Writers: Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Marcello Fondato (screenplay)
Based on short stories by: F.G. Snyder, Ivan Chekhov, and A.K. Tolstoy
Original title:I tre volti della paura
Cast: Michèle Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Boris Karloff, Mark Damon
Italy, UK, France 1963
Arrow Video has been steadily building an impressive collection of genre restorations, including maestro Mario Bava’s most successful film, Baron Blood (1972), as well as his earlier anthology film Black Sabbath, which is made up of three short stories, each one showcasing a different subgenre of horror. In the first episode, The Telephone, a young prostitute is terrorised by some nasty phone calls, while supernatural terror hounds the conscience of a nurse who steals a piece of jewellery from the corpse of her employers in A Drop of Water. The final part, The Wurdalak, is a beautiful piece of gothic horror, starring Boris Karloff as a father who, upon his return to his family, may be more than what he seems.
The joy of seeing Black Sabbath in such a beautiful condition is unparalleled: it is one of the director’s most visually alluring films and the gorgeous colours in eye-popping Technicolor really bring forth the quality of Bava’s imagination. Although the stories can seem uneven, he demonstrates a technical deftness that shines throughout. It’s also incredibly entertaining to see the master skilfully switching styles: comparing the gothic horrors of The Wurdalak with the giallo sleaze of The Telephone shows how versatile a director Bava was.
Presented here in two different restored versions, the original Italian cut and the AIP version, it has to be said that the Italian cut is the better looking of the two. The print is struck with solid rich colours, as vibrant as Bava would have arranged them, with fantastic definition throughout. Although there’s some heavy grain in some of the uncontrolled exterior shots, this is far preferable to hideous digital fixing which seems to plague a lot of the current crop of releases. There’s also some minor print damage apparent as well as some film movement – however, again, this would have looked far worse had Arrow tried to fix that digitally. In fact, these are minor complaints in what is otherwise a gorgeous looking print that’s incredibly respectful of what Bava would have probably desired for the overall look of the film. In contrast, the AIP version of the film has a lighter tone – with the score re-mixed and featuring alternate introductions from Karloff, it serves more as an interesting historical viewpoint: an alternative angle through which to examine the film.
The extras are also compelling: Twice The Fear is a comparative featurette that covers the difference between the two versions of the film in split screen – informative and well presented, it is a terrific addition to the disc. The interview with Mark Damon sheds light on the career of the actor and especially his time with Bava, though finding out more on his involvement with Roger Corman on the Poe adaptations also makes for interesting and engaging material. The trailers, TV and radio spots, albeit slight, certainly enhance the overall experience. It’s a joy to be able to view these materials so long after the release of the film, while Alan Jones’s introduction is informative and well-presented, giving the viewer a sense of what to come. All in all, this is a must-purchase release that should be on the shopping list of most film lovers.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Julia Anne Robinson
The King of Marvin Gardens, Bob Rafelson’s 1972 drama about the fraught relationship between a pair of brothers, is bookended by two terrific scenes. When the film opens, we see David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) in close-up, his face in shadow as he delivers a bizarre monologue about why he doesn’t eat fish. A red light begins to flash against his skin, before the camera pulls back to reveal that his character, the host of a late-night radio show, is live on air. The film ends, back at the house that David still shares with his grandfather, with Super 8 footage of two young boys playing on a beach projected onto the walls of the home.
Jack Nicholson is excellent as the subdued and restrained, cardigan-wearing disk jockey, who is called to Atlantic City to bail his brother Jason (Bruce Dern) out of jail, after Jason has been cut loose by the mobster that he works for (the Italians and Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s have been replaced by African Americans, a subtle social commentary in the film). When David arrives in town, he finds that Jason is living with two women in a perverse love triangle and playing what turns out to be a very dangerous game. While the nature of the women’s relationship is at first a little unclear (could they be mother and daughter or sisters?), what is obvious is that Jason’s ‘girlfriend’, Sally (Ellen Burstyn), is in danger of being replaced by the much younger Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). David soon finds himself involved in his brother’s ludicrous scheme to build a resort in Hawaii with embezzled money (the film’s title is, of course, a reference to the board game, Monopoly). Jason never stops dreaming big, but his plans to get rich and be a player are clearly never going to amount to anything.
