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With: Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Mona Washbourne, Finlay Currie, Ethel Griffies, Leonard Rossiter
Written by: Willis Hall, Keith Waterhouse, based on their play
Directed by: John Schlesinger
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 98
Date: 06/01/1963

Billy Liar (1963)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Long, Gray Screen

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The theater goes dark and the screen lights up in a deliciously black-and-white Cinemascope shape. I think about how well this shade and shape go together and how seldom this has actually occurred in film history. Just about the time Cinemascope came into use, full color began to take over. If black-and-white was used at all, it was used in smaller scope, lower-budget films like Psycho and Dr. Strangelove.

So even if Billy Liar had been bad, the esthetic pleasure of watching it on the big screen would have been enough. But happily, Billy Liar remains a fine viewing experience, against all odds. The problem with making "hip" movies in the 1960s is that you were going for quick cash, not a long shelf life. So it's extraordinary that Billy Liar bucked the trend.

Director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy and The Falcon and the Snowman) made his second movie Billy Liar as part of the beginning of the British New Wave, an attempt to get out from under stifling costume dramas and rigidly proper English stories. Schlesinger played to the new lost youth, the young people who didn't have to go off to war and didn't know what they wanted to do with their lives. And, like Rebel Without a Cause before it and The Graduate after it, it took off.

Ironically, Schlesinger has recently given up his youthful pluck and given in to making British television movies! But these films, like the delightful Cold Comfort Farm (1996), contain some of his best work.

Adapted by Keith Waterhouse from his own play and co-written by Willis Hall, Billy Liar concerns young Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), who works at a funeral home and daydreams Walter Mitty-style about being dictator of his own imaginary country, Ambrosia. Billy's second-biggest problem at the moment is that he was supposed to have mailed out 250 funeral home calendars as Christmas presents, but instead took the postage money and hid the evidence. His biggest problem is that he has become engaged to two girls at the same time, the monkey-faced Rita (Gwendolyn Watts) and the shrewish Barbara (Helen Fraser). Even worse, he's also in love with dreamy and free-wheeling Liz (Julie Christie, in one of her first big roles).

The movie has a ragtag feel to it, as if Schlesinger was shooting off the cuff with nothing really planned, which fits the searching mood of the movie. A few visual gags probably invented for the play work wonderfully: Billy and the calendars, a metaphor for lost time or wasting time, and Billy leaving Julie Christie on the train in order to buy two cartons of milk (representing mother?) then splatting them all over the train tracks.

Despite the indecisiveness of its character and its rather bleak outlook, Billy Liar remains light on its feel without becoming either depressing or self-important. All the interior scenes feel oppressive, such as Billy's cramped house and his ominous funeral home job with its dark ceilings and basement toilet. And the exterior scenes are marked with the look of a town being torn down. Billy and Rita even spend an afternoon date at a graveyard! Yet Billy keeps a spring in his step the whole way. Even if this world is drab, there's always Ambrosia. And, for me, there's that lovely black-and-white Cinemascope frame.

Billy Liar plays through Sunday at the Castro as part of their British New Wave series. Other films in the series include: Silvio Narizzano's Georgy Girl (1966), Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963), and four by Tony Richardson: Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), and A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962).

In 2020, Kino Lorber released this film on Blu-ray, and it looks just as great as I remembered it. Bonuses include a commentary track by critic Kat Ellinger and several trailers.

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