John Schlesinger’s British New Wave Classic Gets Another Night, This Time in High-Definition.
DIRECTED BY JOHN SCHLESINGER/1963
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 28, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Toiling away in the drudgery of a smallish British burg, William Terrence ‘Billy’ Fisher only wants to be a writer. Greatness, though, or even a legitimate spark to the fire of his dreams, eludes him. Born to Greatest Generation parents who’ve collectively opted to manifest their hard-won freedom in the form of doubled-down repression, William is one unhappy young man. Disaffected to the point of delusion, Fisher – or, as some might call him, “Billy Liar” – it’s even fair to label him “angry”. An angry… young… man. He’s merely one of many such characters (and even creators) in the “British New Wave”, a 1960s-centric cinematic movement of which his namesake film is a high watermark.
Though not well-received in its day, Billy Liar’s time would eventually come. In 1999, the British Film Institute would recognize it as one of the country’s top 100 cinematic achievements, ranking it at number seventy-six of all time. This put it ahead of A Clockwork Orange, A Hard Day’s Night, and Schlesinger’s own more financially successful films, 1965’s Darling and 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Meanwhile, the film has continued to ascend in reputation, not uncommonly referred to as one of The Great Films Of The 1960s. (Thanks to William J. Mann’s authorized biography on John Schlesinger, Edge of Midnight, for these details).
Directed by John Schlesinger in 1963, Billy Liar arrives to the screen as an adaptation of a Lindsey Anderson-directed stage version (famously staring Albert Finney) which itself was an adaptation of a 1959 novel by the prolific Keith Waterhouse. Waterhouse then, coming around full circle, co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Willis Hall. Tom Courtenay takes over the role here, perfectly physically diminutive as he is commanding. Schlesinger brings a cinematic flair to Billy’s self-obsessed flights of fancy, using inset imagery and wild insert sequences to render his fantasies, delusions, and daydreams.
Inside daydreams, he tends to lord over the land of Ambrosia, a made-up country whose only defining trait seems to be its overwhelming enthusiasm for his militaristic leadership. Army parades for cheering hordes and celebratory tribute films, complete with a nationalistic anthem, are all too common in Billy’s waking life of distraction. All too common, though, are his imagined moments of mowing down whomever is frustrating him with a machine gun. These, too, are executed by Schlesinger with a brilliant kind of jarring precision.
Dressed ever-well in abused suits and ties, Billy’s stride is a confident stomp about town. He gladly endangers his job in the funeral business by, among other things, destroying mundane parlor promotional calendars rather than distributing them or doing whatever other socially acceptable thing he’s expected to do with them. Can one flush an oversized calendar down a cellar toilet? Billy certainly seem to expect so. Like so many other things, though, the reality is often a different story.
But, lying liars can only get so far in life before their whole village of card-houses collapses. This is particularly true as we painfully witness Billy’s juggling of fiancées, neither of which suspects the other’s existence. Truly, he’s got no love for either of them. One’s a blissfully checked out prude (Helen Fraser) who’s uncomfortable with even his slightest touch. She’s the one who has the engagement ring from him. The other is apparently the promiscuous one (Gwendolyn Watts), though also as shrill as they come. (Despite the sexy bodice illustration on the cover art, this isn’t a particularly sexual movie). She is also the one expecting but never getting said engagement ring. Neither young lady is Julie Christie, who has her career breakout in Billy Liar. (A fact all the more impressive considering her general lack of screen time in the film). Only in this moment and going forward could England tolerate a pickle as salty as this.
A few more words on Julie Christie… It is no wonder whatsoever that this film minted her a star. Her character, Liz, is just the kind of radiant and worldly gal that Billy has never known. His equal and even social superior, she poignantly shares his frustrations (“Sometimes I want to go away… It’s this town, it’s the people we know. I don’t like knowing everybody, I don’t like becoming a part of things. Do you know what I mean?”), but not in a way that is narratively intended to bolster his. Though today we would very much recognize Liz as a “manic pixie dream girl”, it turns out that the character is actually there to flag up his shortcomings- and to accentuate his positives. Christie steals every scene- every shot– that she is in. Which is no small feat, considering that Courtenay is in the midst of a career tour-de-force right next to her.
Film historian Kat Ellinger really, really knows Billy Liar. Thankfully, Kino Lorber got her to provide audio commentary for this disc. True, Ms. Ellinger is no stranger in Audio Commentary Land, but her work on Billy Liar is as much of a deep dive as the running time of the film will allow for. For those who already own the film on a different format or label, this track justifies a purchase. So too does the Blu-ray’s quite beautiful transfer and sound. It’s worth noting that though intimate, Billy Liar is no miniture-scale production. The care that Schlesinger and his crew bring to it is not only seen in the evocative black and white cinematography and the world therein, but in the subtle soundscape of train noises, distant horns, marching, and the general din of life. Kino Lorber’s disc shows it all off quite well.
Contemporary viewers may recognize Billy as an uneasy blend Luke Skywalker (the dreamer reluctant to leave) and Donald Trump (a perpetually aggravated, self-victimized and entitled man-child) with a dash of The Graduate. In actuality, all of those things arrived in the shadow of Billy Liar, whether international or not. It can be challenging to tolerate certain aspects of Billy, particularly his fascist fascinations and treatment of women.
Yet… when the time comes for Billy to “man up” and make the break for the big city, we can’t help but root for him. This evoked empathy, coupled with finely tuned creative accomplishment of all primary parties involved, is what makes Billy Liar four times the film of, say, Karel Reisz’s 1966 British New Wave cohort, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment. When Billy says goodbye to his mother at the infirmary as he breaks for London with Liz, we almost, almost, but-not-quite see the sad old lady crack the tiniest of smiles. And though Billy ultimately can’t help but fall short of Ellinger’s point of comparison to fellow distracted dreamer Walter Mitty, we do wish the delusional lad well.