1959-1963 inclusive may well be the most interesting 5-year period in movies ever. Around the world most of the greatest directors who ever lived were at work: Kurosawa and Ozu in Japan, Ray in India, Bunuel in Mexico. In the US, though this period can’t match the late 40’s or the early 70’s in terms of new styles and themes, it was nevertheless the best period for Hitchcock and one of the best for Hawks, Ford, Wilder and many others. In Europe it was definitely a time of glorious upheaval. The French New Wave, the British Angry Young Man films and the experiments of the Italians - Antonioni, Fellini, Visconti, etc- probably make up the backbone of this. But you’ve also got to add Bergman in Sweden, Tarkovsky just beginning In Russia (with his finest film, Ivan’s Childhood) and Wajda, Polanski and Munk in Poland. There are probably many others I’ve overlooked.
Usually critics group the French and the Italians together because they did new things with narrative structure (Last Year at Marienbad, L’Aventurra, etc). They tend to see the revolution in British cinema as a separate thing, since it was all about social realism and was not in any way avant-garde. Indeed the British films were different, especially as they were centred around Northern England rather than London; they seemed to embrace provincialism and have little time for cosmopolitan urges. By 1966 Antonioni was making a film in England, but in 1961 or 1962 England was England was England, and the borders seemed closed.
Much of the change in British cinema came about because of changes in British theatre, in particular because of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger in 1956. But when you compare the films of Britain with those of France and Italy at this time it was as if the Brits had seen what was happening abroad and responded, in a thick Yorkshire accent, ‘Right, we agree that change is needed, but we’re not going to have any of that artsy-fartsy nonsense, we want proper stories with proper actors about proper real lives.’ And they were right to do so. Those British movies make a nice contrast to what the Continentals were doing. Watch any Antonioni film from this time and then switch to something like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and it might well seem like a blessed relief. You can relax and enjoy actors actually acting rather than just standing around looking statuesque. You can listen to people recite realistic dialogue and you don’t have to wait half an hour for someone to say something.
A Kind of Loving is not the best of the Angry Young Men/Kitchen Sink Dramas; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar and maybe a few others outrank it. But to my mind it’s still a far superior film to the likes of L’Aventurra because it’s made with more intelligence, more care, more skill and more insight into the human predicament. It was directed by John Schlesinger, who’s someone I can’t make up my mind about. On the plus side there’s this, his first film, plus Billy Liar (1963) Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and An Englishman Abroad (1983). On the other hand Midnight Cowboy (1969) really annoys me, Darling (1965) I’m mixed about, Marathon Man (1976) is good fun but a bit cheesy and his later films include the likes of Yanks (1979) and Pacific Heights (1990).
A Kind of Loving looks beautiful and painterly and nearly every exterior scene has a wonderful mucky mist or drizzle in the background: it’s like another character in the movie. (Click here for 120 screenshots). The director of photography was Denys Coop, who also did This Sporting Life, Billy Liar and King & Country but not much else of note. The music is by Ron Grainer, who mainly worked in television. It seemed to me as I watched it to be very similar to the music of other famous British films of this time i.e. peculiarly maudlin and not at all like film music from any other time or place. I’m sure if you played me the score of Room at the Top or Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, I couldn’t tell you what film it came from but I could tell you it was from a British film between 1958 and 1964. I don’t mind this kind of score, but maybe that’s the British part of me which can appreciate a good bit of misery every now and again. I can see how others might find it off-putting. It really is pointedly downbeat and you may end up thinking ‘Does every scene have to sound so melancholy?’
There’s one scene in particular where the action reflects this same kind of unnecessary negativity. When Vic (Alan Bates) and Ingrid (June Ritchie) make love for the first time, immediately afterwards they both seem totally miserable, as if they’d just been to a funeral, and it’s kind of perplexing. You can’t help but think ‘Why this great sadness over sex?’ I don’t really know June Ritchie - she was never in a movie as big as this ever again- and maybe she’s a little bland. But that’s not a problem at all. In fact it’s right for the story. Ingrid, despite her exotic name, is very much a homebody and an ordinary girl. Vic is ambitious and wants to get out and see the world. It’s right that Bates is clearly the best thing in the film, has a charisma the other actors lack. He’s supposed to be bigger than his environment. Of course getting out of (Northern) England was the archetypal goal of so many of the characters in these films, as it was for the actors and film-makers themselves at this time, not to mention all the rock bands who were about to hit it big in the States. I guess the contrast between glamorous, exciting America (or Europe) and dreary old Britain was at an all-time high in the early 60’s.
Vic goes a little crazy when he’s living with his wife and her nagging mother (Thora Hird) and is cooped up indoors on a Saturday night, watching stupid game-shows on a clapped-out TV. Ingrid is a ‘good girl’ who went all the way with Vic just that one time and got pregnant. After they’re married and she loses the baby in a miscarriage she wants little to do with him physically. She’s far more loyal to her frumpy old mother and with her father having passed away, her home - with all its colours and its fabrics and its knick-knacks marking it out very much as a female space, with no male influence allowed - becomes a kind of maddening prison for the young buck Vic. ‘I’m just a lodger here’ he keeps saying, in resentment at his lack of status.
Bates’ performance is absolutely wonderful in this film. Look at the scene at the railway station after he’s walked out on Ingrid. He’s alone, fed up, it’s the middle of the night. Look at how expressive his eyes are at this moment. Look at the way he rubs his face. It’s just a simple little thing but the camera’s right up close and because he (the actor) seems totally unaware of it, he (the character) seems very, very real and you the viewer are right there in the moment with him. It reminded me of a scene in The Deer Hunter when De Niro first comes back from Vietnam; he’s alone in his room, very tired and jaded and full of confused emotions about his homecoming, and he does a brilliant bit of business with his hands and his face to show that jadedness.
I was born and brought up in Britain but I live abroad now and my attitude to my homeland could at best be described as ambivalent. But British films of the 1940’s (David Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Carol Reed, Green for Danger, Dead of Night, etc) and British films of the early 60’s bring out a powerful sense of affection in me. I was born in 1967 so both eras are before my time. I think with the 40’s films it’s just that the British characters of those times seem so charmingly straightforward and transparent. With the early 60’s films there are several reasons I love them. I enjoy seeing pleasingly young versions of actors who later became very famous faces on 1970’s British TV; A Kind of Loving, for instance, features Leonard Rossiter, James Bolam and Bryan Mosley, who has a tiny part as the bus conductor here and later became famous as ‘Alf’ in Coronation St. I enjoy seeing the fashions, the architecture, the buses and cars: I get nostalgic not for my own time but for a time I know from photos of my parents, who were Irish but were living in England by the early 60’s. Maybe at this stage I’m also sentimentally attached just because of previous viewings of the films when I was a teenager and did live in England: they were shown often on British TV in the 70’s and 80’s of course.
So maybe I should declare a pre-existing bias. But still: watch Alan Bates in A Kind of Loving (and pay attention to his lively eyes, and the way he uses his smiles), watch Albert Finney living it up in his local pub in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, watch Tom Courtenay pursuing Julie Christie in Billy Liar, and I think you’ll see not only wonderful actors defining something essential for Britain for a generation, but also fascinating explorations of maleness on film which delve into areas never dreamed of by more self-important figures like Brando and James Dean.