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Savant Review:

Billy Liar

Billy Liar
1963 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 98m.
Starring Tom Courtenay, Wilfred Pickles, Mona Washbourne, Ethel Griffies, Finlay Currie, Gwendolyn Watts, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie, Leonard Rossiter
Cinematography Denys N. Coop
Film Editor Roger Cherrill
Original Music Richard Rodney Bennett
Writing credits Willis Hall, from their play, from the novel by Keith Waterhouse
Produced by Joseph Janni
Directed by John Schlesinger

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Billy Liar is a compelling film for any male who ever had misgivings about his place in the world, and particularly for ambitious dreamers - the kind whose dreams are not well-received by those around him. It's a transition film for the UK, from the naturalism of the 'angry young man' dramas of the early '60s, into the lighter comedies that came along when London took precedence as the culture capitol of of the world. It was a major English success but not shown much here in the states, and it holds up as a charming, honest and influential (especially to the likes of Richard Lester) piece of original work.


Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a youthful clerk with a big problem. Absorbed by a fantasy where he imagines himself the president of a country called Ambrosia, the immature Billy is so dissatisfied with his life in a dismal Yorkshire town that he fabricates all kinds of unsupportable and embarassing lies. His beleagured parents think he's engaged to Barbara (Helen Fraser) when he's actually promised himself to 3 potential mates. He's quitting his steady job, while boasting about a spiffy but nonexistent London career as a writer. And he's about to land in hot water due to pilferage at the firm. Only when the gorgeous, adventurous Liz (Julie Christie) comes back to town, willing to run away to London with him to start a real life together, does the vocally ambitious Billy's character even begin to come into focus.

Billy Liar has rather involved fantasy scenes but concentrates mostly on intimate character drama; interestingly, the pre-Richard Lester style of the fantasy elements seems much less important now than it did in the '60s. Billy Fisher is always amusing, but the seriousness of his situation eventually spins the show into a very sophisticated character study. Billy's character is similar to Al Roberts in Detour in that he has a lot of natural charm, but is totally unaware of his own true nature. His fantasy ego demands that he distinguish himself, but he is seemingly motivated to put roadblocks in his own way, by the humility of his station in society. Billy is a rebel of the kitchen-sink school, but of a different kind. He unconsciously rebels against facing life in a mature way (being just a clerk, marrying the sweet but depressing Barbara) yet hasn't the courage or character to boldly strike out on his own. The alternative presented by the exciting Liz has the viewer champing at the bit, hoping Billy will break the bonds of his little town and grow as a person, out of his self-defeating habits.

Tom Courtenay is fascinating to watch as Billy, never telegraphing simple explanations for his puzzling behaviour. His long-suffering parents alternate with honest advice and humiliating scorn, and Mona Washburne and Wilfred Pickles keep them sympathetic. Helen Fraser (Repulsion) makes the dowdy Barbara delightful, and it's a working-class tragedy when she and her competitor Rita (Gwendolyn Watts) come to blows over Billy's ridiculous two-timing. With their ceaseless goal being marriage, now, to anyone in pants, they're in a worse trap than Billy is. Leonard Rossiter (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Finlay Currie make an interesting pair of employers because they're not made to be buffoons to elevate Billy's rebellion. In fact, considering the kind of 'fiddle' Fisher's been up to, they're rather forgiving.

The Julie Christie character clearly turned a lot of heads in 1963 England, and now in retrospect seems even more perfectly cast. Cheerful, optimistic, and unconcerned with provincial life, the independent Liz represents the spirit of the swinging '60s that's just around the corner, with the Beatles and the rest of the rise of English rock culture. Indifferently dressed and with a disarrayed hairdo, she's that Everygirl, the one you could have known, if you had the guts to overcome your idiotic shyness and self-absorbtion long enough to just say Hi. John Schlesinger built the beginnings of his career with Julie Christie, and her part in Billy Liar is magical. Where else in 1963 movies could a 'good girl' be sexually forward, open-minded and healthy at the same time?

We can see the tension in Billy's face, as he weighs the security of his fantasies against the real but terrifying prospect of escaping with Liz, and it's painful, or at least it was to this viewer. Everyone knew someone like Fisher, and most of us can identify with his peculiarities. As a 'yoot', Savant had a good handle on the truth most of the time, and luckily seized some of his opportunities when they came along, but Billy Liar reminds of all the confused decisions of youth that one perversely uses to limit oneself. Like loser Al Roberts, Billy has to realize that his petty irresponsibilities will backfire in his face. But he plays what would seem to be an emotionally risky game of denial with the whole subject. Most movies have a hard time just giving their characters a veneer of logic; the whole point of Billy Liar is that human character is often full of inconsistencies and self-contradictions that completely defy logic.

In the middle of Billy's mendacities large and small is the moment when he's given public credit for his writing of the twist song, 'Twisterella', with his work pal. For a moment, we're sure it's another lie, but it's not. The moment is perfect, because it shows that Billy really has lost perspective. It's a dumb song, but it is an accomplishment of sorts, that should at least qualify him to work for the pitiful comedian Danny Boon. But Billy can't enjoy his glory or put it in perspective because it's too confused with his other lies - he doesn't know what's true any more. If you can't tell what's what, maintaining self confidence is impossible. Billy is clever and imaginative and does have a reasonably keen wit. With just some guts, all of his dreams could have come true, even if he had to be patient and wait for his breaks.

Criterion's disc is quite a revelation for those like Savant who've only seen Billy Liar pan'n scanned on television. The photography is remarkable, and the wide anamorphic screen is essential to 'get' all of the fantasy moments that pop in and out. There's one running gag, with Billy mentally machine-gunning various irksome people in his life. It uses clever matched cuts of Courtenay in his pajamas, jump-cutting to him in battle gear, that simply don't work very well in 'scope. Also, Courtenay's big scene in the park with Christie is a double choker closeup, and every second you're watching only one of the faces means you're missing what emotions might be flashing across the face of the other. Schlesinger does a lot of literal 'architectural' framing on the crumbling streets with walls coming down and new structures being built in their place, and only in the full frame can you even begin to become comfortable with the show. Add to that 16:9 enhancement, and the disc is a stunner.

An excerpt from a British BBC show, Hollywood U.K.: British Cinema in the Sixties shows not only Schlesinger and his collaboraters Waterhouse and Hall, but snippets of new interviews with Courtenay and (a still-arresting) Christie, and provides even more great background on the picture. Avoid the well-cut trailer until you see the film because it's something of a spoiler. Courtenay and Christie join Schlesinger for an audio commentary track, which is fairly absorbing. The director has fond memories of producer Joseph Janni (Modesty Blaise) and Tom Courteny does comparisons between the movie and his experience playing Billy on the stage. They both make some very interesting observations about the Billy Fisher character. Julie Christie admits to having been in a panic during shooting, and talks about the differences between the northern and southern 'counties'. She's very lucid admitting that her face had some kind of presence on the screen that made her a movie star totally aside from acting considerations.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Billy Liar rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, docu excerpt, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 8, 2001

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