However, it is not the film’s plot that makes The King of Marvin Gardens such an interesting film to watch, but rather László Kovács’ stunning cinematography. He does a wonderful job capturing the air of decay that pervades the once-glorious Atlantic City. The beaches are empty, the luxurious hotels are ghosts of their former selves and, at times, it seems that the four protagonists are the only people in town. The film is full of surreal moments. When David first arrives at the station he’s greeted by an out-of-tune band hired by Sally; when another marching band parades down the boardwalk, there’s no one, besides the film’s audience, to watch them perform. The foursome later takes over a crumbling art-deco theatre to stage a beauty pageant, where Jessica is the only contestant. These absurdist scenes reflect the sense of disillusionment and madness that seeps into Rafelson’s depressed and deluded characters, making a tragic ending all but inevitable.
While The King of Marvin Gardens is intriguing, and a brilliantly filmed record of early 1970s American decline, it’s not really of the same calibre as Rafelson’s (and Jack Nicholson’s) better-known film, Five Easy Pieces, released two years earlier. And although both of the male leads are fantastic, the women’s characters are sometimes overwrought (or, in Jessica’s case, a little too simpering), although Burstyn still delivers a classy performance. The film is well worth seeing, but the real attraction is the stunning depiction of Atlantic City.
Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Suzy Delair, Jean Tissier, Pierre Larquey, Noël Roquevert
Original title:L’assassin habite au 21
The Murderer Lives at Number 21, the feature debut from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is best known for films like the masterful Le corbeau and Les diaboliques, is an entertaining, comedic film noir – a blend of two different genres that works thanks to some brilliantly witty dialogue, excellent performances and a superb visual aesthetic that makes the most of the atmospheric hallmarks of noir cinema.
A murderer stalks the streets of an arrondissement in Paris, a calling card from a Monsieur Durand found on the bodies of each of his victims. While the local residents seem more intrigued than frightened by the killer, who’s become a steady fixture in all the newspapers, the police officials are beginning to feel the heat. The elegant Inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay) is brought in to work on the case and soon after receives his first break: a reformed thief, now rag-and-bone man, has found a stash of the calling cards while clearing out an attic at Les Mimosas, a boarding house at 21 Avenue Junot. With the information at his disposal, Wens decides to take a room at the boarding house in a rather humorous disguise.
But matters are complicated by the actions of his incongruous girlfriend, Mila Malou (Suzy Delair). A thwarted singer, she is first introduced to us at an audition, where, flattering the impresario to no avail, she learns that her only chance of success is if she’s already famous – and what better way to become a star than to get her name in the newspapers, like Monsieur Durand? Although fashioned as something of a ditz, Delair’s character is fabulous – at the audition, she compares herself to America before Columbus, waiting to be discovered. Later, she tells someone that she stays home and knits booties for a baby – if Wens is capable of producing one. And of course, she finds the solution to her celebrity problem by taking part in Wens’s murder investigation, following him to the boarding house.
Wens’s fellow lodgers are a motley bunch: a manservant trying to train a caged bird to sing; the ageing Miss Cuq, described as ‘une vraie jeunne fille’, a ‘maiden’ lady and failed author who perseveres after each rejection; Linz, a doctor dressed for safari, who boasts about surviving 25 years in the bush; Colin, a down-at-heel man who makes faceless dolls meant to resemble the killer; the pick-pocketing Professor Lalah-Poor, a turban-wearing magician and ‘artiste’; and Kid Robert, a blind former boxer, joined by his attractive nurse.
The lodgers, including Wens and Mila, spy on each other, sneak into each other’s rooms, steal… there’s no shortage of distrust and malevolence beneath the artificially friendly veneer in the house. Meanwhile, more bodies pile up, including one of their own, after Mila, sticking her nose into the affair, suggests to Miss Cuq that she base a story on Monsieur Durand’s murderous crime wave. But in the end, after some unorthodox detective work, Mila and Wens solve the mystery with plenty of flair, drawing out ‘Monsieur Durand’ in inimitable fashion. And while The Murderer Lives at Number 21 might not be as subversive or fiercely brilliant as some of his later films, Clouzot’s impressive debut as a director is a remarkably stylish and entertaining detective story.
