Monday, March 08, 2010

LOOK BACK IN ANGER (1959) - Tony Richardson

If James Dean's rebel from Rebel Without A Cause had grown up in London, went to university, married too young and opened a street-side candy stall instead of drag racing all the damn time, he might have turned out something like Richard Burton's seething sourpuss in this film. Burton's Jimmy Porter is no kind of rebel though...he's just a miserable prick.

Talk about angry young men. Burton stews in a thick broth of his own bile in nearly every scene, torturing everyone around him in his very cramped London flat with daily character assassinations, loud trumpet playing and ten-cent words like "pusillanimous." He's the type of guy who walks into a room and everyone's back stiffens because they know they're potential targets of one of his withering verbal attacks. He reserves most of the tongue lashings for his worn-down wife Alison (Mary Ure) who's just discovered she's pregnant with his child. Given the couple's already sordid state of affairs two years in, she dreads the moment where she has to tell Jimmy. It's a good bet he won't be breaking out the champagne and bubble gum cigars.

Instead, Alison ups the ante, inviting her fetching actress friend, Helena (Claire Bloom), to stay with them as buffer, knowing Jimmy has a particular dislike for her upper crust snobbery. Now the air in their squalid flat is not only hot with insults but thick with sexual tension. Someone's going to get hurt. It's only a matter of when and how deep the wound.

I can get behind a good movie prick -- Nicholson as Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces or David Thewlis in Naked. Their acting out, whether against bitchy waitresses, chicken salad sandwiches or in tirades concerning Darwin and the greater universe, seem to come from a deep unease with their surroundings, their station, themselves. They are cruel, yes, but also charismatic. Burton's Jimmy is mostly just cruel without the charisma component. In return for acting as Jimmy's punching bag, his victims get little in return -- no careless good times as with Nicholson, no brain-purging theoretical discourses as with Thewlis. They just get Burton's bile, and that can be a lot to stomach.

Look Back in Anger
is a good film, but exhausting and heavy on the theatrics. When Burton's mother in the film asks him, trying to understand his anger, what he wants out of life, Jimmy responds vaguely: "Everything...nothing." My opinion of the movie lies somewhere in between.

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