Look Back in Anger
A Bitter Sadness
In Look Back in Anger, the middle-class wife of a working-class husband says to her colonial father, who worked out in India, that for the father things have changed too much and for her husband, things haven't changed enough. The comment isn't offered materially but psychically. Here this young, pregnant wife is, caught between a father whose temperament she shares (they are both mild of manner) and a husband she achingly loves. She wants to leave this husband and return to the family who shaped her rather than remain with the man who has abused her. But writer John Osborne, and Tony Richardson, who directed both the play and also the film, knows that abuse is too strong a word to describe Jimmy Porter's behaviour. It gives it an unequivocal moral certitude that Osborne is seeking to call into question. If Jimmy is aggressive, Alison is passive aggressive, using as readily as Jimmy the tools she has at her disposal. Jimmy's is the working class bludgeon; Alison's the middle-class scalpel. Tools of the class war trade which leave them unable to love each other well. We wouldn't want to say as a consequence that Alison is equally culpable, that the abusiveness isn't chiefly from Jimmy's side. But anyone watching the film who wants to come away seeing a put upon wife would be missing too many nuances that make it an important piece of work. It is, of course, an important piece of theatre, but it is no less significant as a film: the work that introduced not so much working-class life to cinema, but the tensions within class conscious characters who wouldn't accept their lot in Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving, This Sporting Life and others. Such a stance could make characters obnoxious, difficult, at least awkward, but they were tectonic figures, created out of pre-war destitution and post-war burgeoning prosperity and social security. These are characters who would have been born in the 1920s and 1930s, who would have seen parents struggle and their own bellies go hungry. It is within this context one can usefully see the tensions between Jimmy (Richard Burton) and Alison (Mary Ure). Jimmy makes Alison's life hell because his childhood had been and Alison's so clearly wasn't. While Jimmy was watching his impoverished father die, Alison would have been living comfortably in colonial India. This doesn't make Jimmy's behaviour reasonable but it does make it comprehensible. Rushing to judgement, keen to condemn Jimmy and sympathize with Alison, would be to be miss the contrary energy at work in Osborne's play. It would seem that we should feel Alison's pain in the present while not ignoring Jimmy's pain in the past; to see the complacency of Alison's upbringing and the misery in Jimmy's. If things had changed enough early enough then perhaps we wouldn't be where we are in the confined apartment with an abusive man and an abused woman.
They are both living upstairs in a woman's house. She has the downstairs; they share the upstairs with a friend who works for Jimmy at his sweet stall. Cliff (Gary Raymond) seems like a man who is constantly looking out for Alison and would appear to have feelings for her too. But that would be to simplify his role; he is someone who accepts much more readily than Jimmy his class role; someone who reckons his feelings are associated to them as a couple. His subordinate status within the wider class society is manifest in his subordinate role to Jimmy, who adopts a tone of warm superiority to his underling. Early in the film, Cliff is unexpectedly back at the house after the father of the girl he was with catches them in the parlour. He describes the young woman as "common as dirt, like me". Jimmy, sitting perched on Cliff's bed, doesn't contradict him, saying instead "my wife spent the evening writing home." The film then cuts from the darkened gloom of Cliff's grubby looking space to Alison awakening in full daylight, the blonde hair and the white sheets suggesting class and cleanliness, the monochrome images allowing for dissolving the specifics of colour into the general contrast between working-class grubbiness and middle-class comfort. Jimmy, Alison and Cliff are nevertheless all living in the same house and on the same floor, so any sense of contrast is quickly countered by the reality that they are all in very close proximity. But where Cliff is happy in his humble abode next to the stairs and under the attic window, Alison seems locationally miscast, someone who doesn't dream of better things but has been used to having them. Jimmy is caught between his unwillingness to provide those better things and the possibility that he would be incapable of providing them. When Alison goes to the doctor, he asks her about Jimmy's job, and after she says he has a sweet stall in the market the doctor says he thought she had told him once he was a university graduate. But Jimmy is the type of graduate who has the education but not the connections and status: the sort of figure who would be happy taking his resentment out on others rather than working his way up a social ladder. He has a vast vocabulary for insult, haranguing Alison with words like sanctimonious, phlegmatic and pusillanimous. In working-class parlance he has swallowed a dictionary; in ideological terms he has nevertheless refused to swallow bourgeois assumption. While in the other 1959 work of Kitchen Sink Realism, Room at the Top, Joe Lampton sees the middle-class Susan as a means to become more established, even if he is in love at the same time with an older French woman from the theatre, Jimmy's marriage to Alison allows for a constant state of class antagonism. She isn't the woman of his dreams, but a product of class nightmares: someone who will put him down rather than raise him up. We can view this as partly Jimmy's paranoiac inability to see love when it is offered to him, but others might insist that Jimmy can see through Alison's love: that she might have chosen Jimmy over her family, but the family will always be the thing.
