Everything and the Kitchen Sink: New York's Film Forum salutes the British New Wave
Glum doesn’t necessarily mean uninspiring, which is why the latest series from New York’s Film Forum, “The Brit New Wave: From Angry Young Men to Swinging London” (March 22–April 6) should not deter you from seeing early 1960s movies that are predominantly downbeat in tone or gritty in style. What’s more, by extending the British New Wave to include the wilder, more outré efforts of the late ’60s, Film Forum insures more upbeat entertainment along the way—though don’t expect James Bond to pop up anywhere.
What was once dubbed “kitchen sink realism,” this group of 30 films in revival—at least the ones from the early part of the decade—represented a break from the more polished look and feel of the British productions that had come previously (out of Ealing Studios, et al.). Like the concurrent nouvelle vague (French New Wave) of the late 1950s and early ’60s, albeit with less fanfare, the British New Wave dealt with mature, even provocative topics that had not been allowed by the industry or censorship boards of prior decades.
The “kitchen sink” moniker, however disparaging it may sound, alluded to the effort by several brave young filmmakers (some former film critics, as in the case of the French New Wave) to employ more naturalistic performances from a new generation of actors and to shoot their projects outside the confines of studios at genuine locations in documentary (a.k.a. “Free Cinema”) style, including lower-class Northern England milieus—hence the narrative privileging of post-World War II “angry young men.”
As the 1960s decade progressed, however, audiences tired of this novel yet frankly depressing aesthetic, so other approaches emerged, from jaunty and uplifting to enigmatic and mind-bending. On the down side, a number of these innovative works seem today as misogynistic as anything produced by classical British cinema.
Well-known titles mix with true rarities in the Film Forum series, some in restored prints, and the following day-by-day viewer’s guide is designed for you to find the ones that sound the most interesting.
March 22 (also March 27)
The revivals start off with two of the most celebrated, Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960). It is immediately noteworthy that both films are built around major stars, which would not necessarily be the case with the subsequent New Wave films; yet having “names” certainly helped put these creative endeavors on the map. Both originated as plays by John Osborne and both were directed by Tony Richardson: Look Back in Anger stars Richard Burton, even if he was a few years too old to play the alienated “angry young man” protagonist who feels trapped in an unhappy love triangle (with Mary Ure and Claire Bloom as wife and mistress, respectively).
The film version of The Entertainer presents its legendary star, Laurence Olivier, in the unique and unflattering role of a mediocre, alcoholic music-hall performer with multiple family troubles. Olivier is surrounded by a Who’s Who of future British luminaries: Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Daniel Massey, and Joan Plowright (Olivier’s future wife, but playing his daughter in the story). Thanks in part to the presence of Olivier, both the play and film were more successful commercially than Look Back in Anger and paved the way for even darker, more controversial fare.
Rita Tushingham, another up-and-coming icon of the decade, contrasted the glamorous leading ladies of yore; she played “ordinary” young women with a likable awkwardness. In Desmond Davis’ Girl With Green Eyes (1964), based on an Edna O’Brien novel, she is a “country girl” who falls in love with a much older man (Peter Finch), and the story comments subtly on religious barriers as much as age differences. In The Leather Boys (1963), directed by Sidney J. Furie, Tushingham plays a less pleasant character as the frustrated new bride of a biker who feels more kinship with his motorcycle buddy than his wife. Tackling the then-taboo topic of homosexuality, and in a somewhat matter-of-fact way, made the film daring for its time.
Tushingham’s poignant performance—perhaps her best—highlights Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961), about an unmarried young woman in a brief interracial affair who becomes pregnant and is befriended by a troubled gay man (Murray Melvin). Also on the bill, Richardson’s dank but powerful Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), from a screenplay by Allan Sillitoe, presents Tom Courtenay as a rebellious youth who masters long-distance running during a tough period of incarceration. The ending encapsulates both the triumph and the tragedy that course through this cycle of films.
Julie Christie appears in two John Schlesinger projects that provide slightly lighter, more “engaging” entertainment: Billy Liar (1963) stars Courtenay again but in a very different role as a daydreaming Walter Mitty type (and Christie as one of his girlfriends), while Darling (1965), Christie’s first major vehicle, features her as a bored model who flits from man to man amongst the jet set in a cynical study of the hedonistic mores of the day. Christie won a Best Actress Oscar for Darling, which was highly popular, yet it veered away from what had become the earnest style and tone of the New Wave.
Three Richard Lester films are upbeat, even downright silly at times, marking the death knell of the “kitchen sink” period. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is the landmark Beatles musical shot and edited in a kinetic, fast-paced modern style but echoing the sensibility of a Marx Brothers movie. The Knack… and How to Get It (1965) again features Rita Tushingham, now as the object of the affection of three men, but seems more akin to the coarse Hollywood sex comedies of the era than the earlier British New Wave films. A rarely seen 1959 short by Lester, sandwiched between the two features, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film showcases comic Spike Milligan but should attract fans of Mulligan’s fellow player, Peter Sellers, who was on the verge of mega-stardom at the time.
