The French New Wave of the early 1960s is still written about endlessly because the key directors of that movement, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, had such a major influence on Hollywood and American filmmakers.
Godard is as fashionable today as he was 50 years ago. Every year seems to bring a theatrical restoration and then a major DVD re-release of a Godard classic. The Film Forum in New York has had hugely successful runs of “Contempt,” “Band of Outsiders,” and “Weekend.” The Criterion Collection has released the above titles on DVD along with “Masculine Feminine,” “Made in USA” and several others.
At the same time that Godard and his friends were making their revolutionary films, a fresh new wave of films was also coming out of England thanks to such young directors as John Schlesinger, Richard Lester, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson.
The early 1960s hits “Billy Liar,” “This Sporting Life” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” depicted working class life in England in a refreshingly deglamorized visual style (most of these films were shot on location in natural light) and introduced such exciting new movie stars as Albert Finney, Julie Christie, and Richard Harris.
One of my favorite British pictures from that period — Tony Richardson’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” — has just been released on DVD through the terrific Warner Archive division of Warner Home Video.
Working from an Alan Sillitoe script (based on his own short story), Richardson created a portrait of a young rebel without a cause that is much more believable and troubling than the Technicolor James Dean version seven years earlier.
The angry, self-destructive Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) suffered from being just a few years ahead of his time. What was considered anti-social in 1962 would become the norm in the late 1960s.
It wasn’t until the second half of the decade that the sexual and cultural revolutions in England and around the world made Sillitoe’s misunderstood rebel into a hero (the boarding school anarchist in Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 film “If…” took the simmering anger of Sillitoe and expressed it in overt violence that was not thinkable a decade earlier).
The protagonist of “Long Distance Runner” is a juvenile delinquent sent to a reform school who rises above his peers because of his abilities as a runner. The boy expresses his own revolutionary impulses, however, by throwing away a sure win in a key race against a pretigious private school. In the short story — and film — Sillitoe was lighting a match to a fuse on a bomb that wouldn’t explode until a few years later.
The Richardson film had a big impact in the United States where art house moviegoers appreciated its sexual frankness and moral ambiguity at a time when Doris Day and Rock Hudson ruled Hollywood.
The British films also inspired American directors to push for the changes in content that would completely alter the U.S. film industry in just a few years.
The casting of rough-hewn Tom Courtenay in the leading role of “Long Distance Runner” was also a crucial step away from the glossy movie star look of the 1950s. On this side of the Atlantic, Courtenay and the new breed of British film star would embolden directors Mike Nichols and Bob Rafelson to build movies around far from glamorous actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson.