Woodfall Films, 1965.
Okay it came out in 1965 but watching it now, November-December, there’s a definite Autumnal Pleasure that comes from the exact time of it’s filming, late ’64. There’s a Christmas tree visible in the fancy shop, and Guy Fawkes fireworks in a closing crane shot on the foggy London Embankment. Dead leaves carpet the park. Director Richard Lester had just come off A Hard Day’s Night and must have been feeling a sense of possibility in the fall air.
The “real London” of that November season bleeds into the film’s Dreaming London. Lester’s London is almost akin to Rivette’s Paris, a place of magical transformations and surprises, the mundane brushing up against the crazy, as in a dream. “This is all a fantasy,” chimes a chorus of disembodied schoolboys on the soundtrack, but it’s a fantasy where milk is delivered to the doorstep in glass bottles.
It begins: John Barry jazz stylings as we move in on a little comic book panel which contains the house and the film. We spiral down a staircase lined with mannequin-like beauties, identically dressed, all queuing to see sex-god Tolen, dressed in black in his black bedroom. “The guestbook: please restrict your comments to one word.”
Halfway up the stairs lives Colin, lusting insipidly for the parade of dollybirds in their glowing white jumpers and pencil skirts.
SPACE 1999 sci-fi lettering zips in and out, listing the creators as we plunge in ever an faster helix down the stairs past the blur of lovelies arrayed like a TV commercial for impersonal sex, then wrench ourselves free, with screeching brakes, from Colin’s mind’s eye and into “reality”.
Colin (Michael Crawford), “I am a schoolteacher and I have to concentrate,” lives with Tolen (Ray Brooks), “I have no first name, I never use my first name,” in this tall, narrow, odd-but-real house. Driven to frustrated discombobulation by the onslaught of glamour calling on Tolen, Colin conceives the idea to let the spare room to a “steadying influence,” possibly a monk. “There must be monks!”
And there are, a busload, bound for Lovely London, but as the coach’s headlights go full beam, Colin’s bedroom is illuminated by a brilliant idea awakening him from his narrow bachelor bed: “Or some young lady…”
And next to the monks is Nancy (Rita Tushingham), flicking through the pages of Honey.
But Tolen has other ideas. He suggests letting the room to his friend, Rory McBride, offscreen Lothario and Tolen’s near-equal in the bedroom stakes. “Share our women.”
Rendering discussion moot, Tom, a stray Irish plot function, (“small, vigorous, balanced, sensitive in his movements” — a line of dialogue taken straight from the character description in Ann Jellicoe’s original play) moves in and procedes to paint the entire front room white, including windows.
Now Tolen (black), Colin (grey grey grey) and Tom (white) will compete over Nancy, until she rebels and asserts her autonomy with a cry of “Rape!”
This turns out to be the abracadabra that disassembles all male authority, causing the boys to recede into the distance in a series of jumpcuts, or cavort off in reverse motion, while a middle-aged ZOO AUDIENCE admires their antics politely. (Best line reading in history, from one random matron: “They do look so funny.”)
This chorus of the middle-aged/classed is a constant feature of the film, as if the chattering classes have flocked into the dubbing studio and voiced their incoherent disapproval all over the soundtrack: “A bed’s place is definitely in the home, definitely,” and “I’m bound,” and “Mods and Rockers!” and “She’ll regret she didn’t wear a safety device,” a grumbling barrage of non sequiteurs and double entendres, “the heartbeat of a great nation.” This vox populi accompaniment is screenwriter Charles Wood’s finest contribution of the many he made in “exploding” the original play and gaffer-taping it together again.
Michael Crawford, half agonized repressive, half comedy turn. His character is just a couple of year’s enforced celibacy away from becoming a gurning Carry On lecher, but he’s so shy he prefers to enter his home by the window rather than say “Excuse me,” to the flash bird in the doorway, even though he’s armed with an axe at the time.
Ray Brooks is amazing here. Posed and composed and quietly nailing every line, he could have come across as mannered if he weren’t so true underneath. There’s a real sensitivity in everything he does. He’s not obvious casting as a loverboy, but he embodies confidence and success and total self-belief, until the sexual edifice crumbles and he’s yesterday’s man, joining the grumblers as he looks on enviously at those with actual relationships. Brooks should have been bigger than Brando, but hey, it’s not too late.
Donal Donnelly brings charm and a sort of relaxed crispness to Tom, a character who was always basically the playwright talking to her audience, but none the worse for it.
Rita Tushingham is the amazing extraterrestrial presence at the heart of the film, incapable of a false note, and utterly fascinating to watch. Her face pulls a fast one on you from every angle, alternately beautiful and just weird. Her eyes dazzle, her teeth have been frozen in the act of fleeing in all directions. She is just utterly, marvellously alive at all times, and brings a uniquely feminine brand of behavioural comedy to what could be a slightly laddish film. Lester and ace cinematographer David Watkin design some astonishing shots around her freakish beauty. Reflected light supposedly isn’t flattering, but Watkin caught the most beautiful ever images of Tushingham, here, and Faye Dunaway in Lester’s MUSKETEER films.
Lester was still tracking in those days — he ditched the travelling shot later, using it less than anyone bar Bresson, but this is like his RASHOMON, and we glide with him through reality-shifts, into ambiguous POVs, and down grey and grainy London streets, where a fashion photographer plies his trade, getting in shape for BLOW-UP. (Antonioni borrowed production designer Asshetton Gorton, and quite a lot of Lester’s Pop-Art London, for his later epic of Swinging Existentialism).
Impossible to describe how dreamlike this film is…
…as Crawford walks down a school corridor, we see through a window an array of camp beds on a lawn — the sleeping children. “Kip, milk and biscuits, is it any wonder they’re screaming out for roughage?” complains the ghost of Dandy Nichols on the soundtrack.
…Colin and Tom chase Tolen and Nancy into a street composed only of doors. Most open onto an abstracted backyard space, but one leads to a narrow working class home, concealed entirely behind the single entrance.
…attempting to turbocharge his sex life with an enlarged bed, Colin buys a cast-iron sleep-armature from a scrapyard and wheels it through Unconscious London with Tom and Nancy, teleporting from street to street to Usher Hall (a recurring reference, this film’s answer to the Chinatown of Polanski), eventually sailing it down the Thames like Bohemian Huck Finns.
Lindsay Anderson was once mooted to direct this film, and comparing it to THE WHITE BUS, say, it’s easy to see how he could have brought his own, more sombre, brand of absurdism to bear on it. He thought the Lester version embodied the shift from sixties idealism to seventies cynicism, which seems a bit early and a bit harsh. The movie is affectionate, cruel, smart, silly, insistently specific about its time and place, and universal and otherworldly all at once. There’s a tight theatrical structure bound round a loose assortment of gags and blackout sketches, and if we enter this Film London (through that little comic book panel/window at the start) and walk about in it for a bit, we can emerge with some Strange Thoughts about the unexplored possibilities of film storytelling.