Watch a clip from The Murderer Lives at Number 21:
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
The latest film from Jeff Nichols tells the tale of Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two poor 14-year-old Arkansas kids whose attempt to claim a boat stranded high up in the branches of a tree by floodwaters brings them into contact with Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a strange, charismatic drifter, who has taken the vessel to use as his base of operations. He is apparently back in town to rescue the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), from some nameless trouble, and the boys are quickly drawn deeper and deeper into his schemes, unaware of how much danger they are putting themselves in, never asking themselves who Mud is hiding from, and why.
Mud clearly sets out from frame one to run along well-worn tracks – it’s like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn meets Whistle down the Wind (1961). Ellis (and this is mainly Tye Sheridan’s film) is a boy of unusual determination, who is appalled that his parents are about to break up and that the boat they live upon is going to be demolished by the river authority. He seems to seize upon Mud’s mission to prove something to himself about love and life. Mud himself is a semi-mystical character, a full grown child of nature with his own set of rituals and talismans, a romantic, not quite living in the real world. Much of the surrounding cast are a series of fathers and father-figures (Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker) offering alternative models and down-home wisdom on women and the messy business of being a man.
The trouble is that having masterfully set up all this classic Americana rites of passage stuff, Nichols simply doesn’t follow through with it. I was continually expecting the creator of Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011) to get a little darker or weirder, to defy my expectations. But although there are areas of ambiguity (mainly centred around Juniper, a kind of white-trash femme fatale, mortified by her ability to cause misery), in the end, hard life lessons are learned, shady characters come good, the bad guys are confronted and all is resolved. So in the end, it’s just too… straightforward.
It’s still a quality piece of filmmaking, the photography is fluid, unflashy and pretty damn gorgeous, with a wide palate of mood and light. You can feel the heat and humidity, the stifling small town boredom. All the details seem right, the bootleg Fugazi t-shirt, the cans of Beanie Weenies bought from the Piggly Wiggly. And that great cast is pretty much faultless. I couldn’t help wondering, though, how the film would have played with Nichols-regular Shannon in the lead instead of McConaughey (who’s at his best, as far as I’m concerned, playing outright bastards) and whether, in that case, we’d have something a little more troubled, unsettling and notable. Ah well…
Cast: Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling, Dar Salim, Abdihakin Asgar
An impressive sophomore effort from Tobias Lindholm, A Hijacking tells the story of a Danish cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates, and the efforts to negotiate a peaceful and non-violent end to the affair by those back in Copenhagen.
Lindholm is an incredibly accomplished writer, having penned Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, this year’s breakout hit and a 2012 Cannes award winner, 2010’s under-the-radar Submarino (also directed by Vinterberg), as well as a number of episodes of the popular political drama Borgen. Donning both the screenwriter and director’s caps, the Dane has delivered on the promise he displayed with his hard-hitting prison drama debut, 2010’s R.
Although the title of his new release might suggest an adrenaline-rush ride, the reality is a little more refined: switching from the ship to the negotiations back in Denmark, the plot racks up incredible tension, ably supported by actors who never overplay their hand. As the ship’s cook, Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk) brings restrained pathos to the role – with a wife and a young daughter back home in Denmark, he has more to lose than most of the other men on board. On the other side of the coin is Omar, (Abdihakin Asgar), who negotiates for the lives of these men with the CEO of the shipping company, Peter (played to mild-mannered perfection by Søren Malling), who ignores the advice of the consultant and jumps into the situation with both feet.
Lindberg is audacious in his refusal to portray the hijacking – he doesn’t even stage the actual event, preferring to cut back to the ship after all the excitement is over. However, this should not be read as a negative comment – if anything, the audience is kept in the same position as the shipping company, the tension increasing tenfold as we learn exactly what happened during the hijacking.
