Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Billy Liar (1963)

Billy Liar (1963) is a hard film to classify. It has the look of the British "kitchen sink" films that came before it, but it eschews much of the realism of those films. It has the feel and style of the Swinging London films which it influenced, but it is not set in London. The characters are true to life and could come from any Northern English village, but the film indulges so much in fantasy it can quite aptly be described as escapist. Inmany respects, Billy Liar is a film in a class all its own.

Billy Liar was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Keith Waterhouse. The novel was previously adapted as a three act play in 1960 by Mr. Waterhouse and Willis Hall. The movie draws upon both of these sources and expands upon them, creating possibly the only comedy to emerge from the British New Wave. Like the novel, the movie is set in the small, fiction Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton. It centres on William Terrence Fisher, known to one and all as "Billy," a young man with an active imagination who spends much of his time daydreaming. Indeed, Billy often tries passing off his fantasies as reality, resulting in the insult uttered in the film (and hence the title of the novel, play, and movie) "Billy Liar." Billy's fantasies and his tendency to weave tales based on them has an impact on his life, in his relationships with his family, his employers, his co-workers, and his three girlfriends (two of whom he is engaged to).

For 1963 Billy Liar was in many ways a revolutionary, even a subversive film. It utilised the same cinema vérité look of the kitchen sink dramas as well as the realistic settings of those film. In the end, however, it is about as far from a kitchen sink drama as The Beatles' movie Help! Not only is Billy Liar a very funny comedy, where the humour often comes fast and furious, but it has several fantasy sequences in which Billy's daydreams are brought to life on the screen. While Billy Liar looks like the kitchen sink dramas, then, it feels much more like the later Swinging London films, such as A Hard Day's Night, Help, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, and Smashing Time. Billy Liar was then a very new and very different film from anything before or during 1963. It is surprising in some ways that it was a box office success in Britain.

Of course, the reason Billy Liar was a hit is that it is a very well done movie. Much of  this is due to the script, adapted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.  In many respects Messrs. Waterhouse and Hall expanded on their previous work, insuring that the movie would have a life all its own apart from the novel and the play. It is a very intelligent screenplay, and in many ways a very daring one too. It is one of the first movies in the English language in which a swear word is uttered. At one point Billy's mother actually uses the words "pissed," a word unknown even in the dramas of the time!

Messrs Waterhouse and Hall's script is brought to life by one of the best casts in the history of British film. Sir Tom Courtenay played Billy in one of his earliest films. A Northerner himself, Sir Tom brought Billy so much to life that it hardly feels as if he was playing a role--he is Billy Fisher. The actors playing Billy's parents also came from the North. Indeed, Wilfred Pickles, who played Billy's father, came from Yorkshire himself. Generally a man known for being laid back and easy going, Mr. Pickles is surprising harsh as Mr.Fisher, constantly railing against Billy and his fantasies. Mona Waterhouse is equally great as Mrs. Fisher, a woman constantly working around the house and finding her wits tested by her son. Perhaps the most impressive performance is given by Julie Christie in her film debut. Julie Christie played Liz, the woman of Billy's dreams, and the only person who seems to understand Billy. Like Billy, she too wishes to escape the dullness of Northern England for the bright lights of London.

It is John Schlesinger's direction which deftly blends this combination of kitchen sink realism and Swinging London fantasy into a whole. Even though the movie features several sequences dramatising Billy's often wild flights of fantasy, the film still seems grounded in reality. Even more so than the more serious kitchen sink dramas, Billy Fisher and his friends, family, and neighbours, seem like real people. This feeling of realism is heightened by the fact that Billy Liar was filmed on actual locations in Northern England. The movie was filmed in the Yorkshire towns of Baildon (where Billy's house is located) and Bradford (where the street scenes and scenes in other areas were filmed). The only scenes filmed in London were the interiors (filmed on sound stages) and one in Marleybone Station in London (which stood in for the Central Station in Bradford).

Billy Liar would prove to be an extremely influential movie. Its wry humour, flights of fantasy, and touches of surrealism would have a direct impact on A Hard Day's Night and hence the Swinging London films. It would firmly establish the careers of both Sir Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie. It would also set the tone of British comedy in films for several years to come. Revolutionary in its time and influential long afterwards, Billy Liar is essential viewing for anyone who loves the British films of the Sixties.


Raquel Stecher said...

I went to go put this on my Netflix Queue but I realized it was already on there! Great review. :-) "Kitchen sink" films. I must remember that term.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think you'll really like Billy Liar. It's a very funny, very smart movie. And I love the term "kitchen sink" films too. So much more descriptive than "British New Wave!"