Director John Schlesinger (the recent "Next Best Thing)'s third feature film, "Billy Liar" was taken from both a play and a novel. Starring Tom Courtenay as Billy Fisher, the movie looks at Fisher's life, both real (a fairly poor relationship with his parents Geoffrey & Alice (Wilfred Pickles & Mona Washbourne); a dull job where he's just taken the postage money that was supposed to be used to mail calendars and the fact that he's engaged to two women at the same time) and imagined, as he uses his imagination to construct fantasies that he can escape into.
He tells people that he's going to move away to become a television writer, but nothing seems to indicate that he'll ever get away from his current status. Suddenly though, he meets Liz (Julie Christie, in an early screen role), a beautiful young girl who shares his desire to escape. Suprisingly, he can't quite make up his mind whether he wants to or can break free of his current situation.
Schlesinger handles the comedy well and luckily, has a perfect cast. Where Billy could have been an unlikable character that isn't going anywhere, we're practically cheering him on because there's a sense that he really could make something out of himself rather than simply making another mess to get himself into, which he does quite easily. I suppose that one can relate, especially in this era, of someone who can escape from a job that one doesn't care for into one's imagination (although we're always brought back to reality, aren't we?) and that is an element that makes "Billy Liar" enjoyable, because it handles the character so well.
It's a fun, enjoyable comic fantasy with great characters and even better performances. It's also handled and presented quite well by Criterion in this new special edition DVD release.
VIDEO: "Billy Liar" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; the new digital master was created from the original 35mm fine-grain master. The results show what Criterion is capable of when they do their best work. Although they have had a few mis-steps lately (the non-anamorphic Bruce Robinson films), they have done wonderful work for the Douglas Sirk films and Billy Liar, as well. Although the Black and White presentation doesn't quite look as impressively rich as their work for "L'Avventura" did, it still comes extremely close, looking well-defined and bold, with good sharpness and detail.
The only flaw that I noticed was the occasional print flaw - a tiny mark here, a slight scratch there, a couple of speckles on occasion. For a 1963 picture, the image remains in particularly good condition. I didn't see any instances of pixelation or edge enhancement, for a picture that is natural and clean, with the exception of a couple of very minor print flaws. I didn't notice much in the way of grain, either - a few scenes seemed lightly grainy, but the majority of the film looked clean and smooth. A really nice job by Criterion.
SOUND: "Billy Liar" is presented in English mono; the sound simply delivers the dialogue with a respectable amount of clarity and general sound quality - the sound didn't sound thin or edgy, nor did it contain any distortion or background hiss.
MENUS:: The menus are about as basic as it gets, simply re-using the front cover.
Commentary: This is a new commentary track featuring director John Schlesinger as well as actors Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie. A relatively new commentary track (some of the DVD commentary tracks for Criterion releases have been from the laserdisc editions), this one was recorded in Los Angeles in 2000. Schlesinger sounds like he's slightly getting up there in years, but still comes through with good energy and even better humor as he occasionally makes a few jokes about the making of the movie. Courtenay also chats about working on the role and his thoughts about playing the part. The two are really the main participants on the commentary track - Christie talks far less frequently, but does bring up some interesting points and even compares the film to another Billy - "Billy Elliot". As with almost all of the Criterion tracks I've listened to, the multiple speakers were recorded separately and edited together.
Also: A 15 minute excerpt from "Hollywood UK: British Cinema In the Sixties" which covers Schlesinger's "A Kind Of Loving" and "Billy Liar" as well as "Billy"'s theatrical trailer.
Final Thoughts: A very entertaining comedy with great performances, "Billy Liar" is quite a fun film. Criterion has also put together a fine DVD edition, with good audio/video quality and a superb new commentary track.