The strange twists in the career of Joe Losey are often connected to events and developments in film history. In the early 1950s Losey was one of the American filmmakers who decided it was wise to leave Hollywood and attempt to build a new career in Europe. He was fleeing the possibility of being hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee after he was ‘named’ as a communist. He first went to Italy but eventually settled in London and began looking for work. One issue was that as a black-listed filmmaker in Hollywood any British film under his name risked being taken out of distribution in the US. Losey first worked in the UK under the pseudonym ‘Victor Hanbury’ on The Sleeping Tiger (1954). He then seems to have been uncredited or given another name on his next three or four British films before Blind Date carried his own name. At this time there were several independent producers in the UK. It was a period when smaller British studios were making films for US TV as well as B pictures and low budget films that might attract European co-production interest and European distribution. Blind Date was Losey’s sixth British film and the one that was most likely to give his career a re-boot.
The film had German investment and a co-producer’s credit for Luggi Waldleitner as well as its main funding from Sydney Box, the one time head of Gainsborough Pictures in the 1940s. It was actually made by Independent Artists, a company mainly behind ‘second features’. It had a German star, Hardy Krüger and a French star, Micheline Presle alongside Stanley Baker still in the early stages of his career as a major British star. A script, adapted from a novel by Leigh Howard, was written by Eric Ambler but Losey wasn’t having it. He preferred the re-working by two other black-listed Americans, Ben Barzman and Millard Lampell. Krüger had worked for Independent Artists the previous year. Baker was requested by Sydney Box Associates as a ‘star name’, although his peak period was to come later, and the female role was originally offered to Virginia McKenna which seems very odd. Like Krüger, Micheline Presle was fluent in English and French (and possibly German too). She had been a star in her youth in the 1940s in France, but had gone to America with her husband, only to return a few years later to discover that she had to rebuild her career. In the 1950s, British films hosted a surprisingly large number of European stars and in the case of the women they were often cast to provide the kind of sex appeal that the more decorous English types like Virginia McKenna were thought unable to provide. As well as these three, the rest of the cast includes many familiar faces including Gordon Jackson, Robert Flemyng and Jack MacGowran. The film was brilliantly shot by Christopher Challis with music by Richard Rodney Bennett. This was not a second feature and with a budget of £138,000 all recouped by pre-sales, Losey was in a position to produce a good example of what he could do. With an opening at the Odeon Leicester Square, courtesy of distribution by Rank, there was every chance that this could restore Losey to the position his early American films had won for him. So how did it turn out?
Blind Date is a form of romance-mystery-thriller, structured almost as a detective mystery film. Some have suggested it is not unlike Preminger’s Laura. The opening sees Krüger as Jan, a young Dutch artist (actually 31) gambolling along the Embankment, seemingly happy. He arrives at a mews flat and, finding the door open, enters. No-one appears to be in, yet the place feels occupied. He looks around and picks up objects in the lavishly, ornately decorated rooms. After some time he is surprised by the arrival of the police who start to question him. Inspector Morgan (Baker) is an unorthodox detective. He has a cold but drinks glasses of milk. He begins to question Jan who doesn’t want to say anything. Eventually it is revealed there is a dead woman lying in the flat where Jan couldn’t see her. Jan is upset but begins to tell Morgan the story of his affair with a woman who in retrospect he realises picked him up and seduced him in his rented studio. As the story unfolds, Morgan forgets protocol and encourages Jan to talk. The Inspector is puzzled when a colleague of a similar rank comes to the flat and starts poking about and a little later the Assistant Commissioner (Robert Flemyng) turns up and warns Morgan that the case is sensitive and he should close it quickly, even at the expense of a full conviction. Baker plays Morgan as a bluff, plain-speaking Welshman from a working-class family. He’s not happy about any suggestion that important people should be ‘protected’. I won’t spoil the mystery, except to say it involves a dash to London Airport and some nice footage of a BEA Viscount landing. We have a fairly good idea that Jan didn’t do it and when Morgan learns that Jan is from a coal-mining town near the Dutch border with Belgium he becomes more committed to solving the case and finding the real culprit.
Joe Losey’s time in London was difficult for several reasons, some of them probably associated with his own behaviour, but he was under a lot of pressure and the Hollywood blacklist was real. He had problems with the American Embassy and getting visas to travel, though he managed to get over to France and Italy in this period. He needed a successful film that made a profit. I’m using David Caute’s 1994 book ‘Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life’ as my source. Blind Date should have made money given the pre-sales and a Rank release. According to the UK press, Hardy Krüger was the draw for the female audience. There seemed to be a general agreement that the script was weak and some of the events improbable, but the direction and the presentation of the film were praised (even in Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1959). The main plus point does seem to have been the scenes between Hardy Krüger and Micheline Presle. The release was close to the opening of Room at the Top in which Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret had blown a big hole in British cinema’s prudish attempts to keep representations of sexual relationships off-screen. Here’s the Leicester Chronicle‘s view of Blind Date in December 1959:
There are love scenes almost in the ‘Room At The Top’ grade, and class distinction is woven into the story. It’s a pity that the script is not on the same high level as the direction.
Blind Date finally opened in the US in 1960, but as with the earlier Losey films from the UK, things went wrong for the film now retitled Chance Meeting. Again there were some critics who saw the film and re-iterated the UK comments, but the blacklist re-appeared with comments such as “an ex-Nazi stars in a script by Reds”. No figures from the release seem to be available and it seems to have struggled after Paramount dropped it. Elsewhere it was widely sold in Europe but again I have no figures. Despite all the problems, however, Losey was on the way up. I enjoyed the film for the performances, camerawork and direction but I agree that the script, though it sets up the mystery well stumbled over the last scenes. I watched the film on TPTV.encore, the catch-up service for Talking Pictures TV in the UK. It also exists in at least one other online version. Perhaps the most intriguing revelation for me is the importance of the two European stars under the direction of an American director. 1950s British cinema is often traduced but there are lots of interesting films to find.