Sunday, 30 October 2011

Eva - JOSEPH LOSEY - Director

Released 1962

"Do you know how much this weekend's going to cost me? Two friends, thirty thousand dollars...and a WIFE."

In the fetid Venetian lagoons, two monsters lie in wait. He is Tyvian Jones, escapee from the South Wales valleys, blustering his virility around the continent on the back of an international best-seller plagiarised from his dead brother. She is Eva, lady about town, functional schizoid and nemesis in bold type. For the next hour or so we witness a man being systematically destroyed by his obsession for a woman.

In it's longest print  the 1962 film "Eva" exists with Swedish & Finnish subtitles and a clutch of very mixed reviews. It left something of a black mark on the careers of all those involved in the making of it, yet within those footnotes remains a fascinating story.

In the month of his death, Rhondda-born actor Stanley Baker received the ultimate career accolade with the award of a knighthood. Forever engrained in the consciousness of the British cinema-going public for his role of Lt. Chard in the 1964 film "Zulu", Baker forged a reputation as a socially committed actors actor who could and should have followed the Connerys and Caines towards Hollywood action-man immortality. But having rejected the money by turning down the role of James Bond for fear of being typecast, Stanley Baker began the 1960's with the intention of bringing to life the vision of a director very much in tune with himself.

Stanley Baker
In 1961 not long after making that momentous decision, Baker found himself contracted as the male lead in a European film to be produced by Egyptian brothers Raymond and Robert Hakim, currently riding high on the back of the Alain Delon thriller "Plein Soleil" and then working on the concurrent "L'Eclisse", also starring Delon and directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni. The Hakim's notorious for a heavy hands-on supervision on all their productions, allowed themselves to be persuaded by Baker to employ the directorial services of exiled American-in-Britain, Joseph Losey. Losey had cast Baker in a couple of features and the two men had developed a rapport based largely on their shared social convictions. Losey had been black-listed in the McCarthy anti-Communist witch-hunt whilst Baker was a CND activist and ardent left-wing supporter of Harold Wilson (it would be Wilson's 1976 resignation honours list that would honour him)

Joseph Losey
The story Eve (re-titled "Eva" for the film) had been written by pulp fiction novelist James Hadley Chase and was based around the relationship between a hard-boiled detective and a prostitute. If the subject matter was entirely in keeping with the Hakim's commercial, not to mention salacious instincts, the final treatment would take a considerable detour. As was common currency with Losey, "Eva" would be shaped around the director's own particular demons, the original story a skeleton onto which a modern treatise on his own sexual dilemmas would be grafted. For the director, this film was to be his statement on the bourgeois entrapment of the female spirit and would bear direct comparison to his own marriage. The off-set intrigue surrounding his relationship with wife and mistress would actually result in a nervous breakdown for a put-upon nanny who would find herself confined to St Bartholomew's Hospital, London for the duration of filming. A fitting sub-plot to a film devoted to much madness and hate.

Jeanne Moreau
A significant departure from the plan would see Losey moving the action from Los Angeles to Venice and the American detective changed to a fraudulent Welsh novelist. Baker's collusion accounted for the character change but the geography hinted at loftier ambitions and one requiring some practical assistance due to a hangover from Losey's American ban. It has been suggested that Baker and Losey employed the services of the London underworld to secure visas and permits to enter Italy and the name of Kray Twin acolyte Albert Dimes has been mentioned. The ends pursued indicate the ambitions both men had for the project. The title role would be played by leading French actress Jeanne Moreau, then an established name on the international circuit. Fresh from her success in Antonioni's "La Notte" and the career defining "Jules et Jim", Moreau would be cast as the demonic tormentor to Baker's man skating on thin ice. Courted for the role by Losey, the actress and director shared mutual respect and the triumvirate began filming with great hope.

