Thursday, December 18, 2014


TWO EXAMPLES OF EARLY '60s BRITISH CINEMA SHOW THAT A LONG FORGOTTEN STYLE IS STILL ENTRANCING; This is how it was before The Beatles Turned Everything Cheeky Fab and All That...

by Don Stradley

 Term of Trial begins with a young British schoolboy running down what appears to be an endless street.  When he finally arrives at the school, the building is ancient, enormous, forbidding. He navigates a labyrinth of halls and stairways, until finally he joins a mammoth choir of schoolchildren. He takes his place within the group, but he’s barely opened his mouth to sing when an older boy shoves a playing card in his hand. It’s a picture of a woman in her underwear.  The youngster isn’t moved by the smutty image; he shrugs and passes it on to the next boy. 
The way sex crops up in this hallowed institution, and in England itself, is the pervading theme of Peter Glenville’s uneven but emotionally affecting movie.   Shop owners seem to keep their raunchiest magazines in the front window, and couples are always sneaking off for a quickie in an alley.  One boy complains that he can’t do his homework because his mum and her boyfriend are always at it. The people in the film either go along with the action, or seem mystified by it, like the three teenaged boys who stare aimlessly at a magazine featuring a semi-naked man on the cover.  The leer of carnality seems at once infinite, and enigmatic. 
The school itself is a blackboard jungle of sex and violence, with teachers like Graham Weir (Laurence Olivier) sneaking out for drinks to alleviate the stress of dealing with hooligans all day. His own sex life is a mess. His ball-busting wife (Simone Signoret) constantly reminds him that he’s a wimp with a low-paying job.  She’s unable to bear children, which makes her bitter; she takes it out on Graham, who dutifully absorbs his punishment.  He’s a good man, though, and many of the students look up to him.  Fifteen year old Shirley (Sarah Miles) is especially fond of him, arranging for extra tutoring after school.  The vibrant Shirley and the mild-mannered Graham develop a genuine friendship, but when he politely rejects her affection, she reacts by accusing him of fondling her during a school trip.  Graham finds himself in court trying to explain why a 15-year-old was in his hotel room in the first place.
The film is one of the many “kitchen sink” dramas made in Britain during the early 1960s, before the love generation made everything all Technicolor and groovy.  In this black and white drama, bleakness appears to seep out from the cracks in the sidewalks. The only ray of light in the film is Graham’s  friendship with the young girl.   At the movie’s climax, he admits that he did love her, but in the way one loves something pure, before it’s all fouled up by puberty and flesh and sin.  It sounds like an idealist Victorian’s lament, but there’s too much heartbreak in Graham’s voice to take his sadness lightly.
Term of Trial was met with mixed reviews during its Jan 1963 release. Bosley Crowther of The NY Times praised Miles for her “extraordinary fervor,” but  dismissed the movie as “contrived.” He also said that Olivier “cannot quite make this fellow absorbing — or even wholly real.”  I happen to think Olivier is excellent as a decent man trapped in a world of sleaze, but it’s true that the movie is flawed.  The saucy Signoret seems slightly miscast as Graham’s wife, and we can’t imagine that prudish Graham was ever, as she claims, charming enough to have seduced her during the war. There’s also  an undeveloped subplot where Graham is harassed by a teen lout, played with great menace by a young Terrence Stamp.  That part of the story vanishes halfway through the movie.  Still, the plot involving Graham and young Shirley is full of warmth and drama, and makes up for the rest of the film’s weak spots. One almost wishes Shirley’s fairy tale fantasy of life with Graham could work,  if only to give us a break from the  pornography that was already festering in society like a lazy, dormant virus.

A teacher like Graham Weir might have been helpful to a lad like Colin Smith, the truculent hero  of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Released just a few months prior to Term of TrialThe Loneliness…is another, and better, example of the kitchen sink style of drama. The movie follows Colin (Tom Courtenay) as he’s taken to a detention center, or “borstal,” where hes to work off a sentence for robbery. A warden notices Colin has some speed on the soccer field, and enlists the boy as a long distance runner in an upcoming meet between the borstal and a nearby school.  Colin appreciates the opportunity, but soon resents being kept and trained like an animal.  
Directed by Tony Richardson, one of the key filmmakers during this era of ‘new wave’ British cinema, and based on an award winning novella by  Alan Sillitoe, the movie’s best scenes are the flashbacks to Colin’s hardscrabble home life. He’s ready to become the man of the house after his father dies, but his coarse mother has already brought in a slick, mustachioed bloke who may or may not be a thief.  Colin, who is headstrong but doesn’t seem like a bad kid, resorts to petty theft as an amusement, but also because he’s constantly badgered to get a job and help support the family.

Colin might be described as just another one of the “angry young men” so prevalent in British drama of the time, but it’s unfair to label this film as mere “kitchen sink realism.”  Granted, that's how we'd catagorize it, but it seems to rise above its station. It’s as energetic and  innovative as anything coming out of the French cinema of the time.  At his best, Richardson was every bit as good as Godard or Truffaut.  Less groundbreaking, perhaps, but tougher, more emotional, and just as willing to experiment.

What’s most striking now, 50 years later, is the movie’s thorny realism. The people in the film look odd, with big chins and awkward gaits, their hair piled into impossible configurations. The teen girls in the film already look like plump little housewives. Then it dawns on you, this is what people look like. These aren’t movie stars, but average, everyday people. When a fight breaks out in the borstal, the boys don’t bust out cheesy martial arts moves as they might in a contemporary movie; they slip and stumble and struggle to get a grip on each other. There’s nothing dramatic about the fight, but lips are split and eyes blackened nonetheless. Even when Colin runs, he looks as if his limbs are not in synch with each other, as if his soul is sprinting ahead while his body tries to keep up. A present-day movie would have an actor running in perfect form, his body glistening. Richardson knew better, and Tom Courtenay’s scrappy performance is so real it hurts. 

Term of Trial and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner are both available on the Warner Archive streaming service.

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