A few days ago, Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote an appreciative review of what he described as Losey’s “icy” masterpiece. Yet looking back on some of earlier reviews, it appears that most critics originally dismissed the film as inconsistent and, more importantly, unbelievable. As Tony Rayns wrote in the Time Out Film Guide: “Neither [Harold] Pinter’s pregnant dialogue nor the generally svelte performances can disguise the fact that there’s less here that meets the eye and ear.”
Indeed, one of the most absurd scenes of this film is Losey’s Fellini-like representation of their heterosexual orgy, which occurs, evidently, with the participants fully dressed, curling up, in turn, round one another like cold puppies. Only Tony’s former fiancée, Susan, showing up to the house unexpectedly, seems to have any sexual intentions, as she represents her shock at seeing her now fully degraded former lover, by briefly embracing and kissing the servant whom she has previously abused. In that last grab for power, she also recognizes that she has lost everything that the house once represented: love, pleasure, security, and wealth. And Barrett’s slam of the front door as she exits, soon after, makes it apparent that it is he who is now in charge.
Earlier in the film, Susan has asked Barrett “What do you want from this house?” sensing that, like her, it is not the house’s owner he is truly after, but the house itself, and what comes with it. Of course, in order to control the house, he must first control Tony, and it is that manipulation upon which Pinter’s and Losey’s work pretends to focus.
Throughout his work, Losey spends a great deal of his film footage facing into mirrors, peeping around corners while its characters shift rooms, appearing and disappearing through doorways which, at first, may seem to be a row of bookshelves, etc. But unlike a work like, say, Cocteau’s Orphée—where the mirrors reveal a narcissistic self—or in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—where mirrors and windows betray the evil intentions and acts of the film’s central figure—in Losey’s work the mirrors generally reveal little of the humans’ existence, only occasionally showing the film’s characters, as one might expect, in reverse, which, of course, is what occurs in their lives. The mirrors are not used as referents of the humans in the house as much as they are of the house itself, its curved staircase, its shining objects to which Losey’s camera almost makes love. In short, while the characters may inhabit the house, the house—so thoughtfully decorated by Barrett in the first place—seemingly controls their behaviors, at one point even drawing Tony and Susan back to London from a wealthy country estate, so that they might have sex—where Tony discovers Barrett’s betrayal, temporarily firing him and the servant’s pretend sister, lover Vera (Sylvia Miles).