Look Back in Anger (film)
|Look Back in Anger|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Tony Richardson|
|Produced by||Harry Saltzman
|Written by||Nigel Kneale
|Music by||Chris Barber|
|Edited by||Richard Best|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$1.1 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)|
It is based on John Osborne's play of the same name about a love triangle involving an intelligent but disaffected young man (Jimmy Porter), his upper-middle-class, impassive wife (Alison), and her snooty best friend (Helena Charles). Cliff, an amiable Welsh lodger, attempts to keep the peace.
The character of Ma Tanner, only referred to in the original play, is here brought to life by Edith Evans as a dramatic device to emphasise the class difference between Jimmy and Alison. The film and play are classic examples of the British cultural movement known as kitchen sink realism.
The black-and-white film opens with a close-up on Jimmy Porter performing on trumpet in a crowded, smoky jazz club (titles over). Having finished to a round of applause, he goes over to his friend Cliff, sitting at a front row table, but his friend waves him off in dumb-show, being more intent on winning the affections of a woman. (The real Chris Barber jazz band is visible in the background). Scenes of Jimmy walking home through the depressing streets of a Midlands industrial town (Derby) serve to give the film its overall visual context.
Arriving home at their attic flat, he surreptitiously goes through his sleeping wife's handbag before getting into bed with her. It is not until seven minutes into the film that the first lines of dialogue are spoken. The next morning, with a train rattling past the open window, Jimmy wakes up and walks into Cliff's room. He complains that Alison is writing secret letters to her mother – conspiring against him, as he sees it.
The next scene is set on Sunday morning, with Alison at the ironing board and Jimmy and Cliff reading the newspapers. His derision of her family is evident. Jimmy and Cliff start the 'where's nobody?' Music Hall sketch, but Alison doesn't play along and the scene ends in horseplay, with Alison getting a burn as the ironing board is overturned.
Cliff and Alison play a tender scene as he puts soap on her burned arm, establishing that their relationship is affectionate, but not sexual. The scene ends on Alison's line "I'm frightened".
Alison, meanwhile, visits her doctor. She tells him her own carelessness caused the burn. The doctor asks whether her husband knows that she is pregnant. She asks if it is "too late to do anything about it", and the doctor replies "I didn't hear that question" (any kind of abortion would have been illegal in Britain at the time).
Back at the market, Ma Tanner turns up, in town to take care of her dead husband's grave. Almost a caricature of a cheerful working-class elderly woman, it's obvious that Jimmy has lots of affection and admiration for her. She was once his landlady, and lent him the capital to start the sweet-stall business. They go into a pub for a drink, and Alison comes in. Jimmy does not fail to notice Alison recoiling from Ma Tanner's affectionate hug; the gulf in social class between the two women is enormous. Alison is trying to tell Jimmy about her pregnancy but cannot get his attention. Instead she tells Cliff.
A brief scene by Ma Tanner's husband's grave continues the theme of Jimmy and Ma Tanner's affection for each other. She asks him what he wants in life and he replies "Everything. Nothing".
Back at the flat, Alison is taking a phone call from her friend Helena, an actress who's in town for an audition and looking for somewhere to crash. Alison invites her to take over Cliff's room, and warns Cliff that Jimmy really hates Helena and all she stands for. The conflict to come is made very obvious.
Jimmy returns, apologises for the burn, and plays one of the only two loving scenes between him and Alison. They play out a game pretending to be stuffed-toy bears and squirrels, and seem to be on the point of behaving like a normal married couple, when in walks Helena. Jimmy immediately attacks her verbally, but she shrugs it off as though it's just an act.
In several scenes at the flat and back at the jazz club, Alison describes Jimmy as a knight in shining armour, and Helena says "You've got to fight him". Over an afternoon meal, Jimmy's most cruel and vituperative attacks on both women take place.
At the market, a sub-plot is introduced: a new stall-owner, an Indian immigrant called Kapoor (played by an actor of the same name) sets up a stall selling cut-price clothing. Kapoor is victimised by everyone except Jimmy and Cliff and, in a later scene, the market inspector Hurst revokes his licence. Kapoor is literally forced out of business by the prejudice of 'respectable' English people.
Alison goes to a theatre where Helena is rehearsing a particularly nauseating play. Jimmy and Cliff crash in and disrupt the rehearsal, taking over the stage and improvising their silly music-hall act.
At another Sunday tea-table scene, Alison announces that she's going to church with Helena, and Jimmy's scorn and anger reach a new peak. When Jimmy leaves to take a phone call, Helena says "I'm going to call your father and get him to take you home". Alison agrees that she will go. Coming downstairs on the way to church, the women run into Jimmy. The phone call brought the news that Ma Tanner is in hospital after a stroke, and not expected to live. Jimmy says that of course he will go to her, and begs Alison to go with him. Instead, she marches out with Helena.
A brief scene follows of Jimmy with Ma Tanner on her deathbed, in the public ward of a hospital.
Back at the attic, we see Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, who has come to collect her to take her back to her family home. The Colonel is quite a sympathetic character, albeit totally out of touch with the modern world (as he himself admits). "You're hurt because everything's changed," Alison tells him, "and Jimmy's hurt because everything's stayed the same."