The plight of the men is harrowing. As days pile up on days and the mood turns sour, they try to survive, lacking even the most basic comforts a human being can expect. Again, Lindholm never creates a false tragedy, a Hollywood-style emotional manipulation. Instead, he lets the scenario play through to its logical conclusion, involving the audience throughout the characters’ development.
Quietly, the impressive cinematography works to create beautiful contrasts between the ship and the offices in Copenhagen, while the sound is sparse but effective. All in all, A Hijacking is one of the most involving and well-written films to come out this year and is highly recommended to anyone looking for intelligent thrills.
With his thick glasses, gangly frame and awkward demeanour, Franciszek Retman (Stanis?aw Lata??o) looks the part of the nerdy scientist. He chooses to study physics because he wants to understand the world with the most certainty possible, but life is about to throw some obstacles in his way – both practical and philosophical.
In Illumination (1972), rather than simply telling the story of a character’s life, director Krzysztof Zanussi wanted to present that character’s developing states of mind. To do this, he had to escape from traditional narrative form, instead modelling his film on an essay. Illumination does present pivotal events and everyday scenes from Franciszek’s life, but these standard narrative passages are whittled down to a minimum. Zanussi fills in the gaps with cinéma vérité footage of academic discussions and experiments, and images of medical diagrams, scientific graphs and close-ups of the human body.
Does this approach work? Not entirely: audiences may become bored with Franciszek’s quite ordinary existence. The narrative sections, showing happy moments with his loved ones, are intimate and beautiful, and the intercut stills are original and surprising, but this is not always enough to keep the audience engaged.
Some viewers will also find it difficult to watch the film’s footage of biological and medical experiments. But it is a disquiet shared by Franciszek, whose gentle, inquisitive nature is horrified by some scientists’ lack of empathy for their subjects as human beings. The film marks each milestone in Franciszek’s life with a still image of an official document, always accompanied by the same dissonant chord on the soundtrack. While his life seems to be proceeding normally, there is something not quite right in his world, something that extends beyond the normal existential questions that are part of everyone’s psychological experience. The film couldn’t point directly at the authoritarian political system that controlled Poland at the time, but it could create a generalised atmosphere of unease and menace, and does so with chilling effect.
Zanussi admired physicists because their discipline allowed them to be free thinkers at a time when Marxist doctrine had infiltrated most other academic areas, including biology. The director had originally included a scene where Franciszek takes part in the 1968 student demonstrations at the University of Warsaw, but the censors forced him to cut it. Now lost, the footage could not be put back into the restored version of the film.
Second Run’s DVD release of Illumination is part of the second edition of classic films of Polish cinema and comes with an insightful, and very recent, interview with Zanussi himself, in English. It also includes A Trace (Ślad, 1996) a short film about Stanis?aw Lata??o, the cameraman who reluctantly played Franciszek: Zanussi rightly felt that Lata??o would be more convincing than a glamorous professional actor at playing a nerdy physicist. Liner notes by critic and author Micha? Oleszczyk offer an engaging analysis of the film and a lucid assessment of Zanussi’s place in Polish film history as ‘one of the godfathers’ of the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley
UK, USA, Ireland 2012
Eighteen years after filming Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Neil Jordan has returned to undead mythology with another adaptation, this time of a play by Moira Buffini. Eschewing the usual clichés, Byzantium, set in a rundown seaside town, is a moody, melancholy film that focuses on the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter who became vampires two centuries earlier.
Saoirse Ronan is spellbinding as eternal teenager Eleanor, who seems condemned to be a sad, isolated outsider forever, while Gemma Arterton plays her more earthly, busty, gutsy mother Clara, with much vim and vigour (sometimes a tad too much). After a violent incident, Clara and Eleanor are forced to leave their tower-block apartment and move to an unnamed coastal town. Posing as sisters, they meet the meek and lonely Noel, who invites them to move into the dilapidated guesthouse he owns, the ironically named Byzantium. But tensions develop between Clara, who sets up to provide for her daughter and herself as only she knows how, and Eleanor, who is tired of hiding and yearns to share her secret, even more so after befriending sick teenager Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). As mysterious black-clad men try to track mother and daughter down, the conflict between them only increases the danger of their situation.
