"Red Hollywood," con't. Joseph Losey is best known for his early '60s collaborations with Harold Pinter, The Servant and Accident -- films so distinctly "British" in tone that viewers unfamiliar with his earlier work in Hollywood have assumed Losey himself was British. In fact, in the late '40s and early '50s he was a well-regarded American director of thoughtful action pictures and socially conscious noirs. A committed leftist, Losey immigrated to England after he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged subversive tendencies. One of the most fascinating works from his American period (1951, the same year he fled to England) is his rarely seen remake of the Fritz Lang child-killer classic M, playing at the Pacific Film Archive at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 24. Whereas Lang's use of Peter Lorre in the lead gave a distancing, almost Gothic cast to the film, Losey's deviant outcast, played by David Wayne, looks more like a bewildered bureaucrat than a psychotic fiend. Wayne's "average Joe" look implicates the viewer in his squalid activities, a strategy reinforced by Losey's striking use of real locations. The postwar urban landscape here is grimly realistic and casually littered with social castoffs -- a black piano player, a little Asian girl, a terrified working-class mother. The mob that surrounds the killer at the end unmistakably predicts Joe McCarthy's Washington mob, and Wayne's brilliantly hysterical breakdown is a ghostly foreshadowing of the forced testimony of those who, unlike Losey, failed to escape the "witch hunts" in time.
There must have been something in the water of La Crosse, Wis., for two of the town's native sons to become such fine film directors. But it must have left a bitter taste; the films of Joseph Losey and Nicholas Ray run over with recriminations and regret. In Losey's The Prowler (1951; screening with M at 9:15 p.m. Thursday), LA patrolman Van Heflin muscles in on Evelyn Keyes' marriage with a wealthy older man. He gets her, and he gets the money. But we know his insecure rage, like that of other Southern California cops, is unappeasable. John Hubley's three sets ("Spanish style" hacienda, characterless motel, desert shack) track Heflin's deterioration through architecture in a smooth, nasty film noir.
Or more accurately film gris. As in Ray's In a Lonely Place (showing Sunday, Oct. 27, at 5 p.m.), The Prowler's cinematography is not stark black-and-white, instead ranging over the gray scale. Ray (who studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright) also uses set design to frame his characters' psychologies, in this case an open-air Hollywood apartment complex that copies Ray's own first Hollywood home. The real "lonely place" that star Humphrey Bogart inhabits, however, is his own mind. This is probably the most lucid film about paranoia ever made, down to its haunting finale, in which the expected (and scripted) act of violence does not take place; Ray, Bogart, and Gloria Grahame improvise something much better and more desolating than mere homicide.
The PFA's ongoing "Red Hollywood" series posits McCarthy-era guilt underlying these films' miasma, with the hints of blacklisting in In a Lonely Place and its excellent co-feature, Sweet Smell of Success (at 6:50 p.m. Sunday), bearing this out. Maybe so -- but perhaps we can look back in anguish to La Crosse instead. Both Losey's and Ray's families were well off, but Losey's family (of pioneer stock) looked down on Ray's Norwegian clan, because they were immigrants. Both men, much married, were dogged by rumors of homosexuality, which would have meant something in 1950. (Wright threw the young Nick Ray out of his Taliesin school for that reason.) There're always plenty of reasons to feel guilt, resentment, and anger; politics is just another.