The White Bus (MGM LE Collection) Review
Sort of perverse and dryly critical, Lindsay Anderson's The White Bus resembles his subsequent films If... and O Lucky Man! much more than his only previous feature This Sporting Life. Anderson favors irony and satire over any depiction of gritty realism in his adaptation of Shelagh Delaney's short story. He injects color in brief, unexpected bursts to the otherwise black and white picture, a technique he'd later revisit in If... but in the reverse. The story of a young woman who exits her job at a London office for a short train ride and a trip later on a "See Your City" vehicle of the title is awash in symbolic tells which especially reward the patient and perceptive viewer. Throughout, Anderson's gift for cinema is on full, if sometimes frustrating, display.
The White Bus was intended as a single part of a portmonteau film that originally had fellow "Free Cinema" directors Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz joining Anderson to bring three different stories by Shelagh Delaney, whose play A Taste of Honey had already been successfully made into a film directed by Richardson, to the screen. Reisz dropped out and Peter Brook stepped in as a replacement. But both his and Richardson's contributions were apparently underwhelming and only Anderson's part ever received a (still limited) cinema release. Brook's "Zero" (aka "Ride of the Valkyrie") was to feature the actor Zero Mostel while Richardson made Red and Blue, a musical inspired by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that starred Vanessa Redgrave and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Also utilizing the title of the Anderson portion, the ill-fated combined feature was to be called Red, White and Zero. As Kevin Brownlow, who served as editor on both The White Bus and Red and Blue, recalled, United Artists initially paired Richardson's effort with screenings of The Graduate, an experiment that was unsuccessful and short-lived.
In contrast to Brook's light comedy and the out-of-fashion musical Richardson made, Anderson embraced an experimental vision of an England drowning in a mixture of pessimism and obliviousness. The young woman at the center of the film (played by Patricia Healey) is initially seen in her office, after work hours but still toiling away as the cleaning crew shares the area. A quick, startling cut to her body hanging from the ceiling, the woman having hung herself in a fantasy of desperation, serves to prepare the viewer for a deviation away from the sort of naturalism popular with Anderson's filmmaking contemporaries at the time (and also on display in the director's own This Sporting Life). It's on from there that we see the woman being either harassed or seen off, and it's never clear which is the case, at the train station by a rather obnoxious man who feels the need to espouse his views on class as they're walking to the platform.
Up north, to Salford, the woman goes and gets on the touristy white bus, which seems strangely out of place in this locale. She generally remains silent for the duration of the film, speaking just a few words total in a couple of verbal exchanges. The exuberant mayor (Arthur Lowe) of the locale is along for the ride, making up for the woman's lack of talking by doing plenty of his own. Asides abound, including an instance where an actor is seen and heard performing. The name assigned to this character by Anderson is Brechtian, an instructional hint as to some of the director's intentions. A young Anthony Hopkins plays the performer. One of the short color scenes recreates a Manet painting with expert efficiency and beauty. Anderson must have had a reason why, though, as with other aspects of the film, they aren't immediately apparent.
The overall impact of The White Bus remains nonetheless impressive. It has a thrilling dedication and determination to it. Anderson seems to blend the documentary aesthetics of some of the Free Cinema work with a keen willingness to explore fantasy. The tone never really wavers. It's dark, biting, and lacking in compromise. The look of the film, too, is quite striking. Shot by Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, who'd earlier worked on Milos Forman's A Blonde in Love and would stick with Anderson for both If... and O Lucky Man!, the Mancunian landscapes have an almost post-apocalyptic, abandoned feeling to them at times. The effect is eerie and important in establishing the mood of the film. Its more satirical, accusatory edge almost surely comes from Anderson, who turned the potentially singular story of a woman undone by her job and the city into a larger echo of a country's class consciousness. As such, The White Bus stands as an important work in the too-short filmography of Lindsay Anderson.
The White Bus was initially scheduled for release a bit earlier in MGM's Limited Edition Collection MOD line, under the title Red, White and Zero. The name settled on is a better fit and the cover, contrary to some preliminary images floating around the internet, only uses the name The White Bus. Keeping the usual price point of around twenty dollars or more for such a short film, burned onto a DVD-R to boot, might make this disc a tougher sell than it should be.
A rocky start soon enough steadies itself in terms of the image quality. The 1.66:1 aspect ratio is used, with enhancement for widescreen televisions. Some white speckles do pop up on occasion but the picture generally settles in nicely enough as it progresses. The black and white scenes show modest contrast but never exhibit any significant distractions. The brief color portions look fine, if a little thick and dull. Grain is apparent throughout the viewing. On the whole, there's no reason to hesitate based on the video.
Audio is pretty good too. The English mono track has some very mild hiss at times but is generally clear. Dialogue is presented cleanly and at a consistent volume. No pops or drop-outs were heard. The major nag is a lack of subtitles, though the accents here are not at all thick.
Potential extras might include John Fletcher's documentary about the making of the film from 1968. (It actually has a longer running time than its subject!) Alas, MGM hasn't provided anything of the sort.