The focus on the mother/daughter dynamic provides an original, inventive angle on the vampire myth. There is great love between the two, but they have come to the heartbreaking moment when the daughter has grown up and is pulling away from her mother. Eleanor has become critical of her mother’s choices, but Clara will still ruthlessly do anything it takes to protect her daughter, as she’s always done. Their eternally youthful appearances add a strange twist that heightens the poignancy of a familiar situation. And although Gemma Arterton is not capable of the same emotional weight and expressiveness as Saoirse Ronan, her shortcomings may actually work well to convey the clumsy love of a woman forced into motherhood at too young an age.
Byzantium was the opening night film at this year’s Sci-Fi-London (30 April – 6 May 2013). Check out the full programme here.
There is also a little feminist touch to this vampire story: Carla is up against a male-dominated society (doubly so, both the society of her time, as well as a secret brotherhood), where her class and gender put her at a disadvantage. But with tremendous energy and spirited cheekiness, she fights and claws things back from the men who have maltreated her, raising herself and her daughter to a unique – and forbidden – position.
The film alternates between modern times and flashbacks to their past, contrasting today’s burnt-out pier, seedy guest house and grey skies with lush, candle-lit interiors, stunning coastlines and dark crypts. The vampiric transformation takes place on a sinister rocky island where a waterfall turns blood red once the change has been effected. It is a stylish, atmospheric film, with gorgeous cinematography and true visual flair, although it’s not without flaws. Gemma Arterton’s performance is patchy, while Caleb Landry Jones is totally overplayed. There are some jarring tone shifts and the pace does not always feel fully controlled, with the final showdown, most notably, ending too quickly. Despite these gripes, however, Byzantium is a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully shot vampire film with a beating heart.
As part of our exploration of failed expeditions and doomed adventures in cinema, Chris Geary revisits Takashi Shimizu’s Marebito (2004), about a photographer who makes his way deep down into the Tokyo subway system to allay his obsession with fear.
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Elke Sommer, Massimo Girotti, Rada Rassimov
Original title: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga
Mario Bava’s 1972 film Baron Blood was a surprise hit that bought him the opportunity to make 1974’s Lisa and the Devil, a movie that went virtually unreleased at the time. Ironically, the latter film’s reputation as a baroque, surreal masterpiece has now entirely eclipsed the former’s more modest and conventional virtues, but both films should give pleasure of some kind to horror aficionados.
At the time, Baron Blood would have seemed a departure, since it attempted to graft the Gothic horror elements of Bava’s earlier, very successful films, such as 1960’s Black Sunday and 1963’s Black Sabbath (both also available from Arrow Video) onto the fashionable, groovy settings Bava had exploited in Hatchet for the Honeymoon or Five Dolls for an August Moon (both 1970). In effect, the movie anticipates the swinging Gothics of 1972’s Blacula and Dracula AD 1972.
Black Sabbath will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 13 May 2013.
Oddly, this genre revolution doesn’t seem to have energized the director. Filming on location near Vienna, in a magnificent castle and its surroundings, Bava seems less inspired than constrained by his surroundings, though things get livelier as the film goes on: the early scenes are over-reliant on the zoom lens, but the camera starts to move about and there are some typically elegant visual explorations in the second half. Italian filmmakers have always moved the camera less to follow narrative than to investigate space and instill atmosphere, and Bava exemplifies this tendency.
It’s a good thing too, since the plot here isn’t one of the best he ever worked with, recycling as it does numerous horror tropes, both recent and old. The malign influence of the ancient torture chamber is borrowed from Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The hideously charred villain, who masquerades as an unscarred but chair-bound gentleman, is derived from House of Wax (1953). Both movies starred Vincent Price, who was the first choice for this one, according to Bava-expert Tim Lucas’s typically informative commentary. Price being unwilling to work with Bava after the miserable experience of 1966’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (I’d say not Bava’s fault, that one), Joseph Cotten took the role of Baron Von Kleist (a meaningless literary reference), which freshens things up a little.
