Joseph Losey's career in recent years has vacillated with quite wonderful agility between distinguished motion pictures, like "Accident" and "The Go-Between," and odd-ball movies, starring one or more of the Burtons: "Secret Ceremony" and "Boom." I'm sure that any student of Losey could argue for the thematic continuity of all his work (even the failed allegory of "Figures in a Landscape"), but for their audacity and imaginative density I prefer the odd-ball movies. And among these I would place "The Assassination of Trotsky," which stars Richard Burton as Leon Trotsky, and is a very odd project indeed.
The movie deals with Trotsky's last months, mainly from May, 1940, when a night-time raid on Trotsky's Mexican compound failed; until August of the same year, when an incredibly clumsy assassination attempt by a man known as Frank Jacson succeeded. Jacson (Alain Delon) was a secretive, even shy man, who gained his access to the compound through Sylvia Ageloff (Romy Schneider), an intimate of the family; and much of the film is given to developing not a motive, but a private world-view, for the assassin.
As you might expect, history weighs heavy over such a movie, not least in a performance by Burton that almost looks historical. Much of the dialogue is taken from journals or accurate accounts of Trotsky's life, and it sounds as if he spent his life polishing up speeches for the movies.
Thus, a nostalgic Wordsworthian Trotsky, to his grandson: "You should have been with us in the old days. What happiness it was to be alive! Storming the Winter Palace. . ." Or, in a hopeful mood: "Ah! It's a long time since I felt so well. . . Today I could climb mountains. . ."—this is, of course, the morning of his assassination.
The mere fact that Trotsky may have said such things doesn't excuse them in a movie. There is a lot more not to be excused in "The Assassination of Trotsky," but to be borne with by anybody who cares about the often beautiful things that Losey does with his camera, his always superb feeling for décor, his ways of placing his characters in a time scheme that is not simply historical.
I suspect that what goes on beneath the narrative in "The Assassination of Trotsky" is very complex. I can only say at this point that it has to do with a fantastic use of corridors, with continually shifting levels of reality, with a penchant for turning mirrors into murals—the murals of Orozco and Rivera, the very structure of Losey's Mexico City and of the agony he is dramatizing.
All the actors are made up to resemble their originals with extraordinary accuracy, and none seems more accurate than Valentina Cortese as Natalia Sedov, Trotsky's wife. Her role is comparatively small, but I think it is the loveliest performance in the movie.
"The Assassination of Trotsky" played last night in the New York Film Festival, and it opens Sunday at the Coronet Theater.
THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSKY, directed by Joseph Losey; screenplay by Nicholas Mosley; editor, Reggie Bech; cinematographer, Pasquel De Santis; produced by Mr. Losey and Norman Priggen; released by Cinerama Releasing Corporation. Shown at the New York Film Festival. Opens Sunday at the Coronet Theater. Running Time: 103 minutes. This film is rated R.
Leon Trotsky . . . . . Richard Burton
Jacson . . . . . Alain Delon
Gita . . . . . Romy Schneider
Natasha . . . . . Valentina Cortese
Salazar . . . . . Enrico Maria Salerno
Ruiz . . . . . Luigi Vannucchi
Felipe . . . . . Duilio Del Prete