BILLY LIAR: Blu-ray (Anglo-Amalgamated/Warner-Pathe, 1963) Kino Lorber

How willful and misguided can a young man be to so utterly destroy his own chances for happiness? Tom Courtenay demonstrates in John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963). Under any other set of circumstances, one could mistake the picture as a rake’s progress in reverse, except Courtenay’s titular hero is actually a fatally lost fool, throwing away happiness with both hands, while reaching for a destiny, certain never to become his. The screenplay, written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall - in turn - based on their play, to have had its origins in Waterhouse’s novel (whew!), follows the skewed illusions of one Billy Fisher – a twenty-something lad, too warped in his frustrations to be ‘somebody.’ Alas, this unrefined aspiration leads Billy to fabricate one falsehood after the next. Every time he opens his mouth, what follows is an expedient exaggeration of the truth, the pieces ill to fit within even his own grand plan to eschew the stifling middle-class morality of his unsatisfactory home life: living with his parents, Geoffrey (Wilfred Pickles) and Alice (Mona Washbourne), and, Alice’s mum, Florence (Ethel Griffies); engaged to two different birds, the shrewish, Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), and ever-trusting and virgin-esque, Barbara (Helen Fraser), and, audaciously to have skimmed off the petty cash of his employer, funeral director, Mr. Emanuel Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter). Into this impossibly ‘dead end’ existence, Billy finds temporary, if creative, means of escape through his fertile imagination, concocting the fictional principality of Ambrosia over which he governs as its potentate – a sort of Mussolini-esque General-figure, commanding hordes of one-armed warriors, indulging his every whim with a spate of diverting lovelies.
And while Billy desperately aspires to be considered a real sport by his peers, none take him seriously, not even when he insists to be moving to London almost immediately, having secured a position as script writer for the popular radio and TV comedian, Danny Boon (Leslie Randall) – whom he has, in fact, yet to meet. The one ray of promise in Billy’s life, that is to say, the only person whom he genuinely admires is Liz (Julie Christie) - a free-spirited girl who plies her youthful vigor rather enterprisingly to satisfy most any nimble-minded pursuit, allowing her to do precisely as she wants with her high ideals. Liz is, in fact, a sobering – yet liberating – breath of fresh air for Billy, encouraging him to follow his passions when everyone else would merely press him to take his lumps as life dolls them out, and, be quick and quiet about it. Geoffrey, especially, finds his son’s behavior in appallingly bad taste. While Billy’s mum is a tad more empathetic, she sides with her husband where Billy is concerned. Things reach a bloody awful mess when Billy, having quite enough of Grannie Florence’s jabbering, loses his cool and raises his voice to her. Shortly thereafter, the old girl suffers a stroke, one of several, soon to put her in the hospital, and, at last, in the grave. Until this penultimate moment, Billy continues on his merry way, lying to Mr. Shadrack about having posted calendars for his funeral home, for which he receives a salary, and also confronted in his theft of company funds to keep solvent in a manner he fervently believes he is owed.
False to Rita about the engagement ring he presumably took to a local jeweler to get resized, but actually adorning Barbara’s ring finger at present, Billy’s deceitful ways begin to pile up in record formation, conspiring to derail all his two-faced plans to run away to London with Liz. For starters, Rita goes to the jewelers and discovers Billy never took the ring in for ‘repairs.’ She later confronts Barbara who, having blindly fallen for every last one of Billy’s lies, is deeply wounded by his betrayal now. In the meantime, Shadrack suggests to Billy, who has attempted to turn in his notice, he will first either have to repay or work off the debts he has accrued by skimming from the petty cash. To any and all of these stifling setbacks, Liz emboldens Billy to forego these small and diseased minds, even to abandon all common sense to pursue his dreams. Indeed, she believes Billy when he tells her he already has a job lined up with Danny Boon – Liz, having been plucked by Boon during the inauguration of a new supermarket for a PR junket. Now, a little of Liz’s high-spirits and devil-may-care attitude rub off on Billy, who returns home to pack his belongings, having vowed to meet her for the twelve-o’clock midnight train to London. Alas, Geoffrey informs his son what his hasty admonishment of Grandma Florence has accomplished – her hospitalization. Told to fetch his mum at hospital, Billy arrives, suitcase in hand, still ready to depart for the big city. Tragically, Alice informs her son, Florence has just died. Deeply remorseful, Billy retreats to the depot, reunited with Liz. Alas, as they board, Billy gets cold feet, sheepishly offering to procure Liz a bag of peanuts and a drink from the station – a deliberate ruse to make him miss the train. Indeed, it pulls out of station without him. In the final moments, Billy – utterly trapped in his ‘dead end’ world, returns to the home that will likely forever thereafter remain a prison by his own design.
