Many of Joseph Losey’s movies are identified as being part of a genre, but inevitably burst out as something strange, deeper, darker. Eventually, they were just “films by Joseph Losey.” A son of Wisconsin, classmate of fellow firebrand Nicholas Ray, Losey chose exile in Europe during the blacklist, and made radical camp—“Boom!”, “Figures in a Landscape”—as well as sere collaborations with Harold Pinter (“The Servant,” “Accident”). The French linage “Mr. Klein” (1976) was an American art-house hit in 1977, yet underestimated by the critical faculty of the moment. (Vincent Canby of the New York Times tempered praise with dismissive remarks: “At his worst, [Losey] reveals a total lack of humor put in the service of pretentiousness.”) This restoration of “Mr. Klein” is a modest revelation, with the precise trappings of everyday life, of privilege, of police stations, etching the paranoia of a man accused of being a man who bears the same name, who is also a Jew. Faceless oppressors reside behind the quotidian.
Franco Solinas’ script, built on mistaken identity and doubling and scapegoating, is superb, complex scaffolding, but it’s Losey’s atmospheric insistence that haunts, stylized in every aspect, such as the plush lighting outside and in by Gerry Fisher and the production design by Alexandre Trauner. (Losey identified the film as “a fable acting as a warning.”) Delon’s sculpted face and large eyes and slight smile are a mask within urban settings and against the landscape of the mass round-ups by the Germans.
“Mr. Klein” was the product of the vicissitudes of filmmaking: a longer script by Solinas was once to be made by Costa-Gavras, and Losey’s never-produced Pinter adaptation of Proust, “A la Recherché du Temps Perdu,” had once again lost hope. “Mr. Klein” and Mr. Klein announced themselves.
Talking to veteran French critic Michel Ciment, Losey readily aligned “Mr. Klein”’s atmosphere of isolation and dread with his experience with the McCarthy era: “Nobody was prepared to take a stand and say, ‘no.’ Because if they did, then they were immediately blacklisted. The ultimate of that kind of attitude is what is happening now, torture as policy. Not torture to get information, because the police already have the information. Torture them long beyond the point where there would be any information that they could possibly give if they had it. The aim is make everybody on the street so frightened that they won’t even remotely engage in any kind of activity.” “Mr. Klein” resounds: history repeats. “Mr. Klein” won France’s 1977 Césars for best picture, director and production design. With Jeanne Moreau, Michel Lonsdale, Juliet Berto, Suzanne Flon. 123m. (Ray Pride)
“Mr. Klein” plays at Siskel through November 21.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.