The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, 1970)
In Losey’s oeuvre, there’s a recurring and clearly discernible theme of the setup, the characters’ lives, being torn to pieces by a scheming and assertive visitor/intruder figure. As well as Bogarde’s Servant, there’s Robert Mitchum in Secret Ceremony, Helmut Berger in The Romantic Englishwoman– I could go on almost infinitely. The Go-Between rather stands out, therefore, as the visitor is an innocent abroad who gets torn to pieces by his hosts.
For those unfamiliar with L.P. Hartley’s classic novel, Leo is an old man recalling the summer of 1900 when he, a lower-middle-class widow’s son, is invited to the aristocratic estate of his classmate Marcus. He comes to idolise Marcus’ big sister Marian (Julie Christie), and when Marcus is laid up with measles he is delighted to learn that he can win Marian’s favour by taking letters to and from one of their tenant farmers, the bluff Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). The trouble is that Marian is to be married to Viscount Trimingham (Edward Fox) and the household becomes increasingly aware that there is something going on. Things end fairly catastrophically.
Film and book capture the experience of a lazy childhood summer, where you have no real concept of time and time therefore stretches into infinity. The camera follows Leo as he dawdles around the corridors and kitchens of the huge house, the fields and woodland of the estate. It’s one of those Losey films, like Secret Ceremony, where the house is one of the stars and the camera pans through it slowly with awe and reverence. The succulent reprint now showing at the NFT renders vivid the panoramic views, the straw hats and blazers, the wasps hovering over the tea and scones. There are some striking shots of Leo running off to the farm, the camera zooming out to take in the gardens, the surrounding lakes and forests, until Leo is a tiny speck and we can see for miles. (Sitcom fans might enjoy seeing Trigger’s bit part as a dandy gent with Lennon penny glasses and a Proper moustache, and young Marcus went on to play Herr Flick in Allo Allo.)
The film also captures the experience of visting a new household as a child; the grown-ups make pleasantries, you’re instinctively drawn to wander and explore, but find that you’re constantly breaking unwritten rules and having to have things explained to you. Leo doesn’t speak the lingo and is left mystified by the customs explained to him. The dogs have names like Dry Toast and he must not fold up his clothes, but leave them “wherever they fall” for the servants to pick up. Later, he brings Edward Fox onto the subject of blame when female infidelity leads to duelling and is succinctly told that “nothing is ever a lady’s fault”.
People talk a lot about our “animal half”. I’m never convinced that we’re not entirely animal under our veneer of cutlery and fine clothes and water closets, but we expend a lot of energy convincing ourselves that this is the case. This genteel family are ideal territory for Pinter, with whom the unsaid is what matters. Trimingham would never be so crude as to discuss his finacée’s affair with her father. He merely suggests Ted Burgess as a ripe candidate for army recruitment. Even Ted finds the disclosure that Leo and Marian sometimes “sit together on a sofa” the height of sauciness.
Pinter and Losey poke fun at the omnipresent repression when the house and the villagers have their annual cricket match, Pinter’s beloved sport used as an unsubtle metaphor for sex. As the aristocrats bat, Edward Fox hits precise little strokes- the ball stays close to the ground, carefully directed into the perimeter hedges. The spectating boys praise his “culture and discipline”. When Alan Bates steps up to bat, he lunges wildly. The ball soars miles into the air, travels long distances, lands in a crowd of ladies. “Ooh, he’s terribly savage”, they remark.
When Leo runs a small errand for Trimingham -ironically- he finds himself dubbed ‘Mercury, messenger of the gods’. And indeed these people are gods to him, with their charm and their croquet and their Brideshead lifestyle. But the instant he tries to stand up to them, by trying to resign from his position of ‘postman’, Leo realises he has been in a nest of vipers the whole time. The smiling, slightly patronising Christie who buttered him up with cakes and trips to Norwich turns into a bullying harridan. Alan Bates keeps his cool but uses blackmail nonetheless; “You’ll make her cry, you know. And she won’t be the same way with you anymore”. On the other hand, when he struggles to defend their secret from Marian’s mother (an unforgettably vicious Margaret Leighton) she bullies him too. Leo is trapped and turns to rituals of his own, sneaking out in the night to cast amateur spells with the deadly nightshade in the outhouses.
