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BOOK REVIEW / Accidental dearth of a talent: 'Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life' - David Caute: Faber, 20 pounds

IT IS only three years since Edith de Rham's biography of Joseph Losey appeared, yet here comes another, packed to the gunwales with more detail on the life and work than we need or could possibly want.

Losey's achievement as a director can be debated. Though he made a couple of fine films in the 1960s (The Servant and Accident) and one or two other notable oddities, in later years his work went into drastic decline: despite his considerable reputation, the money dried up and one project after another fizzled out. What seems beyond doubt is his character. On the evidence of David Caute's inquiries among both friends and foes, Joseph Losey was an unregenerate shit.

Caute doesn't set out to do a Kitty Kelley - he doesn't need to - and, never having met Losey, he has no personal scores to settle. One wishes, then, that he had resisted referring to his subject as 'Joe', an impertinence that nags throughout the book. That familiarity aside, one gets the impression of a biographer working very much on the outside of his subject. Losey on the inside may not have been an agreeable prospect, but he did often inspire fierce devotion, and this is something it would be useful to understand. Caute tends to be long on information but short on insight, which, given the unprepossessing nature of his story, rather hobbles the book's stride.

Born in Wisconsin in 1909 to an Episcopalian family, Losey grew to resent both his underachieving father and his overambitious mother. It was a household which always seemed to rely on inheritances that never materialised, an early prefigurement of Losey's vexed attitude to money. Educated at Dartmouth and Harvard, he moved to New York and began working in the theatre. During the 1930s he also produced radio dramas of a highly didactic bent and, more significantly, involved himself with the Communist underground. It was an allegiance that would rebound on him when the HUAC witch-hunts began in earnest. In July 1951, after extensive surveillance by the FBI, Losey fled the country to escape a subpoena.

He chose London as a refuge, though even here he was dogged by the 'American Inquisition' over passport problems. His sister, Mary, was also subjected to investigation in the wake of her brother's flight. Despite her innocence, Losey never expressed any remorse for the trials she went through: 'Joe didn't even ask me about it. When I saw him he said, 'Yeah, tough.' ' Such unfeelingness was sadly typical. Caute quotes a memo Losey wrote to himself in April 1945:

NEVER BE NICE to anyone or about anything, if it gets in the way of your job. NEVER AT ANY PRICE permit personal indignity or lack of respect to you as director from the producer on down.

He adhered to these resolutions all his life, and not merely within a professional sphere. Never short of female company, he treated most women - including the four he married - with callous disregard, a legacy perhaps of his unsatisfactory relationship with his mother. She is, according to Caute, 'the ghost in the machine of his art' and was, in the words of one of Losey's friends, 'difficult, cantankerous, domineeering, ungracious, ungrateful, not very likeable'. Mother and son clearly had plenty in common.

Beached in London, without money or reputation, Losey was rescued by Dirk Bogarde, who was impressed by the director and agreed to take part in The S1eeping Tiger in 1953. The five films they worked on together add up to Losey's most successful collaboration but Bogarde eventually found himself discarded when Losey threw in his lot with Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. The one-time Communist had a weakness for baronial luxury, and was seduced by the Burtons' ostentation. Bogarde recalls Losey proudly displaying a Cartier watch - a gift from Taylor - and remembers the director's fury when Bogarde remarked 'that I liked him better in the days when he wore a 'tin one' . . .'

For all his nouvelle richesse, Losey's work during the Burton years (his 'ornate' period of the late 1960s) was pretty awful. Few had a good word to say about Boom] or Secret Ceremony. Even his Palme d'Or winner, The Go-Between, seems overrated now.

Though he details the Losey oeuvre with impeccable thoroughness, Caute rarely seems engaged by it. Losey did not have the intellectual rigour of an 'auteur', he thinks, and the work is deficient in spontaneity and humour. The critic Gilles Jacob observed 'a sort of abstraction, a laboratory chill in the construction of (Losey's) characters', which sorts well with the man Caute presents. In the last decade of his life he struggled with ill-health and a booze problem, which made his company even less attractive.

There are interesting chimes with Orson Welles. Both men were born in Wisconsin. Both bloated to Falstaffian rotundity. Both spent the twilight of their careers floundering in money troubles and unfulfilled projects. Losey wanted to do Proust's A la recherche with Harold Pinter, and Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and Patrick White's Voss as well - all were abandoned. But unlike Welles he never made a Citizen Kane or a Magnificent Ambersons, and the knowledge of it soured him irretrievably.

He died in June 1984. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is always a difficult principle to uphold; in the case of this bullying, conceited, morose, untrustworthy man, it's well nigh impossible.