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Joseph Losey: Pictures of Provocation

Saturday, March 6, 2010
8:45 p.m. The Big Night
Joseph Losey (U.S., 1951)

In one of cinema’s more startling first acts, seventeen-year-old George La Main (John Barrymore, Jr.) barely blows out the candles on his birthday cake before seeing his passive father (Preston Foster) savagely humiliated, leading George into an after-dark adult netherworld for the sweet icing of revenge. But the hit-man guise suits him no better than Dad’s ill-fitting clothes, and the journey quickly evolves into a complex coming-of-age melodrama with trenchant commentary on love, shame, race relations, and fatherhood. Banged out on a shoestring budget as Losey prepared to go into European exile, it features some of the most evocative performances to be found in his films, with Dorothy Comingore, Joan Lorring, and Howard St. John as ships passing in the big night, each offering a lesson or revelation. There were real-life revelations to come: Losey would learn that the young Barrymore had been an FBI informant, reporting on his activities in England. Look fast for a cameo by director (and former Losey assistant) Robert Aldrich.

—Peter Conheim

• Written by Hugo Butler, Ring Lardner, Jr., Stanley Ellin, Losey, based on the novel The Dreadful Summit by Stanley Ellin. Photographed by Hal Mohr. With John Barrymore, Jr., Preston Foster, Howland Chamberlain, Joan Lorring. (75 mins, B&W, 35mm, From MGM)