Billy Liar Review
Towards the end of the 1950s, John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger heralded what has commonly been called the 'Angry Young Man' movement, firstly in literature and, before long, in film, where working-class characters were shown as not being the cheerful cockney or Northern stereotypes of Ealing comedies, but far more complex and frustrated human beings, often tormented by the knowledge that they were stuck in social ruts that they were unable to escape from. Coupled with the 'Swinging Sixties' increase in sexual permissiveness, as heralded by the victory of Penguin in the Lady Chatterley's Lover court case, it might be tempting to look at Billy Liar as a product of its time writ large. Of course, the iconic casting and moments were not iconic at the time, and have only become famous through subsequent appreciation of the film, which is undoubtedly both a vital piece of social filmmaking and an excellent piece of cinema in its own right.
The plot concerns the likeable but feckless Billy Fisher (Courtenay)- the so-called 'Billy Liar' of the title- who finds himself stuck in the grim North with dull and unsympathetic parents (Pickles and Washbourne), a miserable dead-end (sic) job at an undertakers, as presided over by the grim Mr Shadrack (Rossiter, as funny here as he was when he did Reggie Perrin a decade later), the minor inconvenience of two different fiancees, and a series of fantastical daydreams in which he imagines himself to be ruler of a country named 'Ambrosia'. However, there might be a way out of the rut he's stuck in, courtesy of a comedian named Danny Boon and the girl of his dreams, Liz (Christie), a free-spirited young woman who, in one of the most memorable scenes in 60s cinema, is introduced gaily swinging a handbag and walking down the street as if she was on the Champs Elysee in Paris, rather than a dull road in the anonymous North. But does Billy have the courage of his convictions and the ability to escape home?
While many of its companion pieces of the time, such as Room at the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning have dated to the extent that they are likely to be of most interest to film critics and social historians, Billy Liar still works magnificently well because, first and foremost, it is a story about a central character who it is hard not to empathise with, even if he is frequently frustrating, never more so than at the end. Although it's very easy to attempt to distance yourself from the film on the grounds that 'Oh, it's only a light comedy', there is a remarkable resonance in the character of someone who knows that he is better than the situation he has found himself in, but he is too frightened to make something of himself; he can indulge in his fantasies all he wishes, but, as the downbeat ending shows, he is constrained by his background, by his family and by his so-called 'friends'. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, he attempts to make a positive stand and resign from his job, only to be told by the bored Shadrack- who is more interested in plastic coffins than his employees- that his financial irregularities with calendars make such a decision impossible. It is to the credit of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, the writers, that the film never descends into grimness for the sake of 'local colour'; Schlesinger's inspired decision to film in Cinemascope certainly helps this.
The performances are strong across the board, with two stand-outs. Courtenay was hotly tipped as 'the Northern Brando' (as one over-excited American critic put it) after his powerful performance in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and this; however, he soon all but abandoned the screen in favour of stage work, with exceptions such as his entertainingly villainous turn in Dr Zhivago and his excellent work in the recent Last Orders. Here, he manages the difficult task of making Billy likeable, comprehensible and, above all, totally sympathetic, even as the viewer wants to yell abuse at him at some points. Meanwhile, Christie is almost indecently beautiful as Liz; although she is only in the film for around twelve minutes in total, she manages to illuminate the screen with her presence, in a way that it's hard to imagine many contemporary actresses doing (with a few notable exceptions). The supporting performances are all fine, although most of the actors and actresses are inevitably playing 'types', rather than people.
Ultimately, then, this is a seminal piece of British 60s filmmaking, and a salutory reminder that there was an extremely important movement in film and literature between the Second World War and the 'Swinging Sixties'; it's hard to imagine that Billy would have been especially interested in either. An unequivocal recommendation for a very accomplished and frequently hilarious piece of work. The only conceivable flaw is that, regrettably, the film does feature references to 'darkies'; of course, forty years ago, political correctness was unheard of, and it is absurd to criticise it for casually racist views which were widely held by many people across society.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is strong without being revelatory; the fact that it has been enhanced for widescreen TVs certainly lifts it a notch, and the beautiful cinematography is presented clearly and vividly. On the other hand, there is some obvious and rather irritating print damage at points, and there is also some speckling on the picture that appears to affect films of this age. The Criterion version of the film has the same transfer, apparently, so presumably some restoration work has been undertaken at some stage.
The mono mix provided does an adequate but unexciting job of presenting the dialogue and music clearly, albeit with an occasional bit of muddying; there are no noticeable sound effects of any kind, but this is hardly a film that needs a DTS 5.1 remix.
The Criterion version of the film has a commentary by Schlesinger, Courtenay and Christie, a 15-minute documentary about the film and an amusing but overlong trailer, and costs $40. This version of the film has the same trailer, nothing else, and costs £12.99; at the time of writing, it was available from HMV in a buy one, get one free offer. It is up to you which one seems like better value.
A superb film, which combines a witty and intelligent look at a young man's frustrated ambitions with the broader social context of life at the time exceptionally well, is released on a technically decent disc with no extras of note. While true aficionados of the film will want the Criterion version, it is tempting to imagine that most people will find this perfectly satisfactory, and it is recommended on that basis.