Helena arrives to say goodbye, intending to leave very soon herself but obliged to stay another day by the run of her play. Alison leaves, giving Cliff a note for Jimmy. Cliff in turn hands it to Helena and leaves himself, saying "I hope he stuffs it up your nostrils". Almost immediately, Jimmy bursts in. His contempt at finding a "goodbye" note makes him turn on Helena again, warning her to keep out of his way until she leaves. He now learns for the first time that Alison is expecting a baby, and although he proclaims that he doesn't care it's clear that he's taken aback. However, his tirade continues. Helena slaps him, and he is almost in tears, and as the scene ends, Jimmy and Helena are kissing passionately and falling on the bed.
Two external scenes follow. First, a scene of Jimmy in the graveyard at Ma Tanner's burial, searching in vain for any token of sympathy from Alison. Then a scene in Helena's dressing room at the theatre, as Jimmy complains of Alison's callousness and protests the unjust ways of the world in general.
Now comes a dismal Sunday morning but this time it's Helena at the ironing board. Months have passed. Jimmy is notably more pleasant to Helena than he was to Alison. She actually laughs at his jokes, and the men get into another music hall comedy routine. This time the horseplay reveals a half-written letter from Helena to Alison, referring to an ongoing correspondence between them. Helena tears it up.
A scene in the garden of the Redfern family home shows Alison is very pregnant, and some remarks indicate that the pregnancy may be precarious.
At the market, Cliff announces that he's decided to strike out on his own. Jimmy is visibly disappointed but doesn't try to stop him, only later advising him to "try washing your socks". Jimmy and Helena go to the railway station to see Cliff off. Jimmy reveals his affection for Cliff and tells him he is worth "ten Helenas" to him. When Jimmy and Helena go into the station bar for a drink, they discover Alison sitting disconsolately there. Jimmy snaps over his shoulder, "Friend of yours to see you" and abruptly leaves. Helena realises that what she's done is immoral and she in turn decides to leave.
The screenplay ends with a highly sentimental reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison. They revive the old game of bears and squirrels, and we are left to assume that they live, if not happily ever after, at least in a state of truce in the class warfare.
- Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter
- Claire Bloom as Helena Charles
- Mary Ure as Alison Porter
- Edith Evans as Ma Tanner
- Gary Raymond as Cliff Lewis
- Glen Byam Shaw as Colonel Redfern
- Phyllis Neilson-Terry as Mrs. Redfern
- Donald Pleasence as Hurst, the market inspector
- George Devine as Doctor
- Walter Hudd as Actor
- Nigel Davenport as 1st Commercial Traveller
- Alfred Lynch as 2nd Commercial Traveller
- Toke Townley as Spectacled Man
The film was nominated in 4 categories in the 1959 BAFTA Awards. Best British Actor (Richard Burton); Best British Film; Best British Screenplay (Nigel Kneale); Best Film from any Source. The eventual winners in these categories were Peter Sellers (I'm All Right Jack); Sapphire; Frank Harvey, John Boulting and Alan Hackney for I'm All Right Jack; Ben-Hur.
Interiors were shot at Elstree Studios in September 1958. Some establishing shots were shot in Derby, but the market scenes were shot in Deptford market, and the railway station was Dalston junction. Both Deptford and Dalston are in fact in the London area.
The producer was the Canadian impresario Harry Saltzman — an obvious choice since he was a fanatic enthusiast of the play and it was he who urged Osborne and Richardson to set up Woodfall Film Productions. Look Back was to be Woodfall's first production.
Osborne insisted, against resistance from Saltzman, that Richardson was the right man to direct the film. He had directed the original theatrical production but had no track record in feature films at all at that time. In fact, the original backers, J. Arthur Rank, pulled out of the deal because of the choice of director.
Saltzman and Richardson between them persuaded Richard Burton to take on the title role, at a much lower fee than his accustomed Hollywood payoff. History does not record what Kenneth Haigh, who had created the role, thought of this. The idea of getting Nigel Kneale to extend the play into a screenplay is credited to the influential theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (who was in large part responsible for the incredible success of the play). Osborne was relieved not to have to do the job and handed over story rights for a mere £2,000.
Some of the minor casting is of historical interest. The part of the doctor was specially created for George Devine, the artistic director of the English Stage Company and the one man to whom Osborne most owed his success. Glen Byam Shaw, a long-time collaborator of Devine's (they created the Young Vic Company together) was handed the role of Colonel Redfern. Two other members of the English Stage Company, Nigel Davenport and Alfred Lynch, were given tiny roles as barflies who attempt to pick up Alison and Helena in the railway station bar. Both went on to have brilliant careers.
The film was not at first successful. Westminster Council gave it an X certificate, and it opened on 29 May 1959 during one of London's rare heatwaves, when nobody wanted to be inside a cinema. Tim Adler wrote that Richardson never found out whether his first feature film made a profit or not.
The DVD was released in 2001 in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.
- Richardson, Tony (1993). Long Distance Runner – A memoir. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-16852-3.
- Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England, Stein and Day, 1974 p59
- "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34
- 'Candy', for the benefit of the American reader
- He wrote "This was based not on blind loyalty but on my untutored faith in his flair and his being the only possible commander to lead Woodfall's opening assault on the suburban vapidity of British film-making". (Osborne, p. 107)
- Osborne, p.108
- Richardson 1993
- Adler, p.70