Film Forum looks back in nostalgia with its Brit New Wave series, which kicks off tonight with the one that started it all, Look Back in Anger (1959). This adaptation of a play by John Osborne was the reveille of the Angry Young Men, a cluster of playwrights, novelists, and directors who, in Noël Coward’s phrase, were “dreadfully cross” about something. What that “something” was is vague, but includes the complacent relative prosperity brought in by the post-war Labour government and the state of British culture in the late 1950s. Among these malcontents was Oxford-educated Scottish film critic Lindsay Anderson, who rallied a few like minds and started the Free Cinema movement, which—by his own admission—consisted only of a handful of declarative program notes for screenings of the group’s films at the National Film Theatre. He fed an image of a full-fledged movement to the press, which made it exist in the minds of its readers.
In Anderson’s vanguard group was Tony Richardson, a theater director who had already staged Osborne’s play to loud acclaim. Jimmy Porter (a very thespian Richard Burton), a candy salesman in Nottingham (the New Wave focused almost exclusively on the heretofore neglected industrial north), is married to Alison (Mary Ure) and loves hating/hates loving her best friend, Helena (Claire Bloom). When Jimmy isn’t sitting bored at his sweets stall in the marketplace, he’s getting drunk and playing trumpet in smoky clubs. The movie starts with a breakneck montage sequence of brass instruments, dancing feet, and ecstatic faces that reprises Richardson’s first short film Momma Don’t Allow (1956), codirected with Czech émigré and fellow New Waver Karel Reisz, whose own debut feature, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), would continue its preoccupation with what the working class does when it’s not working.
Criticizing Osborne’s play, Noël Coward said, “I wish I knew why the hero is so dreadfully cross and what about?” One answer is given by historian Dominic Sandbrook, who suggests it had “very little to do with political or economic inequality. … in many instances the anger of the New Wave really meant a combination of personal ambition and a vague resentment at a changing society.” But Jimmy is less reactionary and more bohemian than his counterparts in many other New Wave films (such as Arthur in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning). As Alison’s father puts it, trying to advise his daughter, “You’re hurt because everything has changed, and Jimmy’s hurt because everything is the same.” His amorphous rage is directed at some of the most hallowed institutions of British society, such as the perennial sense of racial superiority inherited from its imperial history. An Indian immigrant at the stall adjacent to Jimmy’s left his country to escape his untouchable caste position, but has not found equality in the colonial metropolis. “I’m interested in justice,” he says, “but I am not in the habit of expecting it to happen to me.” When bigots harass him in the market, Jimmy’s got his back, suggesting that he hasn’t entirely resigned himself to nihilistic apathy. But when his mother asks him what he really wants out of life, he tells her, “Everything. Nothing.” Like the New Wave’s firmly middle-class directors themselves, who took their material from working-class novelists and playwrights, Jimmy is to a certain extent voluntarily slumming it. His poverty is a choice, and his anger is directed less at his material circumstances than at himself.
The crisp black and white views of cinematographer Oswald Morris (who also lensed John Huston’s Beat the Devil and Kubrick’s Lolita) captures the dreary texture of the industrial north, made out of smoke, rain, bricks, shingles and fog. He goes from a vérité touch in documenting the grocers’ market to a Robert Krasker-style formalism in the final shot of Jimmy and Alison’s backlit, steam-enveloped reunion kiss, which evokes David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows.