Monday, July 09, 2007


This early film in what I think of as the British "neorealist" movement of the 1950's, which examined the lives of young working-class people, is based on an influential play by John Osborne. Richard Burton is a college graduate, simmering with frustration over his circumstances: he lives in a cramped flat, spends his days selling candy from a moveable street stall, spends his nights blowing a hot trumpet at jazz clubs, and feels trapped by his working-class background. He takes a certain sadistic delight in bullying his young wife (Mary Ure); he has a much better relationship with his more even-tempered buddy (Gary Raymond) who co-manages the shop and lives with them. In quick succession, a number of things happen to rock the volatile Burton's world: an actress friend of Ure's (Claire Bloom) comes to stay with them for a couple of weeks, his mentor, an older woman he calls Ma (Edith Evans) has a stroke, and his wife discovers she's pregnant--a fact she hides from him for a time. In a relationship that starts out a little like that of Stanley and Blanche's in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Burton holds Bloom in total contempt and does nothing to hide his feelings, but when Ure leaves to stay with her parents, the two begin a passionate affair. Before the end, another subplot comes into play, involving Burton's resentment of "official" civil prejudice against an immigrant shopkeeper. Ultimately, Raymond heads off for greener pastures, Ure has a miscarriage and comes back to Burton, and Bloom bows out gracefully.

The first scene in this movie is of Burton playing with a jazz band (shades of the Sultans of Swing) and, though he is obviously dubbed by a professional trumpet player, his performance has such energy and passion (and the scene is shot so well) that the rest of the movie suffers a bit. Burton's character is a brutish lout who lashes out at everything and everyone (except his friend Raymond; in fact, his most sensitive scene is near the end when he says goodbye to Raymond), so the opening is the last time we really empathize with him, except perhaps when he visits the dying Edith Evans. The overall mood is one of overwhelming anger and frustration, though there is some humor from time to time; I chuckled at Burton's quip, "She was only a monkey's daughter, but my, how she handled her nuts!" Ure (married at the time to Osborne, and later to the actor Robert Shaw) is beautiful and handles herself well against the powerhouse that Burton was. Raymond, also quite good, was a darkly handsome young man who may be best known in the States for his role on the 60's war series, "The Rat Patrol." Bloom doesn’t come off quite as well, but I think that's because her character is woefully underdeveloped. A good film (though I can see that Burton's overpowering unpleasantness might turn some viewers off); compare with similar films of the British realist era such as SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING and ROOM AT THE TOP. [DVD]

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