Director: Tony Richardson
Writers: Alan Sillitoe, based on his short story.
Stars: Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave
The Story: Courtenay’s angry young man gets sent to a youth prison, where a cheerful warden tries to mold him into a long-distance runner, hoping that they can beat the boys from a nearby boarding school in an upcoming meet. As the young man prepares, he thinks about how he got there and what victory means to him.
How it Came to be Underrated: The great British “angry young man” films of the early ‘60s have become the forgotten missing link between the French New Wave and the American renaissance that flowered in the late ‘60s. Richardson, Lester, Reisz, Anderson, et al. deserve to remain household names. This one only recently appeared on DVD, so it’s ripe for rediscovery.
Why It’s Great:
- Movies that are interwoven with flashbacks are tricky to write. The first question to answer is, what triggers the flashbacks? I love how in this one the flashbacks aren’t triggered by anything the psychiatrist asks or his fellow prisoners say. It’s only when he’s outside of himself, running or dismantling old gas masks in the prison shop, that his memories overtake him. Like “Lost” at its best, this is a story about the internal war between the crushing verdict of our past and the ever-fading promise of the future.
- Redgrave was a star for forty years, but he was so good at disappearing into his roles that I never link his movies with each other. It’s hard to associate his pompous warden here with the cheeky leading man from The Lady Vanishes. He plays his villain here in the smartest possible way: as if he were the hero of a very different movie.
- These films became acclaimed for “kitchen sink realism”, and there’s plenty of wonderful little details of hard-scrabble British life here, but it’s not really about “reality” at all. Selective sound design, sped-up film speeds in parts and other techniques create an intense feeling of subjectivity, forcing us to see and hear the world through Courtenay’s jaundiced point of view. This isn’t about life as it is but rather life as it’s perceived (which may be the only reality anyway)
- This has always been a favorite of mine (I took Betsy to see it at a revival house on one of our first dates) but seeing it again I can see how nicely it fits into my latest motto: “Anybody can be a hero, but nobody can become a hero by doing what anybody would do.” A hero’s triumph must stem from his unique personality. The ending of this movie may be the ultimate example of that.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Richardson’s brilliant adaptations were all very different, from the bawdy ribaldry of Fielding’s Tom Jones to the absurd satire of Waugh’s The Loved One, but they’re all worth watching.
How Available Is It?: It’s finally got a nice-looking DVD (without any features).
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