Saturday 18 May 2019

MY FIRST REVIEWS - Bruce Hodsdon kicks off a new series and we recall A KIND OF LOVING (John Schlesinger, UK, 1962) and THE LEFT-HANDED GUN (Arthur Penn, USA, 1958)

My first reviews and their reprise
Following the recent invitation to submit early attempts to write film reviews to the blog I came across what I believe are my first two attempts at film reviews, certainly the first to be published - as program notes for film society screenings back in 1965. I further realised that there were companions to these reviews in the form of one paragraph catalogue entries written in my role as film study officer for the National Library's Film Lending Collection which had been established in 1975 to service film societies, schools and the newly emerging film studies at a tertiary level with prints across the spectrum from experimental shorts to commercial feature films. As FSO I had a free hand and a substantial budget to select films for purchase within a broadly framed collection development policy – a  dream job for a cinephile.

These two films had impressed me on first (and subsequent) viewings and remained on the priority list for (pre-video) acquisition when the opportunity arose two decades later. In the interval, film magazines covering a broad range of critical positions had proliferated and the publication of serious books on cinema had exploded so there was much to draw on. My initial review of The Left-Handed Gun coincided with the publication of Andrew Sarris's immensely influential reappraisal of American cinema in Film Culture. A couple of years earlier the then young auteurist turks in Britain had launched Movie magazine to challenge critical orthodoxy centred on the BFI's Sight & Sound.The four entries span that seminal period in film criticism. I don't recall referring to my original reviews in writing the later entries for which severe limitation of space focused the mind, although there are connecting threads.

The initial reviews appeared in The Armidale Arts Council Film Group Programme Notes in 1965.

John Schlesinger
A Kind of Loving(I962) Dir John Schlesinger with Alan Bates, June Ritchie, Thora Hird.
For those familiar with the radicalism of the new British cinema , the basic attitudes expressed in this film are nothing new. What makes it worth viewing is the freshness and subtlety of the treatment of what might otherwise have been cliché. The plot centres on the relationship between two young northerners in the industrial town of Burnley. [A plot summary then follows in which I committed the sin of revealing the ending]....

This was the first feature directed by Schlesinger and gives ample evidence of a talent more fully realised in his next film, Billy Liar. After the somewhat heavy-handed direction of Tony Richardson, Jack Clayton et al, Schlesinger's objectivity (perhaps closer to that of Karel Reisz in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in this respect) is refreshing in its avoidance of obtrusive camerawork and 'landscape mongering' which mar the work of his compatriots who often seem to confuse 'cinematic' effect with style (very much the case with Jack Clayton's latest feature The Pumpkin Eater). Schlesinger's intention is for us to observe rather than identify with the characters. He is as interested in milieu as in character to bring wider issues into focus; the alienation of a class of young people who can neither realise their ambitions within a working class ethos nor that of petit bourgeois gentility. The confusion in their relationship mirrors their inner conflicts. Unable to differentiate between love and lust, only the necessity of circumstance brings some sort of clarity as they come to terms with their situation through compromise.

The lack of originality in theme combined with the objectivity of Schlesinger's direction could have reduced the film to the banal. However, his style is well suited to the low-key naturalistic dialogue of the Hall and Waterhouse screenplay which preserves the essential character of Stan Barstow's novel [I hadn't read the novel, but a reasonable assumption for this genre]. The cast, with uniformly fine performances, has maintained this naturalism which called for a range of gesture of a testing kind. Only occasionally does Schlesinger's camera go in search of gratuitous effect as when he pans away from the lovers to [ironically] take in the graffiti and posters on the wall of a bus shelter. In general he avoids glib identification with a point-of-view.

Two decades or so later, in a curatorial role having selected the film for purchase on 16mm for the  film study lending collection I wrote/compiled the following catalogue entry for A Kind of Loving:

The constrictions of life in a Northern industrial town are delineated through the relationship between Victor and Ingrid, a draughtsman and a typist working in the same factory. A sharply observed documentary 'feel' is heightened by the economy of the dialogue and the acuity of the acting achieving a certain balance of sympathy which forestalls easy judgements. As the central characters painfully come to terms with each other, their feelings and motives seem both conditioned by and suspended somewhere between middle-class gentility and a fading sense of working class community.

Arthur Penn
The Left-Handed Gun (1958) Dir. Arthur Penn. With Paul Newman, John Dehner, Hurd Hatfield
Although ostensibly within the western genre, like Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitarthis film stands apart from the genre's conventions. In this case director, writer and actor combine to produce something unique.

The theme, based on the play by Gore Vidal, is an overt attempt to destroy the myth of Billy the Kid. The film attempts to show his career free of cliché, Billy being shown as a man of sorrows very different from the legend. At times the effect is quite bizarre. Frenetic violence alternates with several sequences of curious elation. Billy makes his escape from the jail in a near surrealist penultimate sequence of crazy angled camerawork and almost expressionist lighting.

An amazing first film from Arthur Penn, the film has been described as “the ultimate in the application of the Method to the western.”  Both The Left-Handed Gun and The Miracle Worker are concerned with the problems of physical communication when the spoken word is virtually useless, gestures and monosyllables doing the work of conversation. With a theatrical background, Penn shows a distinct cinematic flair. “The intense physicality of the performances in his two films serves to counter-balance a strained reading of the lines. A director of force rather than grace, Penn may yet re-assert the plastic role of the actor in the scheme of things.” (Andrew Sarris, Film Culture 28).

My catalogue entry two decades or so later:
"The psychological orientation of Gore Vidal's teleplay, on which the film is based, transforms the  Billy the Kid legend into a youth-in-revolt drama with Billy on an ultimately tragic oedipal quest. There is a complex balancing of sympathies, in a precarious social order, between Billy, potentially subversive, and Pat Garrett, the bearer of the new reality and social norms. The film is also overtly concerned with the gap between the legend and an often painful reality.”

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