1963, UK, Directed by John Schlesinger
Black & White, Running Time: 98 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R1, Criterion; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD Mono
The original novel of Billy Liar, written by Keith Waterhouse, earned notable critical commendation on its release in 1959 prior to its adaptation as a stage play (co-written between the book’s author and Willis Hall). During its initial West End run it was Albert Finney who played the lead role Billy Fisher, bringing a wider audience to the production as Saturday Night And Sunday Morning became a big hit, but his departure opened up a slot in the play for Tom Courtenay, an actor who would attract some acclaim for his part in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner before securing himself the part of Billy again for the movie adaptation of Billy Liar. The film’s narrative wasn’t too far removed from its literary counterpart: Fisher works in an administrative capacity at a funeral parlour dreaming of greater things, particularly becoming an author of either comedy scripts or novels, whilst allowing his love life to become an increasingly tangled mess. He also has a tendency to fabricate the truth to others as his imagination runs largely unrestrained in addition to the apparent ongoing requirement for such manipulation to cover up his proclivity towards laziness and almost accidental dishonesty, for example his failure to post a batch of calendars on behalf of his employers leading to the absorption of the postal money into his own pocket. The story effectively snapshots one day in his life as he awakens one morning before work (his parents having great difficulty actually getting him up and on his way), endures the short working day before handing in his notice to take up the script-writing job that hasn’t quite made it to reality, tries to sort out the periodic incidents with his multiple girlfriends, goes to a dancehall in the evening where a number of problems inconveniently collide, and makes a decision to head off to London with his favoured woman, Liz, at the end of the day after his gran dies.
There are a fantastic array of characters that either get in Billy’s way throughout, or become antagonised by his inconsistent ability to be honest: his mother and father for starters, the latter almost constantly shouting at the lad or doubting his ability to do anything, something which might have instigated Billy’s all thought and no action approach to life. At work we then meet his best mate, Arthur Crabtree (Rodney Bewes), who Billy ends up arguing with after telling a lie to Arthur’s mom, and beyond that there is Barbara, Rita, and Liz (Julie Christie), Billy’s three antithetical girlfriends. Barbara is an uptight virgin who won’t let Billy even touch her until they’re married, Rita is the promiscuous tart who’s relentlessly squawking and nagging him, primarily about the engagement ring that she doesn’t know is actually on Barbara’s finger, and finally Liz is the girl who likes to drift between towns, refusing to pin herself down to a place she cannot identify with. In most respects Liz is the girl most suited to Billy’s unpredictable strategy for dealing with life’s more mundane details, someone who similarly uses her imagination to free herself from the constraints of a humdrum existence. One crucial difference manifests itself as the separating factor between Billy and Liz however, and that’s the fact that Liz acts on her impulses while Billy doesn’t, and it’s that issue that will ultimately determine the outcome of their relationship - at least on the day focused on by the story. Billy’s daydreams are given life by cinema: reality is punctuated by episodes of mental wanderings as Billy imagines himself in a plethora of situations adopting roles preferable to that which he has to endure on a daily basis, from a surviving war veteran, to a reformed prisoner-cum-successful author, with the inhabitants of his ‘real’ life often making an appearance somewhere (spot Liz alongside him in one of his early fantasies before we’ve even met her, suggesting that she has a relevant part to play in his ideologies). These episodes don’t tend to be my favourite pieces in the film, however. What rises the film to a higher plane is the ongoing complexity of Billy’s relationships, these giving rise to beautiful moments of drama. The characters throughout appear to have their own agenda, merely getting caught up in Billy’s confused world where fact and fiction aren’t mutually exclusive concepts, and most of these characters are granted life by the astounding talents of a well selected cast. While this film would most likely be categorised as a ‘drama’ it’s not without its frequent moments of amusement as Billy progresses from one awkward situation to the next and even when his gran dies the film refuses to get bogged down too much in melancholy. Hence Billy Liar remains an uplifting experience every time, featuring people whose actions can be scrutinised, dialogue that is fascinating despite familiarity granted over repeat viewings, and a gorgeous Northern ‘kitchen-sink’ appeal throughout. Stripped of glamour, but not beauty, Billy Liar is one of the greatest triumphs of sixties British cinema, and almost certainly one of the greatest irrespective of era or geographical origin.
Stamping on the old pan & scan video cassettes and TV broadcasts that we had to put up with in the distant past, Criterion’s DVD presented the film accurately representing its CinemaScope ratio (the 4:3 transfers were simply awful). It’s a decent looking image that could be improved slightly I suspect, but is satisfying nonetheless. An informative commentary from the director, Courtenay and Christie accompanies a 15 minute TV featurette that focused on Billy Liar and another of Schlesinger’s earlier films, A Kind of Loving. Hardly in-depth but the package is rounded out by excellent liner notes by Bruce Goldstein, the founder of the company (Rialto) that rescued Billy Liar to provide a theatrical re-release 35 years after it was made. The British DVD lost the majority of the bonuses but obviously came in a lot cheaper. This disc/film remains one of the most valued entities of my movie shelves.