A Taste of Honey returns and is paired with the seldom-seen Sparrows Can’t Sing (1964), one of the few New Wave films directed by a woman—Joan Littlewood—and perhaps the true progenitor of the long-running TV series “EastEnders.” Sparrows Can’t Sing balances humor and pathos in an episodic look at Cockney life and contains accents so thick it has the dubious distinction of being the first English-language film released in the U.S. to include subtitles!
Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), another study of class but in the form of a stylish psychosexual thriller and written by Harold Pinter, stars Dirk Bogarde in the title role of a mysterious man who cunningly manipulates his wealthy employer, played by James Fox. Pinter’s screenplay for the second feature of the day, The Pumpkin Eater (1964), directed by Jack Clayton, stays in the upper-class strata but is at least as morose as Look Back in Anger, this time focusing on a woman (Anne Bancroft with British accent) who returns to her second husband after her third husband commits adultery.
Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) brings us back to kitchen sinks and angry men, with Richard Harris in his breakout role as a Yorkshire footballer in a doomed affair with a grieving widow (Rachel Roberts). Two little-known cinéma-vérité shorts follow: Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959), about schoolboys in South London, and Mamma Don’t Allow (1956), co-directed by Reisz and Richardson, about the North London jazz scene.
Bryan Forbes directs The L-Shaped Room (1963), which echoes A Taste of Honey but this time concerns an older pregnant woman (Leslie Caron) facing the prejudices against single motherhood. Forbes’ cleverly allegorical debut feature, Whistle Down the Wind (1961), stars Alan Bates as a fugitive murderer mistaken for Jesus by several children (including Hayley Mills). Less remembered today than others in the series, but one of most profitable British films of the early ’60s, Whistle Down the Wind deserves rediscovery.
Karel Reisz is the creative force behind Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), the quintessential “kitchen sink” movie, with Albert Finney as a Nottingham factory worker who impregnates a married woman (again, the great Rachel Roberts) while also courting a virginal beauty (Shirley Anne Field). (Note: Critic John Lahr, a friend of the late Reisz, will introduce the 8:15 p.m. show.) The director’s Morgan—A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) is quite different, even comedic at times, about an imbalanced artist (David Warner) trying anything and everything to win back his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave).
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning begins a triple feature followed by two in color and widescreen: Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), the massively popular, Oscar-winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s raunchy novel, with Albert Finney as the rakish hero, and Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966), with Michael Caine as one of the first mod London anti-heroes, romancing and discarding a succession of women (including Shelley Winters and Millicent Martin), while addressing the audience about his sexual conquests.
With Lord of the Flies, you can catch a more austere adaptation also released in 1963. Director Peter Brook does an admirable, if slightly too literal, job of translating the William Goldman novel about a group of schoolboys left stranded on a desert island. The rarely seen Privilege (1967), directed by Peter Watkins, takes us into the future (actually, only into the ’70s), with Paul Jones playing a rock star transformed into a cult religious figure by shadowy church and state figures. The movie versions of both A Clockwork Orange and Tommy owe something to this one.
Bryan Forbes’s low-key thriller, Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), doesn’t quite fit with the series but is compelling nonetheless, centering around a medium (Kim Stanley, in one of her few film appearances) who forces her husband (Richard Attenborough) into a kidnapping scheme so that she can “solve the crime” for the authorities. Guy Green’s The Angry Silence (1960), also starring Attenborough, is more in line with the early themes and style of the New Wave but contains an uncharacteristically troubling message about which side a factory worker should take during a strike. (Note: Brian Murray, who made his debut in the film, will introduce the 5:05 p.m. screening.)
Accident (1967), starring Dirk Bogarde, Michael York and Delphine Seyrig, and another Joseph Losey-Harold Pinter collaboration, represents the most deliberately puzzling series entry, both in terms of message and literal narrative, but is more than worth the time and trouble to figure out. Also from 1967, the partially improvised Poor Cow was Ken Loach’s first feature and a sleeper hit about a young woman (Carol White of Cathy Come Home) who makes a series of difficult decisions to better her life but finds nothing but trauma and heartache.
Georgy Girl (1966) and If… (1968) complete the series with an appropriate mix of the early-’60s’ dreary realism and the end-of-decade satire and stylization. Silvio Narizzano’s Georgy Girl belies its sprightly hit theme song by The Seekers by telling the bittersweet story of yet another awkward young woman (Lynn Redgrave) who becomes the unlikely mistress to a much older man (James Mason). Lindsay Anderson’s If… returns us to the realm of rebellious schoolboys but adds surreal and eccentric touches (as well as introducing Malcolm McDowell to the film world).
The festival wraps up withA Kind of Loving (1962), a DCP restoration of a seldom-seen entry that will get a full week's run (April 7-13). This directorial debut from John Schlesinger stars Alan Bates as a newlywed who is not as in love with his bride (June Ritchie) as she is with him. Another rare Brit New Wave drama to consider, and perhaps savor.
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