Osborne obviously gives Jimmy all the best lines in the play, but Richardson gives Alison many of the best close-ups in the film. The theatre cannot easily offer the equivalent of the close-up in cinema: the dialogue and the acting are what matters: the eye will usually be drawn to the most charismatic force on the stage. But the screen can give expression to silence very well, with the language of film creating a different type of charisma. If the theatre is chiefly oratorial; cinema is more clearly ocular. When Jimmy offers his diatribe against Alison's family, the film shows Jimmy and Alison in a medium close up two shot, but as we listen to Jimmy we are likely to be looking at Alison. In the theatre, the actors would be too far away to allow Alison's reactions to be more present than Jimmy's words, but film is a more sensitive medium than theatre. Even when it comes to the olfactory, the whisper, the sigh, the hesitant intonation can all give to the performance a nuance the theatre is not designed for, no matter of course advances in sound technology across all art forms. Nevertheless, even if theatre can easily approximate the whisper now, it cannot offer the equivalent close up to go with it, unless one includes filmed theatre, which is no longer theatre but a halfway house between cinema and the stage, a transmission rather than an art form, even if examples of transmitted theatre (radio plays, plays for today on television) do create a medium out of that transmission.
Such discussions are for another piece: our interest is in saying Richardson's film doesn't have quite the same emphasis as the play, partly because cinema can more readily be a medium of the face. Thus when Lyn Gardner notes that in the play "The hectoring loudmouth Jimmy Porter gets all the best lines and always takes centre stage", we can say that this force isn't so much diluted as called into question by its cinematic adaptation. While critics have generally and very understandably focused on Richardson's attempts to escape the confines of the studio with a few location shots, something he fought very hard to get, our purpose is to say that even if the film was mainly shot on a sound stage, this needn't negate the cinematic, if what we mean by this is no more than a different emphasis from the theatrical. The theatrical is the unmediated - the audience at a certain distance from the stage, the director unable to focus our attention on one detail over another except by sound and lighting effects. This partly makes the theatre more objective; the cinema more manipulative. But imagine if a spectator in the auditorium could move their seat at will, a seated crane that would allow them to move as close as they felt necessary to capture an actor's emotion and we have an aspect of cinema. Of course, all the viewers would be on the same crane, which is where one might see a collective coercion, yet a good film director takes into account the need for intimate information and revelation without insistently cueing a mass response. In the scene early on where Jimmy attacks Alison, Richardson holds to a two shot that leaves us to choose between Jimmy's speech or Alison's reaction, or moving between the two. All we need mean by cinematic in this sense is what cannot be achieved on the stage. All we mean by un-manipulative is the degree of choice we have in the scene shown to us.
Richardson chiefly couched the cinematic in locational terms, however, and we might have wished for less studio work. He would achieve his dream with the later A Taste of Honey which was shot entirely on location, even if not always around Manchester, where the film is set. As Alexander Walker notes, "it would all be filmed on location and in a real house - a derelict mansion in Fulham Road, London, where municipal renovation was temporarily suspended while the top floor served as the rooming-house for the heroine, Jo, and her trollopy mother, and the rest was used as production offices." But the cinematic needn't only be contrary to the theatrical because of the camera on location, but also because of the location of the camera as located in a particular place in relation to the mise en scene, whether studio based or location shot. There can be far more cinema in an enclosed studio environment, of course, than in location shooting, but one of the reasons Richardson can make so much of the need to shoot outside rests on a theoretical shift that was vital to movements like neo-realism, the Nouvelle vague and Kitchen Sink Realism. Film theory was no longer in thrall to formalism and hadn't yet discovered the arcane workings of structuralism. Realist theory mattered to filmmakers, especially those with a political awareness and a desire to make films on the cheap.
