All the Right Noises Review

Our coverage of a new wave of three BFI Flipside releases kicks off with the story of a married man’s affair with a teenage school girl, featuring Olivia Hussey just after she made Romeo and Juliet.

“Is 15 ½ too young for a girl?”

“Is one wife enough for a man?”

Those are the questions found on the cover of an enclosed booklet which awaits purchasers of the BFI’s release of All the Right Noises, a 1969 British film detailing a married man’s relationship with a school girl. This was apparently how the movie was marketed upon release since the cover image is a reproduction of the 20th Century Fox poster. It sounds exploitative or maybe creepy or even funny, perhaps a combination of all three, but, after watching writer/director Gerry O’Hara’s film, there’s little reason for concern. Intentionally provocative copy veers wildly from the actual tone. This is a movie deeply interested in presenting the most narrow of takes on behavior straddling the line between accidental pedophilia and adulterous lust. All the Right Noises also acts as a dip into married with children domesticity, and does so with barely any romanticism. It’s not a perfect film, not a great one either, but the manner in which the subject matter is presented could hardly be more refreshing.

Married electrician Len (Tom Bell) is working behind the scenes of a musical production and soon finds himself talking to cast member Val (Olivia Hussey). The two make a small connection right off and venture to an establishment where she has a rum and Coke between pinball sessions. This particular scene, the first of any significance between the two leads, happens quickly but it’s staged quite well. We see Val’s touch of hesitancy in choosing a drink and her immediate gravitation towards the pinball machine – a game – before the dialogue is drowned out by other noise. It feels like a recognition that there will be no substance worth hearing in this conversation. How can a man who’s 32 years old speak to a girl not yet 16 with any level of sophistication? Len and Val share a grassy tryst afterward before he returns home to his wife Joy (Judy Carne), who’s none the wiser. O’Hara shows Len thinking not about Joy when the married couple subsequently become romantic, but his earlier encounter with Val. You think nothing good could possibly come of this and, yet, you might be surprised by All the Right Noises.

I only know of Gerry O’Hara from what the included booklet has relayed, namely that he served as an assistant director to several prominent filmmakers like Otto Preminger, Carol Reed and Laurence Olivier but struggled creatively with the majority of projects he helmed aside from three largely forgotten “personal” works including this film. Watching All the Right Noises, though, it’s difficult to not come away impressed. The subject matter is clearly delicate, part of an apparent and hard to reconcile trend in British film at the time, but the fleeting dimension O’Hara establishes for both Len and Val plus, to a lesser degree, Joy is so unexpected that it alters the viewer’s whole perception of what a film like this could achieve. You see, warts and all, both sides and why Len and Val would respectively be drawn to each other. Too often the problem with movies which depict these sorts of legally and morally questionable flings is that titillation is, as with pornography, the only and ultimate goal. If something of substance sneaks in it’s fine, but the true intention remains completely transparent. All the Right Noises has zero titillation.

The film achieves a remarkable balance in which we see the measure of Len’s excitement, presumably as a means of breathing away from the domestic doldrums as well as the flutter of taking a new lover, without totally vilifying him. His behavior is perhaps strange and completely unacceptable by society’s terms, but O’Hara makes clear that he will not be the one to judge the character. You could almost argue that O’Hara is glorifying this affair with an underage girl simply by refusing to present it as repugnant. And, yet, that objectivity is exactly what makes All the Right Noises so interesting. The snapshots of life we spend with Len are hardly enough to know or judge or feel comfortable predicting his actions at any point along the spectrum. Similarly, Val isn’t portrayed as a sexually voracious seductress. She’s just a teenager with normal emotional frailties who’s interested in an older man. O’Hara pulls back just enough so that neither character comes across falsely or too far to either extreme.

This leaves Len’s wife Joy and a game Judy Carne with seemingly little to do in comparison, though I think the overall impact we get from her is intentionally muted and with a touch of ambiguity. The scenes at home between Len and Joy establish their marriage as being solid and stable, if slightly boring after a number of years together. It leads the viewer to think that Len’s discontent probably lies more with his own aversions to monogamy than anything specifically between him and Joy. The film’s title is even a reference to his boast about how to keep her content, presumably freeing him up to do as he pleases. O’Hara’s resistance to provide any backstory for these characters, apart from an awareness that Len’s father (Robert Keegan) has serious troubles to which the son is not fully sympathetic, leads the viewer into a very face-value approach which echoes throughout the picture. Also echoing, unfortunately, is the annoying voice of singer Melanie whose songs play all too frequently on the soundtrack. It’s the worst part of the film, showing a dated quality which is grating instead of the quietly inviting maturity felt elsewhere.

