Lunch Hour Review

The 1961 British feature Lunch Hour begins with a conventional enough premise. A man (Robert Stephens) has taken a younger woman (Shirley Anne Field) to a hotel in the middle of the day to consummate their affair. He's an executive at a wallpaper company and she's a recent hire out of art school. Neither is named but we do gather that the man is married. They are already in the hotel room when the movie starts, and they'll remain there almost until the very end of the short running time. Flashbacks ensue, showing the girl's first meeting with the man who pursued her less aggressively than other suitors but nonetheless, perhaps because of this though who can say for sure, caught her eye. They go to a park, sneak kisses here and there, are asked to leave a museum, and try to have a meal in a restaurant. All of their meetings occur during the couple's lunch hour, preventing much escalation of the affair. Until now, until the hotel room.

A slow, dramatic turn shifts the film in an unexpected direction after the flashbacks have finished. The woman learns how the man was able to secure this particular room in a private hotel, with a meddling manageress (Kay Walsh), and her reactions completely transform Lunch Hour. What seemed like a standard, if rather innocent, telling of a fling between co-workers - an older man with authority and a younger female - becomes something else. It's a borderline baffling transition for a number of reasons. The flashbacks give way to fantasy sequences. Field's character, who'd previously been little more than a smiling, pretty girl gets a new layer, one it's tough to be sure about with any confidence. The man seems as flummoxed by these developments as the viewer. He, unlike us, has to deal with this whirlwind up close. His coat, rest assured, need not be removed.

So what just happened and what does it mean? The booklet essay mentions female discontent, among other ideas. One thing that makes it even more difficult to acclimate to is that the film never significantly alters its approach. The level of comedic frustration gives way to more serious considerations but it's all told with roughly the same smooth tone. There are no moments of warning. Director Hill, concerned with realism to a fault, doesn't seem to acknowledge the change in mood that quickly bubbles up. You see it in the acting performances but not really elsewhere. This could be a result of the film's stage origins, having been based on John Mortimer's play. There's enough dialogue and so few sets as to make the whole thing feel theatrical. Indeed, it actually seems better suited to the stage and the adaptation into film does not completely fulfill an impact that probably should register more strongly. The viewer needs to comprehend the shift Field's character undergoes and, even if it proves difficult to understand, there might ought to be a feeling of having been shaken and moved. It's that lack of momentum where Hill comes up a bit lame.

Positives are otherwise strong enough to merit a look. The two leads are really good. Stephens is an actor I'm most familiar with for his work in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which he gave Holmes a perfect sadness that has still never been as widely appreciated as it deserves. Here he's the cat who ate the canary for so much of the movie, until, that is, he more closely resembles the canary. Field had her breakthrough in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning a year prior to this film. She's so meek and cute in Lunch Hour for long enough to make you wonder whether her character has anything going on inside at all. Then we see part of what was simmering all along and sort of wish we hadn't. Field is memorable and ferocious during this section. Her scene at the end spins the rest of her performance into a deeper, more complex portrait than initially perceived. Ah, she likes candy and she's happy.

Writer John Mortimer had an interesting and, like Hill, varied career in film and television. Notable also was the work of his one-time wife Penelope. Together the two wrote the screenplay for Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing, a bitter, at times disturbing account of a woman who believes her child is missing but cannot seem to convince anyone else of this claim. Especially key to considering Lunch Hour, I think, is that Penelope Mortimer also wrote the novel The Pumpkin Eater, which was adapted into a bleak movie by Harold Pinter that starred Anne Bancroft and was directed by Jack Clayton. The plot there centers on a deeply unhappy woman with several children and a collection of ex-husbands. Family relations, then, did not get painted with the rosiest of brushes by the Mortimers. This might perhaps be the most instructive of insights into Lunch Hour. It's a short film, one that initially and deceptively resembles something that it probably is not. But whatever it is makes for a highly interesting thing on which to chew.


The Disc(s)

Lunch Hour is the BFI's 17th spine number in the Flipside strand. It's released in a Dual Format edition containing both a Blu-ray and DVD. The BD is region-free and dual-layered.

Video quality is good without quite rivaling the best of the black and white Flipside releases. Damage is a non-issue. The 1.66:1 aspect ratio is maintained with thin black bars on the left and right of the frame. There is maybe a bit more grain in the print when compared against those other Flipside transfers. Detail hardly suffers and is met by sufficiently good contrast. The included booklet instructs that the transfer source was a 35mm combined finegrain.

PCM mono audio in English sounds clear, with minimal obstruction in the track. It is spread across two channels. The dialogue registers well, complemented nicely by a music score composed by James Hill, the film's director. At one point, about 43 minutes and a few seconds in on the Blu-ray, you can hear a beep-beep-beep that might seem out of place. Listen closer and this actually seems to be coming from the radio that Robert Stephens' character had turned on because it's transitioning from what sounds like a church service of some sort to a program featuring more classical, orchestral music. Subtitles are optional, white in color, in English for the hearing impaired.

Three color short films made by James Hill serve as supplements to the main feature on both discs. They are in HD on the Blu-ray and look terrific in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, with bright, vibrant colors and faithful-looking grain. All were commissioned by BP and, as such, tend to sometimes feel like advertising. The first, "Skyhook" (17:24), takes its title from the common name for a helicopter used in Papua New Guinea that transported an oil rig, and perhaps conjures up different feelings now than it would have when made. This documentary short has narration in English but subtitles have not been included. Hill won an Oscar for "Giuseppina" (31:40), a sweet little narrative from 1959 about a young girl in Italy whose father runs a rural gas station. Various visitors come and go, including stereotypical examples of American and British tourists. It's in Italian with optional English subtitles. The last of the short films is "The Home-Made Car" (28:27), a silent story of a man, a large dog, a little girl, and the restoring of a car. It too has plenty of charm.

The BFI's 24-page booklet is the usual classy affair. It begins with an essay by Sue Harper on Lunch Hour that opens the film up well. It goes for four pages. Three more are devoted to a short biography of director James Hill, with another three pages specifically about his BP films and yet another three on their role as trade test colour films. The latter piece is of particular interest, describing how these works which were all originally made for and shown at cinemas soon enough became staples of television broadcasts meant to showcase the visual advantages of color. They were, the article asserts, shown "no fewer than 726 times on BBC2" from 1967 to 1973. Stills and credits round out the rest of the booklet's contents.


7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10


out of 10

Did you enjoy the article above? If so please help us by sharing it to your social networks with the buttons below...

Latest Articles