Review: Billy Liar (1963)

Billy Liar (1963, UK) dir. John Schlesinger.  B&W, CinemaScope, 35mm.

Sorry, no screencaps on this one, I was watching it on the TV.

Billy Liar concerns a young man (played by Tom Courtenay) with elaborate fantasies in his head.  He works in a funeral parlour, compulsively lying to weasel his way out of one situation and into another (or just to make things interesting).  Billy really wants to be a screenwriter or novelist, to go to London and work for a comedian who has just offered him a job.  However, he finds himself stuck in Scotland Yorkshire at the funeral parlour, and in the middle of a touchy situation with his three girlfriends/fiancees.

The film is very amusing, especially Billy’s fantasies and affectation of various “characters” and styles of speaking.  The film is built almost entirely around characters, and even without the epic fantasy scenes like the triumph of Billy’s “army,” it would be a solid working-class drama.  It works a good balance between freespirited romp (ala A Hard Day’s Night), drama, and comedy.

“I turn over a new leaf everyday, but the blots show through,” Billy says, showing us that his free-spirited fantasies can’t last forever.  The more serious subjects of the film are extremely interesting – Billy’s fantasies revolve around war: his parents knew its horrors all too well, yet it is distant and far-off for him.  Another interesting theme is the generation gap between Billy and his parents.  “Grateful!?  That’s all I’ve ever heard!” he shouts, showing the distinctly postwar mindset that led to the youth disillusionment and subcultures (and Mod movement) of the ’60s.

What I like about the film is its ability to transcend the cliche “guy who gets in trouble for having too many girlfriends at once” plot.  As I said before, the film’s plot balances well between the fantasies, romantic troubles, home troubles, and “moments of distraction.”

At one point in the film, Billy gets “passion pills” from a friend, and some of the more amusing (albeit a bit shocking by today’s mindset) scenes in the film revolve around him trying to dope up one of his fiancees so he can loosen up her morals and have premarital sex with her.  (No, I don’t have a sick sense of humour – you’d have to see the film to understand.)

The camera work is quite well-done without being ostentatious, especially in the tracking shots at the beginning and towards the end of the film.  The black-and-white composition in the night scenes is also very dramatic.  Shot construction is skillful and the film makes good use of the widescreen CinemaScope format.  Billy’s fantasies draw on multiple styles: one is even a newsreel for the “war” in his imaginary kingdom.

Tom Courtenay is as excellent here as he was in his other major “kitchen sink drama” of the period, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.  Billy is a boy with an active and deep imagination who likes “acting” out various characters and accents.  Courtenay pulls each of these personas off very well and is able to capture Billy’s emotional conflicts in his “real” down-to-earth life as well.

Interestingly, this film also was Julie Christie’s first major role; she plays Billy’s 3rd girlfriend, a free spirit named Liz.  Christie and Courtenay would go on to play another set of young lovers: Lara and Pasha Antipov in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, one of my favorite films.

I watched this film for two reasons – one, I’m a big Tom Courtenay fan.  Two, I like British films from the ’60s. It didn’t disappoint me in either regard.  I highly recommend Billy Liar for all fans of British cinema and quality acting.

As far as “mod action” goes, there’s mod-type suits aplenty to see, and anyone interested in the fashions of the time will find a good deal to look at, especially in the dancehall scene.  They’re all just doing the twist with a big band playing, but it’s great fun.  I spied a gang of rockers in the scene outside the dancehall, though!


Availability: Region 1 DVD from Criterion, Region 2 DVD, VHS.


3 Responses to “Review: Billy Liar (1963)”

  1. A very good movie, but it isn’t set in Scotland; that’s Yorkshire, in the north of England but still well south of Scotland.

  2. Thanks for the correction. Maybe I got confused because of the supermarket opening with the bagpipe playing ^^;;

  3. […] This motif recurs; for example, when Diana and one of her lovers check into a hotel, the newspapers they put in their suitcases to add weight are tossed aside, revealing the headline “MINERS – ALL HOPE VANISHES.” These moments help reinforce the film’s theme (Diana doesn’t want to hurt anyone through her affairs, but she ends up narcissistic and jaded, always looking for a new way to entertain herself) and also provide extremely interesting social commentary.  The postwar generation, unconcerned with the world, only interested in a good time and escaping the dreariness of daily life; “It should be so easy to be happy, shouldn’t it?” Diana asks.  This idea shows up in many films from this time (I discussed it briefly in my review of Billy Liar). […]

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