The Disc

All the Right Noises is part of a trio of new BFI Flipside releases simultaneously hitting DVD and region-free Blu-ray. The Flipside strand is described as “rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presenting them in new high-quality editions.”

The film is presented here in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio on a dual-layered disc. My immediate impression from looking at the high-definition image is that it’s somewhat dark and grainy, partly owing to how the picture was shot. It might be unfair to call it a slight disappointment considering the probable limitations of the materials (a preservation status 35mm combined print) but this is certainly the least visually appealing Blu-ray in terms of sharpness and overall clarity I’ve seen yet from the BFI. The expected level of detail is just not there. Even so, there are no imperfections in terms of damage or transfer issues. The helpful “About the transfer” section in the enclosed booklet states that “the source print’s inherent green hue can be detected in some scenes.” This seemed fairly minor to me, but that could be because I got caught up in the film beyond its visual murkiness. You might also.

Audio arrives in a PCM mono track. Dialogue is clear, easily understood. The songs, which mar the film in my opinion, drip out cleanly. I didn’t notice any significant pops or hissing. The booklet makes mention of remaining instances of loose synch being present as per the original production, but nothing was evident from my viewing. After the confusion over similar issues with a previous Flipside release of The Bed Sitting Room, this might be in there as a standard disclaimer since it’s also mentioned in the Man of Violence booklet (though I did detect some synch trouble while watching that film). Subtitles in English for the hearing impaired are included, both for the film and the extra features. They are white in color.

As with The Bed Sitting Room, this release contains raw interview footage from Bernard Braden’s Now and Then, a previously unseen program where the intention was to interview the same people on two separate occasions a few years apart. Braden was unable to secure financing to complete the “Then” part of his project but the existing interviews, conducted in the late 1960s, have been obtained by the BFI and presumably will pop up on releases like this one. What makes these interviews a tad offputting, aside from some of the awkward if honest questions Braden asks, is that they, at least so far, don’t relate to the films to which they’re attached. So, for example, it might be fascinating to hear Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting discuss being plucked from obscurity for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (and I’m sure fans of that film will at least have some curiosity in this release just to be able to see the two together), but the 1967 interview (17:05) with them never addresses All the Right Noises, which would be the next film Hussey made. I understand why the two things never cross paths, and I’m not complaining about these interviews being included as I’ve found them all to be curious time capsules, but there shouldn’t be any confusion about the focus.

The other special feature included on the disc – both are in HD – is a short film director Gerry O’Hara made in 1972 called “The Spy’s Wife” (28:07). Some background in the booklet lets us know that the short was made to accompany a feature film (Gumshoe, in this instance) in cinemas and that O’Hara and co-writer/producer Julian Holloway made another one entitled “The Chairman’s Wife” which ran the same length. On the basis of how delightfully strange and fun “The Spy’s Wife” is I hope the other O’Hara and Holloway featurette, as it was called, becomes available with perhaps one of the director’s other “personal” efforts. “The Spy’s Wife” reunited All the Right Noises star Tom Bell with O’Hara, and it also features Dorothy Tutin as the title character and Vladek Sheybal and Ann Lynn. You never know quite where it’s going, and snappy editing plus a score by Denis King which is variously sinister and bouncy help make the short film an unexpected treat. I might’ve even preferred it to All the Right Noises, and I could definitely see myself re-watching the short far more frequently. The very cool “The Spy’s Wife” is presented in 1.33:1 and does display small amounts of damage in the print, mostly early on and around the 20-minute mark, but the crispness of the image is impressive. It looks sharper than the main feature.

A 36-page booklet utilizing original poster art from which I quoted at the beginning of this review is inside the case. The substantial insert begins with an essay on All the Right Noises by Robert Murphy which runs six pages including a few stills. Another three pages contain a piece by William Fowler on the film, specifically the significance of the locations. Director Gerry O’Hara shares some recollections for six pages while “The Spy’s Wife” gets a three-page essay from Vic Pratt and a couple more for Julian Holloway to reminisce. Beyond the essays, there are the usual cast lists and biographical write-ups on O’Hara and Olivia Hussey with stills sprinkled throughout the booklet. A fine job overall here by the BFI in presenting pertinent information in a handsome fashion.

Final Thoughts

If you can look past the inherent ickiness of a relationship between a married man in his thirties and a 15-year-old girl, All the Right Noises might prove far more complex than you’d think. The performances ground things nicely, but writer/director Gerry O’Hara’s assured storytelling is the real surprise. He manages to spin sincerity from what could have been bland exploitation. The BFI have released this obscure title with the sort of care we’ve come to expect, even if the video quality isn’t quite up to the usual standards. A particularly nice touch is the inclusion of O’Hara’s stylish short film “The Spy’s Wife.”

clydefro jones

Updated: Aug 20, 2009

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