The emotional climax of the film comes as all this repression can no longer be contained. Leo’s birthday is greeted with thunderstorms. The household sits around, cutting the cake, waiting for Marian. A carriage is sent and comes back- Marian was not where she said she was going. They know very well where she is, but they sit and wait and listen to the thunder, a forlorn sight with their party hats and crackers. When it all gets too much, Margaret Leighton loses her marbles and drags poor Leo through the torrential rain, telling him “You will show me where she is” until they reach their destination of the outhouses. This is the moment Michel Legrand’s ominous score warned us about as we grazed on cucumber sandwiches. The beast is out of the cage and it’s genuinely frightening.
What they find is a fully clothed Alan Bates fucking Julie Christie atop a bale of hay. Leo finally finds out what “spooning” is. In the context of this buttoned-up world, admittedly, her bare leg and thigh are more of a jolt than her numerous nude scenes in a flippant pop film like Darling, but it all feels a bit banal. If the society is setting up this most basic bodily function as the greatest imaginable horror, it is surely setting itself up for a spectacular fall.
Good as it is, The Go-Between is the least heralded component of the great Losey/Pinter trilogy. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. One is the casting of the lead parts. The Servant and Accident benefit from Dirk Bogarde, most gifted actor of his generation. Alan Bates and Julie Christie are fine Premier Division actors, but in this film they play tempestuous star-crossed lovers without moving you very much or eliciting much feeling. Julie Christie is a unique one- she’s got the jawline of a rugby player but her radiant self-confidence, and the rather belittling way in which she flirts, render her attractive. It’s just that there’s something a little workmanlike about their performances here.
Also, the other two films were based on little-known novels. I haven’t read Mosley’s Accident but The Servant ain’t up to much, and Pinter was able to gut it altogether and construct something of his own. He originally told Losey he could not deliver a script for The Go-Between as the novel was “too perfect”, and there’s a feeling that they’re handling the contents with care. There’s a good gag about horses kissing but for the most part Period Pinter finds his voice diluted. He never really bares his teeth.
How to show the story as an old man’s flashback? There’s a bit of Marienbad-ish experimentation going on. With increasing frequency, scenes of this hot summer will be interrupted by brief shots of a man in a bowler hat and grey mac, under grey skies- getting a taxi at Norwich station, getting out of the taxi to visit a graveyard, being shown into a cottage by a maid. Older Leo’s most famous one-liners are delivered by Michael Redgrave (for Older Leo is he) off-camera as Young Leo rides through Norfolk in a horse and cart. The ambition is sophisticated, but whether it works is debatable. With no exposition, the flash-foward is simply confusing until late in the film when we’ve become accustomed to it.
The final, devastating scenes are in the present day- in the intervening 70 years, oddly, the boy of 12 has become Michael Redgrave and Julie Christie has become Julie Christie in such heavy make-up that she has the wrinkles of a 90-year-old. Redgrave has little to do, but he is very moving. His face simply says it all- what kind of a life he’s had, how being back in Norfolk is torture. He is frozen. As we’re discreetly shown how it ended -Alan Bates sitting with a shotgun, blood dripping from his head- and taking in Old Leo’s pain, Julie Christie natters on about how lucky Leo was to witness their special love affair and how privileged he should feel to have helped a wonderful, beautiful thing blossom and her deluded untruths amplify the sick-to-your-stomach horror of it all thousandfold. Leo leaves her, and his taxi passes the stately home where it all happened. You think of all the places from your past that you hope never to see again, and you remember wide-eyed, trusting and vivacious Leo, and see how he turned out, and unless you have a heart of stone you weep. The taxi does not stop.
Most Losey characters find they cannot bear a dessicated life of isolation, so hand themselves over to another person and are inevitably sliced up like sushi. Michael Redgrave’s face suggests that the alternative is no better.