Bava compliments the Frankenstein’s monster of a narrative with a magpie-like visual approach, exploiting the settings with a wide angle lens, but throwing in nods to everything from 1963’s The Haunting (an oak door bulges inwards as if made of India rubber) to 1943’s The Leopard Man (seconds later, blood flows under the same door) to House of Wax again, with a sustained chase sequence which shows, if nothing else, that Bava’s memory for shots, in those pre-video days, was extremely sharp.
In addition to Cotten, who has a great entrance scene, gliding through an auction like a phantom, until his wheelchair is revealed as the source of his locomotion, the film stars Elke Sommer, who also returned for Lisa and the Devil. She’s rather good here, with her odd line readings, broad-shouldered, busty Teutonic fortitude and forceful screaming. She does terror well, though her best depiction of that emotion in a film, for my money, is still her rising panic at finding herself trapped naked in a car alongside a nude Peter Sellers in 1964’s A Shot in the Dark – it’s almost too convincing to be funny. A footnote for fans: I believe on the Italian soundtrack, Miss Sommer’s voice is being provided by Arianne Ulmer, daughter of the great Edgar Ulmer, whose crazy noir Detour (1945) was a favourite film of several Italian horror maestros, notably Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Also appearing is Rada Rassimov as a female psychic, the only really interesting character, and one who manages to mix the plot up a little and make things less predictable.
As always with Bava, the photography and special effects do conjure up some memorably lurid and exotic imagery, and if this isn’t his most enthusiastic job, it’s still a fascinating late work: one could say that while this film acts as a compendium of his influences in the horror genre, its spicier follow-up serves as a summation of his personal obsessions.
Alan Jones’s intro to the film hints that the theme of returning evil from the past might be a reference to Nazism and Hitler, citing the film’s Italian title, which translates as The Horrors of the Castle of Nuremberg, but I think that title owes more to the earlier, and rather similarly themed shocker The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963), than to any political subtext. Bava doesn’t seem to consciously explore politics in his films, and in the film itself the castle is known as Von Kleist Castle or Castle of the Devils. Thematically, the film might have been strengthened by the casting of a horror icon in the Cotten role, so that the movie could have had some self-reflexive fun with the idea of an aging horror star returning in the seventies: a little like Peter Bogdanovich’s use of Boris Karloff in Targets (1968).
Arrow’s two-disc set features both the European and American cuts of the film, with their contrasting soundtracks (Stelvio Cipriani versus Les Baxter), both of which have their advantages and disadvantages. Serious Bava fans are going to want to own this.
Billy Liar (1963) stars Tom Courtney as Billy Fisher, a young man with an overactive imagination struggling to come of age in an industrial Northern city. He looks to escape his dead-end job at a funeral director’s, his tangled love life and his oppressively ordinary family by escaping to London to become a scriptwriter. But what makes Billy Liar a masterpiece of British Cinema is that it is not a classic Bildungsroman –a ‘how I became a writer/artist/filmmaker story’ – but a tragedy. It is the story of a flawed character striving to better himself, doomed to failure and to retreat into his imagination. It is also a painfully funny comedy.
Billy is a product of class confusion. Having passed his eleven-plus and received a grammar school education, he finds himself alienated from his working-class parents, even though they live in a semi-detached house. He has none of the work ethic of his father or the know-your-place-in-society of his mother. ‘I’m not ordinary folk, even if she is,’ claims Billy. The class conflict is internalised by Billy as he flits between accents, from a parody of well-spoken RP to a Yorkshire brogue full of thees and thous. His two fiancées also emphasise this conflict: Barbara is a nice but boring and unimaginative girl who Billy calls ‘Dwarling’ as they make plans for their cottage in Cornwall; Rita, a mouthy waitress who demands an engagement ring, claiming ‘You don’t handle the goods unless you intend to buy.’ Although he aspires to that classic middle-class dream – a job in the media – he is not prepared to work for it.