Michel Legrand
Reluctantly granting the director his wishes, the Hakim's did however eschew the preferred choice of composer when Miles Davis' representatives requested a little more money than budgeted. Fortunately the Billie Holliday tunes and work of French composer Michel Legrand would give the film a sophisticated yet sleazy air perfectly in tune with the fractured personality splits of the lead characters. The main theme is a particularly fascinating piece. A quietly swinging trumpet riff backed by a small jazz group is suddenly broken by a sudden sheet of discordant harpsichords and a sound not unlike Bartok or Stravinsky. Legrand would go on to score "The Go-between" for Losey but it was this soundtrack that the director would go on to cite as his favourite musical score.

In Stanley Baker's Tyvian Jones the morose Celtic division of faux machismo and brooding self-hatred is perfectly encapsulated. The films charts the self-investigation of a man who knows he is living a lie. "Stranger From Hell" the title of his dead brother's slice of life pulp-fiction, features his name on the spine and his photo on the jacket but it is only in the title that Tyvian finds the awful truth. Far off in the distance lies marriage to a beautiful fiancĂ© and a place in an establishment he can only dream about. But right before his eyes gaping cracks appear in an insecurity he is desperate to fill. This void is filled by Moreau's Eva, willing seductress through the necessity of earning money to live the life she must live. By turns childish and demonic, for Moreau it would be one of the finest performances of her career, her post-coital eyes staring balnkly through the smoke.

"Do you find me attractive?", she asks an exasperated Tyvian during one the film's many scences of desperate, doomed seduction.
"Mean...cruel...vicious...destructive", he answers.

Boasting stunning photography from Henri Decae, the film looked great too, painting a nocturnal Venice and scruffy Rome in dark forboding shades. Yet this darkness and the bitterness within the text would slip into the production like a spiked drink. Fact and fiction merged. Eva used her sex like a weapon and even disregarding Moreau's assertion of the time when she took a knife to the producers during an on-set dispute, a feeling of deep malevolence and violence hung over the whole venture. Scenes were fought over and planned budgets withdrawn. It spilled over into the action.

In one scene as Eva leads Tyvian through dark Roman streets, we glimpse piazza and fountains reminiscent of  Fellini's award-winning "La Dolce Vita", yet where in that film we recall an iconic embrace at dawn, in doomed "Eva" the lovers stumble down stairs into the hovel of a sleeping vagrant. There is nothing accidental about this fall. The scene also reminds us that "Eva" was Losey's shot at doing a Visconti or Antonioni or indeed Fellini. In the early 1960's Italy was where a film director made his international mark. Losey, Baker and Moreau were clearly fighting towards this end, the stakes were high and as the funds were withdrawn Baker found himself chipping in money from his own pocket. Like Tyvian with his repressed sensitivity, rash bursts of passion were beginning to consume reason.

The final director's cut of 155 minutes would never see the light of day. Allegedly butchered by the Hakim's down to the standard 103 minute theatrical release (though some have argued this was a conceit manufactured by a director who had already lost control). Today we have access to the Scandinavian cut which allows us 119 minutes though in markedly inferior stock. Critics have commented on the longeurs of even the shortest versions of the film so it's a moot point as to whether Losey's grand vision justified his final cut. Either way after moving on to greater things he would recoil in later years over his unrealised masterpiece. (He would describe the unseen full version as "almost an orgasm"!)

Upon it's release established opinion suggested "Eva" was fit only to lurk menacingly in the back-waters of the European cinema world, though plaudits were given to Moreau's expert performance. Yet it is Stanley Baker's portrayal of a seducer devoured who shines brightest nearly half a century on. The working class lad striking out at a time when the blurring of the classes suggested everything was up for grabs strikes a resounding note. To witness the disintegration of his very being acts as a bitter morality play of universal hubris. With another amour in-tow and Tyvian reduced to a lapdog, Eva's final put-down in Piazza St Marco reminds us of the film's unusual subject matter,

"Bloody Welshman!", she spits.

As a post-script it seems fitting to recall that the film's premiere ended as tortuously as its creation. In a split-level Paris cinema, Baker found himself downstairs before a non-plussed cross-section of the weary international press, whilst upstairs Losey partied with enough Anglo-Saxon chutzpah to suggest they'd carried the whole thing off. But the hangover from this film would last a long time.

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