We should remember that formalist theory when practically administered was closely affiliated with the governmentally political: the Russian formalist films were also propaganda works for the State, however brilliant they happened to be as works of cinema and however much they saw themselves as furthering the rights of the people. Postwar realism may have also been for the people, but it wasn't for the State. The figures may have been the impoverished of post-war Italy (in Bicycle Thieves, in Umberto D.), the insouciance and daring of the new wave (Le Cousins, Breathless or Shoot the Pianist), or the bellicosity and belligerence of Kitchen Sink (Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life), but they were very far from propagandistic films for their governments, just as they were resistant to standard studio production.
As Peter Cowie says in Making Waves, a book that looked at the Nouvelle vague, Kitchen Sink Realism, the Prague Spring and other filmmaking movements of the sixties. "Most of the films of the new cinema were non- or even anti-studio in every sense of the phrase." This would include resisting where possible money garnered from a studio system and a studio-based approach to production. The British films were financed by Woodfall, a company put together by John Osborne, Tony Richardson and Canadian producer Harry Saltzman. The initial purpose was to adapt Look Back in Anger for the screen, but by going on to produce Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a new type of cinema appeared in British cinema. Neil Young quotes Lindsay Anderson saying it "changed the face of British cinema overnight. It opened doors that had been nailed fast for 50 years." (Sight and Sound) In other respects it was pushing at an open door. "Independence was of necessity in the air in 1959", Alexander Walker noted. "Eighteen months earlier the British industry had plunged into one of its periodic crises, though at first this one looked more disastrous than most." (Hollywood, England) Walker adds, "the box-office suffered a horrendous slump in 1957" - there was an appetite for a new type of cinema.
What this meant, more importantly, wasn't only that there seemed to be a desire for a different type of cinema based on location shooting rather than studio work, but also a cinema that would search out new forms for new feelings. A location could help create this, as Richardson observed when saying "if it's raining we don't wait for the sun to come out, we just play the scene in the rain. If there's a wind blowing which gets the leading actress's hair untidy, we shoot her looking untidy." (Hollywood, England) But it also rested on a different approach to character, a new approach to society, and the beginnings of a more radical film language. In this, Look Back in Anger was chiefly original in its characterization and societal aspect, but it managed to convey concern for Alison, as well as her snobbery, by the nature of the medium. She could not defend herself with words but mainly with gestures, which is why we have talked about the scalpel versus the bludgeon. We can both more readily feel her pain and yet also see her condescension. When she arrives early in the film in a cafe, the working class older woman Ma Tanner that Jimmy has an immense fondness for is in discussion with Jimmy. Ma gets up to give Alison a hug as she comes in. We see Alison recoiling from Ma's gesture of warmth and we see in Jimmy's face the contempt he feels for Alison due to the instinctive resistance Alison feels toward Ma Tanner. "We was just talking about you", Ma Tanner (Edith Evans) says as she embraces Alison, but the grammatical error is confounded by the error of someone who looks like she doesn't want to be touched by the great unwashed. Later in the film, Jimmy is in conversation with an Indian working at the market and the man informs him that in India his status was even lower than in the UK: he was from the untouchable class. This is, of course, the very country that Alison was brought up in, with Alison someone who would have benefited enormously from a class system even more rigid than England's. To Alison, Ma Tanner is part of the great unwashed and Jimmy might assume that Alison would treat him no less well if he hadn't educated himself out of his societal limitations. But then what about Clifford, who we have noted has described himself as common as dirt, and whom she hugs fondly when she leaves the lodging house as her dad picks her up? Alison isn't quite the unequivocal snob Jimmy would wish to find in her, just as Jimmy isn't quite the cold bully she must insist upon if she is to leave him. These are characters who cannot escape their own class consciousness, but that doesn't mean class consciousness can allow them to make clear decisions based on categorical resentments. Alison is right to be appalled by Jimmy's behaviour; Jimmy is right to feel that class still defines who people happen to be in fifties England. This doesn't make it right that he should take all his frustration out on Alison, but neither does it make it easy for Alison to walk out on Jimmy, Anybody who feels triumphant as Alison leaves with her father would seem to be missing the point: that this is couple who do love each other but society cannot make their love easy. It isn't enough to say that Jimmy is a monster; even if we may believe he is much closer to a monster than Alison is to a snob. It is more than Jimmy's resentment is monstrous; Alison's snobbery unavoidable. It is partly why Alison can say early on to Cliff, "it's the easy things that seem to be so impossible for us."