Whatever you call it, either the British New Wave or kitchen sink realism, the brief period from the late 1950s into the 1960s (from Jack Claytons’s 1959 film Room at the Top to 1969’s Kes, by my reckoning) produced some great moments in British cinema. The films are wonderfully written. A concurrent literary movement, especially in the theatre, brought a mix of social conscience, comic wit and a new urge to tackle difficult issues to film writing. Many of the films were based on current plays or books by Keith Waterhouse, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and others. Yet despite their origins on the stage and page, kitchen sink films are very cinematic. Many of the directors had previously worked in documentaries and as part of the Free Cinema movement, which spawned Lyndsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. Their films were strongly influenced by French poetic-realism and a particular love of Jean Vigo.
However, John Schlesinger was never really part of the Free Cinema movement. He had made documentaries, but had also worked in television directing episodes of Danger Man. Thus Billy Liar is less self-consciously ‘poetic’ and less gritty realist than A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1962) or This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963), and although a little slicker (at times looking like an Ealing comedy, with darker humour) and more openly ‘entertaining’, it is a brilliantly directed film. For a movie in which so little happens, the dramatic pacing is excellent – Hitchcock would struggle to put so much suspense into someone buying milk before catching a train. The performances are all exceptional, with Courtney’s distracted nervousness as Billy nothing short of brilliant.
From its opening travelling shots of British housing estates, from semi-detached to terraced houses, to rows of flats, the use of locations is stunning. Largely shot in Bradford, we see the city as it modernises, with wrecking balls bringing down the old and cranes building up the new. New supermarkets are opening – the world is changing. As the celebrity ribbon-cutter Danny Boone says, ’It’s all happenin.’ The fantasy scenes, however, were shot in Leeds, creating a somewhat lesser Kansas versus Oz dream/reality contrast.
Schlesinger’s reputation has suffered over the years, culminating in his Party Political Broadcast for John Major, a grammar school boy who dreamt of becoming Prime Minister. It is tempting to subsequently look for evidence of this conservatism in his earlier works. His outsiders and anti-establishment characters are rarely rewarded at the end of films (1965’s Darling, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and of course Billy Liar) and are all certainly flawed characters. Billy and Darling’s Diane are incredibly selfish – Billy stops to pull faces at himself in a mirror when he is supposed to be hurrying to fetch his grandmother’s medicine. ’You’re idle and you’re scruffy and you’ve no manners,’ Billy’s mum tells him. But Schlesinger should be applauded for allowing such flawed heroes, and certainly for allowing the heart-breaking ending, which is amongst the greatest in cinema. Dreams are for dreaming, it tells us, not achieving. Anyway, if Billy had made it to London he would have spent the next 20 years writing sit-coms for Leonard Rossiter.
The results of achieving your dreams can be seen in Schlesinger’s following film, Darling, which stars Julie Christie playing almost the same character as in Billy Liar. Liz, the free-spirited, handbag-swinging object of Billy’s desires, shows him the possibilities of escape and adventure. She has ’been all over’, even as far as a Butlin’s Holiday Camp and Doncaster, we learn. In Darling she makes her entrance (although now called Diane) swinging her handbag as in Billy Liar. She goes on to become the ‘Happiness Girl’ and an Italian princess, and thoroughly miserable.
In some ways Billy Liar is a film very much about the post-war period, the war still colouring Billy’s imagination. In his dreams he is Churchill, or a general leading the victorious marching armies of Ambrosia, or simply machine-gunning his boss. And yet the film’s appeal is timeless; Morrissey putting Tom Courtney on a record sleeve and air-machine-gunning the Top of the Pops audience helped another generation discover this classic, and I’m sure there are enough good-for-nothing daydreamers around now for it to continue to resonate with audiences.
I once watched Billy Liar with a girl I was trying to impress. ‘And you can relate to this loser!’ she exclaimed at the end. ‘It’s much worse than that,’ I told her, ‘this is the closest I’ve come to seeing myself in a film.’ It is a film for us underachievers, that shows what is means to grow up intelligent, imaginative, semi-educated and bone-idle.
Watch a clip from Billy Liar:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews