50 films: #2. The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, 1970)

It all begins with what may be the most famous opening line in twentieth-century literature.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

If you want your novel to be remembered, start it with a memorable aphorism. But after nearly sixty years of being quoted, it can’t help coming across as hackneyed, especially when stripped of its context. This is the paragraph that follows:

When I came upon the diary, it was lying at the bottom of a rather battered red cardboard collar-box, in which as a small boy I kept my Eton collars. Someone, probably my mother, had filled it with treasures dating from those days. There were two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing-wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord; and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent: I could not even tell what they had belonged to. The relics were not exactly dirty nor were they quite clean, they had the patina of age; and as I handled them, for the first time for over fifty years, a recollection of what each had meant to me came back, faint as the magnets’ power to draw, but as perceptible. Something came and went between us: the intimate pleasure of recognition, the almost mystical thrill of early ownership—feelings of which, at sixty-odd, I felt ashamed.

It seems appropriate to document my own discovery of The Go-Between, which began in a not dissimilar way, with the reawakening of the dead. My uncle William died in May 1998, and I ended up inheriting (i.e. taking) a number of his possessions. Among those books of his I took was a copy of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (with his name written inside, I think – it was a book he had studied at school, but the edition was a more modern one, a light green Penguin Modern Classic). I also took a couple of boxes of unlabelled tapes, some of them blank, some not, which I scoured for items of interest. One of them, a chrome cassette dating probably from the 1970s and possessing a card insert that looked like one of these, had some extracts from what I identified immediately as the film of The Go-Between recorded on it. Listening to it was a curious experience, like William’s hand reaching out and taking mine. We didn’t have a video recorder until about 1990, and I remember recording the soundtracks of television programmes on my tape recorder when I was very young. How old must he have been when he recorded this? Fourteen, perhaps? That would have been around 1979. Before I was born, anyway.

I was sixteen when I eventually read it. I remember sitting at the front of a German classroom dipping in and out of it while I was supposed to be invigilating GCSE pupils waiting to sit their oral exams. It automatically became a favourite book of mine, partly, I suspect, because of the extra meaning it had already been invested with because of the associations detailed above.

The film of The Go-Between was the third screen collaboration of Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey, following two excellent films made in the years before, The Servant and Accident. Pinter had been asked by Losey to write a screenplay of the novel as soon as The Servant was completed in 1963:

[The novel] had such a tremendous impact on me that I actually broke down. Nothing less than tears. So I couldn’t see how, feeling as I did, I could write a screenplay. Then a month or so later, Joe talked me into it.

But wrangling over rights delayed production for several years, and it was not until 1970 that filming began.

The prologue to the novel shows Leo Colston, a man on the verge of old age, discovering a diary that reawakens memories of the long, hot summer of 1900, which he spent at Brandham Hall in Norfolk, the country home of his schoolfriend Marcus Maudsley. With Marcus incapacitated by measles, the 12-year-old Leo finds himself employed by Marcus’ older sister, Marian, to take letters between her and a local farmer, Ted Burgess. But Marian is engaged to Lord Trimingham. The traumatic end of the affair is something that echoes throughout Leo’s later life, and an epilogue, returning to the present, shows the adult Leo returning to Brandham to lay his ghosts to rest.

The point of chief interest in the film as opposed to the book is its structure. Whereas the novel is told in flashback, bookended by two chapters set in the present, the first setting up Leo’s story and the second resolving it, the film intersperses the past and the present. That famous opening line is spoken as a voiceover by Michael Redgrave, who appears later in the film portraying the adult Leo, over an image of a Norfolk field, followed by the child Leo (Dominic Guard) travelling with Marcus towards Brandham. As the film progresses, the older Leo becomes more prominent. We see him visiting graves at Brandham, taking a room, meeting Marian once more, all of these scenes intercut with the events of that childhood summer. Losey:

… what interested me primarily was the possibility of representing 1900 using shots from the present, not in a chronological, but in an almost subliminal sequence, superimposing voices from the present, so that threads which started off parallel gradually intertwine, and in the end past and present are one and the same. As you know, I am fascinated by the concept of time, and by the power the cinema has suddenly to reveal the meaning of a whole life from the age of 12 to 60, and by the effect that those few weeks lived at the age of 12 are to have on the grown man.