In the theatre, the monstrous will be much more present than the snobbery if for no better reason than that the monstrous is a large expression and snobbery a small one. The monstrous consists of Jimmy berating Alison's family, the gleeful look on his face after Alison burns her arm with the iron when he pushes Cliff into her, the way he has a go at both Alison and her visiting friend Helena (Claire Bloom). Snobbery lies in the smaller gestures which the film can capture and thus give credence to Jimmy's claims, like the reluctant hug Alison gives Ma Tanner, or the way Alison reacts when going up the stairs with Cliff and he puts his hand on her arm. These can be as cinematic as locations if we define cinema, in this particular context, as what theatre struggles to convey. It may have been the odd use of location that helped Look Back in Anger start a revolution in British cinema, but if we wish to go back to it and see blighted lives experienced with nuance we shouldn't be disappointed. Here is where we find the class conflict conflicted indeed, an issue which Osborne and Richardson weren't impervious to. Neil Young notes that the working class Osborne "spent part of his Woodfall earnings on Savile Row suits, pre-distressed to create an impression of old money." The middle-class Richardson "insisted on an 11 0'clock champagne break every day on set." (Sight and Sound)
Another way in which the film manages to avoid the staginess of numerous British films of the period is in its use of transitions. This might be the sound match offered early in the film when Jimmy comes back home from the club where he has been playing trumpet. The music continues non-diegetically over the next scene as Jimmy arrives in the late hours of the night or the early hours of the morning and starts to kiss Alison who drowsily awakens. The trumpet plays out as the sound a train plays in and the film offers an audio match cut from the interior shot of the couple to a cityscape in the morning. Often the film dissolves from one shot into the next, as if suggesting both time passing slowly and the dissolution of distinctions between characters. In one dissolve we move from Alison talking to her friend, to Jimmy talking to Cliff.:a freeze frame makes it look as if Alison is morphing into Jimmy and Jimmy morphing into Alison. The sort of experimentation Eisenstein would practice in the twenties in Strike to indicate how a monkeyish character looks like a monkey, a foxy character a fox and so on becomes here no more than a suggestion in the cutting. There was nothing remotely new in dissolves of course: we can look at a dreadfully conventional adaptation of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim from the previous year to see how obvious a device it can be, but Richardson manages in Look Back in Anger (and A Taste of Honey) to indicate the psychology of the characters, the socio-political problem of class, and carry the weight of time in the editing suite. If theatre can only change the scene, film can find numerous ways in which to cut from one to another. Whether match-cutting, in the audio or the visual, dissolving, fading to black leader or jump cutting, there are many different methods available that can give the film its tone.
If both Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey (indeed many of the Kitchen Sink Realist films) are melancholy works we can find an aspect of this melancholia in the nature of the films' approach to the dissolve. It often gives to the film a pun on the idea of the sink, with characters and situations sinking into a despondency the editing reflects and that the theatre cannot emulate. Neither a curtain falling nor an empty stage are quite the same thing as a dissolve, which may be one of the many reasons film does time so much better than theatre, and why Aristotle's notion of unity concerning time and space need not apply so rigorously to the medium of film. When we watch Richardson dissolve from Alison ironing to the landlady and others going off to the local church, the dissolve from Alison to Jimmy, or from a film Jimmy and Helena are watching to the pair of them walking through a park, the film manages to convey a sense of chronological time passing movingly. This is so well achieved in A Taste of Honey and clumsily eschewed in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. In the former, there is the wonderful dissolve in the cross-cutting sequence with Jo and the sailor she meets, and her mum and her fancy man. While Mum and her lover are getting raucously drunk while out dancing, Jo and the sailor are beginning to make out under the stars. The film slowly dissolves from Jo and the sailor kissing to the twinkling lights of the club. They seem momentarily like a thousand stars but Richardson offers the moment to contain its own harshness: the club is as vulgar as Jo's moment would seem to be pure. We have the beauty but we cannot deny the acrid broader environment. In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Richardson seems to have been influenced more by the radical end of the Nouvelle vague rather than its softer incarnation: more Godard and Resnais, than Truffaut. But not to its benefit. The film consistently flashes back to give a broader context to central character Tom Courtenay's decision to throw a race: Colin is a borstal boy who can easily outrun the public schoolboys he is racing against. But he is also someone who sees no reason to beat a few privately educated rivals when the wider victory will undeniably be there's. One feels that the cutting in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is too harsh, too determined to make a point rather than capture time. In Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey, the films achieve a sorrowful sense of time passing, of loss accumulating.
