Dangling awkwardly between my teens and my 20s, between working class and middle class, between the staid 1950s and the jaunty pop revolt of the 1960s, I went looking for authenticity at the movies, and found it — or if not, then the romance of it — at the kitchen sink with the British new wave. There, feral proles in brilliantined James Dean ’dos lounged charismatically against walls, caroused their sorrows away down the pub, knocked up cocky young women in dank alleys or tawdry fairgrounds, or tried to claw their way out of dead-end lives by marrying the factory boss’s daughter or making it big in workerish sports. What I, an owlish schoolgirl growing up in a demure London suburb where a child falling off his bike was as close as we got to rowdy behavior, found to identify with in all this rough-and-tumble is anybody’s guess. Slumming, most likely, amid the studiously dreary inner-city vistas where these tragic working-class heroes fought their lonely battles, which helped rub a retrospective sheen onto the drab London tenement my family had squeezed into when we arrived in England in the mid-1950s.
It wasn’t my romance alone. For all its relentless focus on downtrodden lives, the British new wave was conceived by middle-class intellectuals — prominent among them Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, who had founded the film journal Sequence and made socially relevant documentaries with the Free Cinema movement — bent on distancing themselves from Hollywood commercialism. True, they were mostly adapting plays, novels or short stories by rising working-class writers like Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner), Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) and David Storey (This Sporting Life). But the films’ primal virility drew more on the yearning of their directors to connect with an ennobled working class they hardly knew than on the realist aesthetics of location shoots and black-and-white photography. Revisiting these films now — in a nigh-on comprehensive American Cinematheque retrospective that takes us all the way from Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1958) through to formally and politically more sophisticated, pop-inspired works like John Schlesinger’s cynical, enervated Darling (1965); Anderson’s forceful, if hardly prophetic, If . . . (1968); and Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s ’Isname (1967) — is both a chastening and elevating experience. European cinema was thick with new waves at that time, and it’s fair to say that the English experiment is less formally interesting and durable than its French and Italian counterparts. Either because they were the product of middle-class fantasies or because they were just too grim for a post–World War II mass audience, the Angry Young Man films never made remotely as much money as the James Bond series or the perky Carry On! comedies. And a case can be made that these pioneering works of British domestic miserabilism were far better suited to the small screen, where the likes of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Stephen Frears took them to a higher level in the 1970s (though Frears, who made the magical My Beautiful Laundrette, was too much the inventive aesthete to stick with pure realism for long).
For all its earnest idealism, I have too much fondness for the preening melodrama of the kitchen sink to agree with film historian David Thomson’s scathing judgment that this “woefully ideological” movement was “one of the most irrelevant of artistic breakthroughs that England has suffered,” or that “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning could now pass for parody,” or that Reisz’s 1964 remake of the serial-killer drama Night Must Fall “set back the career of Albert Finney for several years.” Relentlessly masculine, The Angry Young Man movies were a breeding ground for some of the finest — and most deliciously beefcakey — actors in British cinema: Richard Harris, impossibly beautiful as the Brando-like exploited rugby player trying to lift himself out of squalor in This Sporting Life (1963); Tom Courtenay, a wrinkly jolie-laide in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962) and Schlesinger’s Billy Liar(1963); Tom Bell, then a bonny suitor to Leslie Caron in Bryan Forbes’ The L-Shaped Room (1962), now better known as Helen Mirren’s sourpuss nemesis in the Prime Suspect series; Laurence Harvey, too upscale to be a convincing prole, but icy and exacting as the ambitious Yorkshireman who renounces true love to marry his boss’s daughter in Room at the Top (1959); Peter Finch, a perfectly feckless sphinx as depressed Anne Bancroft’s screenwriter husband in Jack Clayton’s The Pumpkin Eater (1964); Malcolm McDowell, festering marvelously as the boarding-school rebel in If . . .
If this angry young cinema idealized its male protagonists as badly behaved victim-heroes, it was less kind to their women, who were weighed down by poverty and unwanted pregnancies and given little to do but hover nervously around their heedless partners. But what a thrill now to return to the first bloom of actresses, some of whom (Caron, and Maggie Smith, lithe and tricky as Bancroft’s unreliable friend in The Pumpkin Eater) went on to stardom, while others, such as Rita Tushingham, Rachel Roberts and Shirley Anne Field, never outgrew the cinema that gave them their big start. Oppressed or not, they are integral to the dour vitality of a movement that gave the underclass both more and less than its due. Having lived now for going on 28 years in America, whose passion for moving on up precludes all but the most grudging attention to the lives of its worker bees, I consider it a treat to be brought back to a time and place when a vigorous brew of class pride and shame was bred in British blood, bone and sinew, onscreen and off.
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ANGRY YOUNG CINEMA — BRITISH NEW WAVE | At American Cinematheque at the Egyptian and Aero theaters | Through May 31 | www.americancinematheque.com