Billy Liar is a darkly purposed tragedy. It tells the tale of a young man purposefully to have squandered his destiny on the vaguest of ambitions and even shallower daydreams. What is Billy’s purpose in life? To be ‘somebody’. Rather astutely, the embittered Rita calls him out on this fruitless quest, assuring him he will never be more than what he is right now – a nobody, to die a nobody’s death in this nothing of a town, friendless, unwed, unloved, and, without even a hope to become anything better. Schlesinger directs with a seemingly pedestrian verve, perfectly to typify these stifling circumstances that have driven our nominal hero deeper into his wild distractions and pointless follies. Herein, Schlesinger is immeasurably blessed by Tom Courtenay’s central performance as the nondescript who firmly believes he can sell the world his bill of goods on his own terms, and, without ever having to collect for the odious flimflam, increasingly to stymie, not only his dreams, but also any legitimate desire to do better. Courtenay’s exquisite counterpoint here is Julie Christie’s Liz – Billy’s conscience and his only link to ‘maybe’ better days ahead. Interestingly, having sampled the pleasures abroad, Liz willingly returns to her home town, not out of nostalgia or even home-sickness, but rather to openly criticize its dollar days’ slum prudery and point the way out. Has Billy the sense to take Liz up on her instruction? Alas – no – he runs true to form, all fizz and no cola, begrudgingly to fulfill Rita’s venomous impressions of him instead, unhappily ensconced in the only place where his lies can momentarily take root at face value and where he can – with faux incredulity – at least pretend to be the big man with bigger still dreams, as yet to burgeon on the horizon.
Shot by cinematographer, Denys Coop, in stark and unappealing B&W Cinemascope, Billy Liar’s ‘plain as paint’ and ‘twice as dull’ visual style is offset by Richard Rodney Bennett’s fanciful underscore, mostly heard as cues during Billy’s fantastic mental exercises in the realm of pure imagination, hoisted on the shoulders of Ambrosia’s diplomatic cronies, or imagining what his sex life would be, if only Barbara could forgo her virtue to become his twenty-cent tart. The picture is owed its moniker as a ‘kitchen sink drama’ – Britain’s New Wave movement, inspired by the French New Wave, marking a stark departure from all those high-key-lit war-themed dramas and comedies that once typified the nation’s picture-making before, and immediately after the war. Schlesinger’s style is thus encapsulated by his unvarnished approach to this less than adequate life.
Billy Liar marked Julie Christie’s real debut in the movies, her performance – barely lasting 12-mins. – garnering major praise in reviews of the day and leading directly to her Oscar-winning turn in Darling (1965, and also directed by Schlesinger). On stage, the title character had been played by Albert Finney. And while Finney was decidedly available to reprise the role for the movie, Schlesinger preferred to take a gamble of Tom Courtenay instead, believing Finney too physically imposing to do it justice on celluloid. Interestingly, Billy Liar received a ‘A’ rating (the same in the U.K. as the U.S.’s PG) despite the fact it uses some fairly blue language along the way. The movie also prominently features ‘Twisterella’ – a bouncy tune to become modestly popular on the hit parade, but lip-synced by Muriel Day after the original vocalist became pregnant and was forced to withdraw from her obligations. Viewed today, Billy Liar is very much the time capsule than a seminal classic of British cinema. Despite, Courtenay’s stellar performance, undeniably to draw us nearer his otherwise disreputable dissembler of the truth – a fascinating, and arguably ‘great’ personal moment in the actor’s artistry, the story on the whole has not aged well at all. The sobering realities that make up Billy’s truth, now appear more dated than dull in retrospect, and, not altogether convincingly to countermand or legitimize the reasons he would so completely choose to wreck, not only Barbara’s happiness – the one true innocent in this piece – but also, his own. Is Billy Fisher a lost cause? His penultimate refusal to escape to London with Liz would suggest as much, although Schlesinger offers us a momentary glimmer of hope before the end titles; a faint echo of the fictional Ambrosia’s national anthem, as conjured in the mind of its creator as he slumps back to his parent’s house, certain to face the music for contributing to his grandmother’s premature death.
Billy Liar arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber’s alliance with Studio Canal, who – abroad - have been fairly progressive in their mining of British cinema. Were that Kino could acquire the rights to some of the more high-profile titles still MIA state’s side - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) or Darling (1963) as example. But I digress. Billy Liar’s 1080p transfer is generally solid. On occasion, it seems to suffer from contrast that is too dark – as in the scene between Billy and Liz in the park, shot under the cover of night, but here, barely allowing their faces to be seen, even in close-up. Yes, there is a documentary feel to the piece. But this just seems wrong. I cannot imagine this was ever Schlesinger’s intention. Film grain is accurately reproduced and tonality throughout is marked by a deliberately drab and overcast quality, to infer the dullness Billy seeks to escape in visualized terms. On occasion, we get a modicum of edge enhancement and some minor aliasing in background details. It’s intermittent, but present and distracting when it appears. Age-related artifacts have been eradicated for the most part, although a hair in the gate was detected in several shots, with marginal light bleeding around the extreme edges of the Cinemascope frame – also, intermittent. Regrettably, it is the audio here that is extremely problematic – 1.0 DTS mono, but severely strident in spots, grating on the ear, and, muffled to the point of being inaudible during whole portions of dialogue. Honestly, a real lousy effort, with heavy drop outs during the Twisterella dance hall sequence. Kat Ellinger offers another ‘run-of-the-mill’ commentary that is light on actual details, but heavy on opinion and speculation. We also get a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: not an altogether satisfying relic from Britain’s ‘new wave’ and a flawed transfer besides. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)