Incapacity for decision
By Freda Bruce Lockhart
NOT having seen "Billy Liar" on stage, I cannot
compare film with play. But Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, those prolific commercial playwrights of the day. have made their own screenplay.
Presumably therefore they have adapted the intentions of their novel and play into the film Billy Liar ("A", Warner) which I welcome on two counts in particular.
The story and central character illuminate the malaise of today which has so far been identified with the angry or rebellious young man of the industrial North or Midlands.
Billy Fisher's family background —the loose-mouthed, bone-headed father (Wilfred Pickles) and stoical mother (Mona Washbourne), the tedious job (undertaker's clerk to Leonard Rossiter as a Wellsian boss), the squalid girl-friends (Helen Fraser and Ciwendolen Watts fighting over the engagement ring): these could have served for any of the angry young protagonists from Jimmy Porter to the pedestrian draughtsman created by Alan Bates for A Kind of Loving. But Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenas) moves in another dimension of poetry and imagination.
Imagination. of course, is of the essence of the bewildered boy who escapes from the surrounding shackles into a world of his own imagining. into his very own fairyland of Ambrosia, where he beats the big drum in Ruritanian uniform. preaches funeral panegyrics or solves his problems by spattering all who get in his way with an. imaginary burst of gunfire.
Usually I deplore and resent the cinema's habit of showing in picture and sound imaginary scenes which had clearly been suggested by word alone. But here Billy's sudden materialisation into drummer-boy or Prime Minister are so smoothly effected it is difficult to think how else they could have been,
The brilliant fluency and flexibility with which director John Schlesinger realises his meticulous observation. the sensitivity of Tom Courtenav who triumphed as The Long Distance Runner and in Private Potter's Vision give Billy's lies the touch of poetic imagination they need.
Above all, Billy Liar makes clear to me that these young men who are the heroes or anti-heroes of our best plays and pictures are not so much angry as frustrated.
They suffer from the same besetting indecision as Chekhoy's Three Sisters or lonesco's couple rotting in the flat while the corpse next door continues to grow. When Billy wakes in the morning and says gravely: "This is a day of big decisions" he is as incapable of decision as Hamlet himself.
This is in my experience the first of our modern problem movies
which has dared to take its place in the long line of the drama of man's incapacity for decision. Rarer still for this type of movie is the step towards traditional romanticism.
Besides Billy's two rival scolds is the figure of beauty, the girl (Julie Christie) who has all the freedom and power of detision Billy lacks. Julie Christie, an actress new to me except on television, brings a truly romantic and authoritative presence to this part. As Billy's mother. that magnificent character actress Mona Washhourne gives a performance which, for its restraint as much as for its creative isympathy. could well be tipped for an Oscar.
* * *
The story and the subject of Flight of the White Stallions ("LJ." Studio One), are respectively so promising and so attractive that the film directed by Arthur Miller for Walt Disney becomes rather disappointing. The famous Lippizaner horses who perform their prodigies of haute ecole in the white and gold baroque Spanish riding school of Vienna are, of course. irresistible. The story of how they were evacuated during the war by their director, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, is a good one for a generation that can accept the Nazi background to adventure.
There is one great attraction in the person of Lilli Palmer, wasted though her talent is on the merely decorative part of the Colonel's wife who sticks to him and his horses. Another asset is Curt Jurgcns as the friendly German general who closes an eye to the virtual smuggling out of the famous horses from air-raided Vienna.
The ingredients then are sound. Even Robert Taylor as Podhajsky gives a sober, sound performance. But it is not really possible for so familiar an American voice to be acceptable in the part.
Indeed. the proportions in which the excellent ingredients have been mixed seems ill-judged, For children and horse-addicts (including myself) there is too much warbackground too long-drawn out. For a serious picture. the problems of the refugees squatting in the stables at St. Martin where the eolonel sets up a temporary school is an unacceptable subordination of human tragedy not just to horses but to phoney standards of kultur.
The last stage when the American General Patton (John Larch) agrees to arrange his crucial end-of-war orders to include a special sortie into Czechoslovakia to round up the Lippizaner mares is drenched in coyness.