In the late 1950s, about the time the French New Wave was sweeping over the international film world, a similar creative impulse was sending Britain’s brashest, freshest filmmakers off in new directions of their own. In the British version, the emphasis was on portrayals of ordinary, common young people, fed up with postwar austerity and the limited horizons of Britain’s engrained class system. Cheeky, they were. According to writer Judy Bloch — in her intro to the retrospective “Looking Back at the British New Wave,” opening this week at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive — John Osborne’s 1956 stage play Look Back in Anger started the ball rolling. Filmmaker Tony Richardson picked it up and ran with it.
In several ways Richardson was the François Truffaut, if not the Jean-Luc Godard, of the London-based film scene. Emissary of the Angry Young Men, the coolest cat around, the one everyone was talking about. Richardson’s screen adaptation of Look Back in Anger (1959) — made by his Woodfall Film Productions, co-founded with Osborne and producer Harry Saltzman — starred Richard Burton as uptight candy salesman/jazz trumpeter Jimmy Porter, who lives in a tatty flat with his repressed wife Alison (Mary Ure), his obligingly numbskull business partner Cliff (Gary Raymond), and the odd woman out, Jimmy’s constant target, middle-class office worker Helena (Claire Bloom).
Burton’s raging bull Jimmy dominates the film, roaring about each and every perceived slight and directing much of his class resentment toward the mild-mannered Helena (shades of A Streetcar Named Desire). Even by Burton’s scenery-chewing standards, Jimmy’s bitter, nonstop speechifying is too much of a good thing. The blast-furnace effect is so overpowering we naturally seek cover with the supporting players. Ure, Bloom, and Raymond all hold up their end, as do S.P. Kapoor as a picked-on Indian vendor in the street market, and Donald Pleasance, terrific as the officious, bullying market inspector. When critics talk about “Kitchen Sink” dramatics, Look Back in Anger is probably the movie they’re thinking of. It opens the BAMPFA series on Saturday, September 21.
Pick of the series might well be Richardson’s lesser-known 1962 effort The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, in which a budding hooligan named Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay, in a mesmerizing feature debut), sentenced to reform school (aka borstal) for auto theft, impresses the warden (Michael Redgrave, Richardson’s real-life father-in-law) with his athletic ability. The big showdown comes when the borstal boys’ cross-country runners compete with a team of privileged public-school lads. Talk about class struggle. When a poor young man with a vengeful look on his face lights a pound note and burns it, it means something. The film screens September 29.
Loneliness is not the only Richardson pic to share subject matter with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The working-class antics of A Taste of Honey (1961) also rely on an Antoine Doinel-like protagonist, in this case an irrepressible teenage girl named Jo, unforgettably portrayed by Rita Tushingham in her first film. Headstrong, unlucky Jo is perpetually, comically disgruntled, except when she’s being pathetic. The cards are firmly stacked against her in this grim-but-charming proletarian fairy tale, trimmed with dark satanic mills, dirty faces, and unwarranted romantic optimism. Walter Lassally’s wonderful documentary-style cinematography and frequent Richardson collaborator John Addison’s music score only add to the down-to-earth spectacle of Jo’s adventures in the streets and fun fairs of industrial Lancashire. A Taste of Honey was the first British movie shot outside a studio. It shows September 22.
The Yorkshire-born Richardson, whose 1962-1967 marriage to actor Vanessa Redgrave bridged the gap between one cinematic dynasty and another, went on to direct Tom Jones, The Loved One, and The Border, amongst a roster of other audacious projects. He died of AIDS in 1991.
Also in the fourteen-title series — organized by Senior Curator Susan Oxtoby — are a well considered list of Kitchen Sink tales, including works by Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, Bryan Forbes, Jack Clayton, Joseph Losey, Lewis Gilbert, and Michelangelo Antonioni, whose Blow-Up remains the last word on the slightly sinister ambivalence of Swinging London in the Sixties. “Looking Back at the British New Wave” runs through November 30. Bampfa.org