I imagine that this may be the effect that these juxtapositions have on the first-time viewer. Some critics have suggested that the appearance of the adult Leo throughout the film rather than at the end serves to undercut the tension of the narrative. The sight of the man that Leo has become may be too strongly suggestive of how his childhood summer ends. I think it’s just another way of telling the story. Pinter:

You can’t simply transfer a book to the screen. It doesn’t work, for reasons which should be obvious. In a film, you have to go for the essence of the story, to give the film its focus, with the other elements contributing to that focus.

The ending is altered from that of the book, though there is a similar sense of catharsis for Leo. In the book this is achieved by the south-west prospect of Brandham Hall returning to his memory; in the film it is done by the implication that he has defied Marian. I find the generosity of the book’s conclusion more pleasing, but the film’s ending at least does not amount to a desecration of the novel.

I suspect most of these essays will dwell for a while on the music, and Michel Legrand’s memorable score for this film is worthy of discussion. He is in many ways the ideal composer for such a film, a watercolourist rather than an oil painter. His scoring here recalls composers who must have influenced him, most obviously Poulenc (shades of the Aubade and other piano concertante works) – the forces he employs are two pianos and twenty-five accompanying instruments, most of them strings. His melody grows from nothing more than a four-note contour, which he manipulates in various directions while the harmony shifts underneath. (Beethoven did something similar in his fifth symphony.) It is the perfect accompaniment to the rain-spattered window we see while the credits roll, the sound of greyness.

Costume and art direction are exemplary, and contribute greatly at the start to the feeling of Leo as an outsider, a middle-class boy in an upper-class world. I have barely written of the actors yet, but they are in every way as one would wish them. Alan Bates’ portrayal of Ted Burgess entirely fails to dispel the growing feeling that he may be my favourite person in the history of the universe, while Julie Christie is radiant as Marian, and I cannot conceive of a better Leo than Dominic Guard.

Accounts describe the process of making the film as a joyous one. Losey fostered a close-knit family atmosphere, which must have been comforting to Dominic Guard. Guard was a shy boy, somewhat in the shadow, thought Alan Bates, of his older brother Christopher, also an actor; but he struck up close friendships with the other boys in the cast, Richard Gibson (later Herr Flick in ‘Allo ‘Allo) and Simon Hume-Kendall (whose turn as the pompous Denys is one of the film’s great joys; he later became one of the men behind the Sport newspapers). They used to play games and listen to records when not filming. Edith de Rham’s biography of Losey contains a delightful photograph of a cricket match being played by cast members on location at Melton Constable. The very glamorous Margaret Leighton stands at the crease in sunglasses and headscarf while Edward Fox squats bare-chested behind her, keeping wicket.

It is not surprising that such a sensitive and successful adaptation of the novel should have been showered with awards on its release. These included BAFTAs for Pinter, Fox, Leighton and Guard, and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, which left Luchino Visconti miffed at the snub to Death in Venice. Maria Callas wrote to say how much she adored the film. But Pinter and Losey did not work together again. A planned adaptation of Proust did not come to fruition, and remains one of the more tantalising films never to be made. We should be grateful for their legacy.

Those of a sensitive disposition may not wish to sample this kitschy easy-listening version of the Legrand theme, which my fluctuating levels of discernment permit me to enjoy wildly.

Sources
Michael Ciment, Conversations with Losey. London: Methuen, 1985.
Edith de Rham, Joseph Losey. London: André Deutsch, 1991.
James Palmer and Michael Riley, The films of Joseph Losey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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4 Responses to “50 films: #2. The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, 1970)”

  1. Gareth Says:

    <Alan Bates’ portrayal of Ted Burgess entirely fails to dispel the growing feeling that he may be my favourite person in the history of the universe>

    After Richard Whiteley. I forgot Richard Whiteley.

    Interested parties may find things of interest among this collection of documents relating to the film: http://alsolikelife.com/shooting/2008/06/917-58-the-go-between-1971-joseph-losey/

  2. Cindery Creature Says:

    ‘Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, cataloguing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’

  3. Gareth Says:

    A scarily apt quotation for me. I’m halfway to being old Leo already, but I find I don’t mind it all that much.

  4. Gareth Says:

    Radio 4’s Great Lives this week is about Pinter. The films with Losey are mentioned in passing by Michael Billington, and it’s well worth a listen. Available on iPlayer and as a podcast. See here.

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