The New Wave that began to change the face of British cinema in the late 1950s was committed to shaking up a doddering and conventional film culture. Its oppositional filmmakers took on the inequities of the British class system and brought a franker treatment of sex to the screen, largely in movies with working-class subjects and backgrounds.
Film Forum’s ambitious series casts its net wide, including 28 features representing nearly 20 directors. The three outstanding New Wave directors—Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson—all began their careers with docs under the banner of the “Free Cinema” movement; a selection of these influential shorts winds up the program.
Richardson’s first feature, Look Back in Anger (1959), brought John Osborne’s trendsetting angry-young-man play to the screen. A Taste of Honey (1961), Richardson’s adaptation of angry young ma’am Shelagh Delaney’s stage play, features a note-perfect gawky performance by Rita Tushingham in her movie debut as a lonely teenager growing up in a drab canal town, with a little help from her black lover and gay buddy. Tom Jones (1963), the director’s best-known but far from best film (based on Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel), is crammed with quick gags and absurd adventures, and includes the lewdest eating scene ever set to celluloid—feasting as foreplay. This barnyard slapstick romp copped four Oscars, but the grace and humanity of the great original are not to be found in it.
Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) is notable for its brash, uninhibited picture of working-class Midland life and Albert Finney’s truculent performance as the take-what-you-can-get hero, a cheeky young machinist who eases his frustrations through sex and booze. If a number of Britain’s realistic pictures of the period now appear dated, Reisz’s remarkably assured debut feature stands up better than most. That’s not the case with his Morgan (1966), a strained piece of black humor in which the dotty misfit protag resorts to a number of bizarre pranks in an attempt to win back the wife who has divorced him, indulging in endless tiresome fantasies in which he sees himself as a gorilla.
Lindsay Anderson established himself as a director of major stature with This Sporting Life (1963), an exercise in unashamed emotionalism rare in British cinema. A fascinating combo of stark realism and poetic filmmaking, it concerns a beefy rugby player’s miserable amour fou affair with his widowed landlady. The novelty of the series is Anderson’s experimental 50-minute featurette, The White Bus (1966)—it apparently has never been shown theatrically in these parts. A winning fable about the perils of conformity, it’s chockablock with surreal touches and offbeat humor.