Melodrama is rarely more melodramatic than The Gypsy and the Gentlemen, a British costume film from the late fifties, directed by Joseph Losey. Stock characters in hyperbolic situations, arbitrary action, disasters on cue, vivid violence, greed, lust, even an innocent damsel in distress—all the ingredients of overripe cheap fiction, and then some, are on offer. Whether the results are good, bad or ludicrous does not really enter into the equation, because contrived as the story may be, it still works, right up to the over-the-top ending.
Belle (Merlina Mercouri), half-gypsy, half genteel bastard waif, sets her sights on Sir Paul Deverill (Keith Michell), a weak-willed English aristocrat. Once they have met, he is doomed, and the complicated story basically amounts to witnessing Deverill’s decline as he is unable to free himself from Belle’s clutches. She, meanwhile, is in cahoots with Jess (Patrick McGoohan), a vicious vagrant capable of just about anything, although it’s a toss-up whether he or Belle is the villain of the piece. The pathologies shared by the three characters just have to be accepted; without them, there wouldn’t be a story. Besides, to recognize how fabricated the situation is requires an emotional distance that is just about impossible when in the midst of the action.
While Losey is most famous for his later, emotionally indirect films (particularly those he made with Pinter), he was originally known for work that verged on hysteria. Gypsy is clearly in that mode, although there are themes familiar from his later development, such as the way Deverill’s degradation foreshadows the situation in The Servant. Unlike the simmering threat in that film, however, here every attitude, gesture and action is written in exclamation points. When Belle learns that Deverill is too deeply in debt to support the way of life she expected, for example, she doesn’t just yell at him in disappointment. She breaks the crockery and throws it at him.
Mercouri attacks him and her part, without a moment’s rest, evil from the first. Similarly, McGoohan practically embodies “nasty.” Despite the strained efforts to make him into a smoldering hunk, there’s nothing about him that anyone could like, although McGoohan does demonstrate how servility can mask barely contained hostility. Michell, perhaps best known to American viewers as the lead in the TV series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” has less opportunity to demonstrate his skill. At his best, Deverill is a somewhat charming, dissolute snob; most of the time he’s just a self-destructive pain.
Nonetheless, as it looks increasingly likely that Jess and Belle’s nefarious schemes will succeed, you cannot help getting tense with suspense. Yes, you know things will end “well” (although the ending is, in fact, one of the most ambiguous, “Loseyesque” moments in the film, with several plot threads unresolved). But knowing and feeling are notoriously unrelated, and never more so than in the throes of fully throttled melodrama.