between him and his novelist father have been strained for a long time, due to David’s drink problems, and in fact he didn’t attend the trial at all because he was recovering in a sanatorium in Canada and news of the proceedings had been kept from him.

Going to the prison where the condemned man waits, they are warned by the men in authority that will be limiting access between father and son according to their estimate of how much distress it causes to the prisoner, whose welfare they are of course deeply concerned about, up until they kill him. Alec, played by Alec McCowen, is rather distressed to see his useless old dad.

Pleading with the Home Office is no use without some breakthrough new developments. The men in power assure him that they receive all kinds of crank letters and phoney confessions and can’t possibly take that sort of thing seriously without hard evidence, and of course we must enforce the death penalty otherwise society will fall apart as no one will respect the majesty of the law. A few liberal campaigners appear in passing, and are dismissed with the unanswerable question of whether they would not also unconditionally endorse pacifism. The debate is not pursued in detail, though the response could be made that in war, as well as law-enforcement, we do not have to use the highest forces available and that we can decide that to do so would be counter-productive, without abandoning our cause entirely.

Graham tries to make contact with the people close to his son in the events leading to Jennie’s death. Her sister Agnes wants nothing to do with him, but he has more luck with the figures around Robert Stanford (played by Leo McKern), the self-made motoring business tycoon who owned the flat where the killing happened, and who was the other person in the scene at the start. We are entering a world of mirrors and distorted appearances.

We see one of the other beneficiaries of Robert’s largesse, his assistant Vicki Harker, played by Lois Maxwell.

Of course Graham is struggling not very well to keep off the booze again, but Stanford and everyone around him is going hysterical also. Everyone in this small, privileged world seems to be cracking up from anxiety, not least because they’ve all come from somewhere else and have an uncertain grip on their present status. Graham has never been sure of his talent or direction as a writer and he couldn’t help himself with his addiction; Stanford is a social climber who clearly can’t get on with the posh trophy wife he has acquired; their son was adopted after his father, a worker in the business, was killed in an accident. Every life is contingent and fragile. When Graham sees a way to clear his son’s name, he has to pursue Stanford across the eerie haunted playground of his test driving track, where the rich man drives his latest toys with maniacal glee.

The Damned (1962) also starts with a traveller arriving, in this case at Weymouth.

Retired old American Simon Wells is distracted by pretty young Joan (played by Shirley Anne Field) and tries to seize the day, but in fact she is a lure to bring old marks like him in to the hands of the gang of bikers led by her brother King, played by Oliver Reed. After she alerts them, they set up the ambush and beat and rob the old guy.

Meanwhile at a hotel in town, old Bernard is pleased to see his French girlfriend Freya Neilson is in town. He puts her up in the same holiday cottage he has available, but he warns her once again not to ask any questions about the Very Important Business he is involved in, or the many military men he seems to know about the place.

Bernard is played by Alexander Knox, who was later Control in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The couple are aware of poor old Simon, beaten up by “teddy boys” (they would seem to be rockers, actually – “Black Leather Rock” is the theme tune they hum along to), but they aren’t involved in his further engagements with Joan and her attempt to extricate herself from the gang and her coercive, dominating brother. Joan is also not too keen on leaving one kind of controlling male in order to be exploited by an equally creepy older man who expects favours. The American tries, with some degree of success, to convince her he’s not quite like that.

Simon and Joan break into an empty holiday cottage for a bit of fun, but are interrupted by Freya turning up for another summer stint as an artist in residence, producing her semi-abstract figurative sculptures that are a bit like Giacometti when she makes them small, and a bit like Anthony Gormley when she goes big. But then King also turns up in pursuit, and we have an existential confrontation between the self-indulgent artist and the rough street-fighter who detests being patronised by people who like this sort of pretentious evil junk.

At this point the film is headed towards a low-key British version of A Bout De Souffle, but then it takes a swerve in a totally different direction, as we go inside the secret facility nearby that Bernard presides over as grand controller. It’s an inner electronic world where soldiers and scientists bustle around a special colony of strange children.

It’s not clear what the project is all about, but we do understand that some of the science chaps are exasperated with the Army boys trying to run things like the old Empire. “Any bully could command obedience. Only a gentleman can command loyalty.” shrugs one of the officers.

The children themselves are tired of being kept in an intensive learning environment with only the sketchiest details of their own origin story, and they eagerly take in the bedraggled runaways Simon and Joan, who fell in the sea whilst trying to escape both soldiers and bikers.

And also King, when he turns up as well.

The brilliant young minds can come up with all sorts of clever ploys to outwit their distant remote controllers but it’s not going to have the results they want.

This is a despairing, gloomy story of the nuclear age, and once again everyone is driven by a sense of their own fragility. Killings have to be carried out for the sake of preserving a disintegrating sense of order, by officers who no longer believe in it or themselves.

In the words of poet and motorcyclist Thom Gunn:

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