In a brutal article 'Get Out and Push!' about both British cinema and British society, written in 1957, Lindsay Anderson saw that there were so many things that made British life meagre. "And you don't have to be a snob to feel it. It isn't just the food, the sauce, the bottles on the cafe tables, and the chips with everything." Anderson adds, "What sort of cinema have we got in Britain? First of all it is necessary to point out that it is English cinema (and Southern English at that), metropolitan in attitude and entirely middle-class." (Never Apologize) One may insist that Anderson is wrong on this point (Laxdale Hall, Geordie and The Maggie were all Scottish based films), but that would be to miss a bigger one: there is little to indicate whatever the merits of The Maggie, especially, that this was cinema exploring the specifics of British life. The cinema would have to wait another year and for the film Look Back in Anger for that. But what Anderson's article conveys is a desperate need for a new type of cinema to reflect a new type of sensibility, an attitude that was no longer happy soldiering on. That phrase would have lost its meaning alongside many losing their lives in two World Wars. When Anderson says "the clock ticks on. The servants are all downstairs, watching TV. Mummy and Daddy have gone to the new Noel Coward at the Globe" we can hear the voice of Jimmy Porter, and recognize also Arthur Seaton, Colin and others in Anderson's remark. There is an impatience to these characters, a belief that society ruined the lives of those before them and isn't doing a much better job with theirs. Where they differ from Joe Lampton is that they are caught in their own impossible paradoxes. While Joe wants to improve his lot, what would someone like Jimmy want? The answer might lie not only in improving his own material conditions, but also those of his class, and not only those of his class in the present, but also the previous generations who died miserable, working-class deaths. If we wished to simplify Jimmy's nature we might say that he would prefer the working class who came before him to have had far better health, education and housing all the better for him to feel worthy of the middle-class life Alison would wish for them to share. But it would seem still more that he cannot tolerate the reality that for so long his wife would have been his enemy in previous generations (the ruling class) and many would have died during WWII for Jimmy to feel at all entitled to share a bed with her. When it looks like she is leaving him, Jimmy turns to Helene as both she and Alison stand on the stairs and he asks Helene if she has ever seen anyone die. Helene hasn't. "For twelve months," Jimmy says, "I watched my father die. He'd come from the war in Spain you see. All my mother could think was that she was married to someone who was on the wrong side of all things...I was the only one who cared..." As the father poured out his life to a small boy, Jimmy "learned at an early age what it means to be angry, angry." The father obviously fought during the Spanish Civil War for the Leftist cause; the colonial Alison would have been on the opposite side of the political divide. She owes it to him to stay, he all but implies. While we can find such emotional blackmailing unreasonable that doesn't we should find it incomprehensible. Jimmy is such an invigorating figure, such an important post-war type because he contains within his being this very combination of the unreasonable and the comprehensible. We are inclined to think that Alison is right to leave and Jimmy is making clear why he not only doesn't want her to, but why he doesn't feel that she should. If previous generations of his family have had it so bad, and previous generations of hers have had it so good, why shouldn't this be reversed in their particular dynamic? Why shouldn't Jimmy treat her with the contempt he no doubt believes previous generations of the wealthy have treated his class? Of course, he shouldn't, and yet...
This would seem to be the problem Osborne and the film's writer Nigel Kneale have to address: the comprehensible and the unreasonable, the idea that Jimmy is right to be angry and unreasonable in his anger. But we might ask what is the right level of anger for the purposes of social change at all. When we think of Cliff here, or Seaton's mate Bert in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, these are decent guys but they are also people who would too readily accept the status quo. We might not like Jimmy, nor even Arthur, but they contain within them the frustration that demands a better life, and so erratic is their behaviour, so unreasonable are their actions, we cannot claim they are politically revolutionary but neither are they simply out for themselves. Burton takes a character from the stage who was usually played by someone ten years younger, and puts into the role the grain that captures very well a person who is from an impoverished background but is no longer a member of that social class. While his fond older friend Ma Tanner is a jovial cockney through and through, Jimmy is no longer through and through: he is a contradiction in action, a man who has the diction and the education that can only allow him to live in a state of friction with himself and others. Had the world changed less he might not have found his very comprehensible anger; had the world changed far more he might have no need to be as unreasonable as he happens to be. Out of this impossibility, Richardson finds a form that acknowledges Jimmy's anger through dialogue, and Alison's hurt through close-ups. But he also conveys to us a sense of lives wasting away and past time wasted in social demarcation through transitions that capture well life passing people by. The film looks back in sadness as much as in anger, arriving at a very bitter sadness indeed.
© Tony McKibbin