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Billy Liar: The Criterion Collection

Billy Liar began life as a novel by Keith Waterhouse about a young man in northern England in a dead end job with dreams of becoming a comedy writer, but who finds that he would rather settle for his fibbing and fantasy life than take the great leap of a train ride down to London. The novel became a popular stage play by Waterhouse and Willis Hall, starring Alan Bates. But by the time Billy Liar finally became a movie in 1963 with the superb Tom Courtenay in the lead, the Walter Mittyish magic of Billy had run out. Partially this was due to the times. The movie was bookended historically by the JFK assassination and the Beatles' international ascendancy. But the film's fate was also determined by the style of the film's director, John Schlesinger, helming his second project. Schlesinger is an excellent actors' director when he has excellent actors, but he seems incapable of keeping an internally consistent visual or editing style, and his films often veer toward vulgarity. Though he reached a level of iconic importance with subsequent films such as Darling and Midnight Cowboy, he is also capable of the artistic depths of Pacific Heights. In this, Schlesinger is like Karel Reisz, whose film Morgan! features an equally passive and defeatist central figure, and both characters are precursors to David Thewlis's longwinded humper in Naked. Billy Liar has its virtues, however, as does this Criterion Collection DVD. The film served more or less as the debut of Julie Christie, and her introduction on screen is a burst of irrepressible life as she takes a carefree walk down a crowded sidewalk, her face alive with an array of charming expressions. The film also contains some amusing in-joke parodies of smug British comedians. Criterion's disc contains a fascinating nine-minute except from the BBC series Hollywood U.K.: British Cinema in the Sixties, hosted by Richard Lester, and it is so interesting and detailed that Criterion might consider publishing it in its entirety. Strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a good black-and-white film, with audio in the original mono (Dolby Digital 1.0), plus English subtitles. Supplements include the aforementioned documentary excerpt, an unusually lengthy theatrical trailer, and an informative edited audio commentary track featuring Schlesinger, Courtenay, and Christie. Also inserted is an essay by Bruce Goldstein of Rialto Films, which recently re-released the film theatrically. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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