LOOK Back In Anger may not have stood the test of time particularly well but no one can dispute its role in defining a new genre in British film making. A film, made in 1958, that tackles class issues against a backdrop of social deprivation and focuses on a youth emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. Youngsters in search of fun amid the grime, borderline poverty and pollution of the time.
The film, shot in black and white, has Jimmy (a delectable Richard Burton) at its heart. A clever, articulate and well educated individual who despite his intelligence, is frowned upon by the middle to upper class parents of his wife Alison (Mary Ure).
When Jimmy is not selling sweets with best friend Cliff (Gary Raymond, with a gorgeous Welsh lilt) at the local market, he is playing the trumpet at the jazz club. Rather skilfully judging by the sound although it is blatantly obvious to the viewer that Burton is not playing a single note.
When he is not trumpeting, he is verbally abusing Alison who spends most of her days in the cramped top floor bedsit they rent in grubby Derby (made even more claustrophobic by Cliff’s presence). Passive aggressive ten times over. Her crime? To be born into a class that Jimmy despises with a vengeance. It does not make for pleasant viewing.
Into the mix is thrown Alison’s friend, Helena (Claire Bloom), who comes to stay while performing in a local theatre group. The hostility between Helena and Jimmy is tinder-like, culminating in Jimmy carrying out some dastardly deeds against her.
All deeply unpleasant. The only people who bring out the good side in Jimmy – apart from Alison, when she is his squirrel and him her bear – are Mrs ‘Ma’ Tanner (a splendid Edith Evans) and local Indian trader Kapoor (S.P. Kapoor). Tanner, his former landlady, is probably one of the few people to really understand him. Kapoor suffers awful racism when he pitches up at the market to sell his shirts and false accusations are made against him. Jimmy, quite magnificently, stands up for him despite the eagerness of market official Hurst (Donald Pleasance) to get shot of the newcomer.
When Alison, pregnant, can take no more and goes back to her parents, the hostilities between Helena and Jimmy turn full circle. Instead of open warfare it is open love.
Will it last? Or will Jimmy, chip on shoulder, destroy all before him yet again?
Look Back in Anger is based on the play by John Osborne that showed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1956. Indeed, Mary Ure, Osborne’s wife for a brief time, also starred in the play – as did Alan Bates (Cliff). The director, Tony Richardson, also directed the film.
For film lovers, Look Back in Anger is essential viewing. Yes there are clunky moments – such as the trumpeting – but these are more than offset by pieces of cinematic magic.
The magisterial white horse walking through the empty market place. A view from above of Helena leaving the theatre after a performance. Elderly faces – some disfigured – in the park. The film’s ending on the bridge at the train station, awash with a heady mix of steam, smoke, darkness and the whistle of departing trains.
And of course, a youthful and handsome Burton and a beautiful Bloom whose magnificent eyes are accentuated by the filming in black and white.
A cinematic breakthrough. A cinematic treasure.
For more info
The film is also available via BFI Player. On May 28 it will be released as part of a Woodfall 8-disc set.