Saturday, 13 August 2011

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Tony Richardson's film of Alan Sillitoe's short story intersperses Colin's (Tom Courtenay) life in borstal, where he is encouraged by the Governor to take up running, with flashbacks to the months leading up to his arrest.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was released in 1962, quite late in the new wave cycle. In his memoirs Richardson describes shooting as "a lovefest... I felt free and happy making a film for the first time without constraints."

By contrast with the theatrical basis of Richardson's earlier films Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960), the camera is very evident. The 'poetic realist' approach dominates - Colin's runs are shot in an impressionist style and there is an experimental approach to sound, for instance in a scene in which the boys riot in the canteen. Instead of being portrayed naturalistically, everyday scenes are shot in a heightened way reflecting Colin's state of mind and his view of authority.

The film faced more unfavourable criticism at the time than many of the new wave films. Critics noted the influence of the French New Wave, especially François Truffaut. The stylistic devices were considered too gimmicky and derivative and the anti-authoritarianism denounced as crude. There is certainly a lack of subtlety in some scenes but they can still prove effective, for example the beating of Stacey as the boys sing 'Jerusalem'.
Even hostile critics, however, praised the intensity of Tom Courtenay's performance as Colin. Himself rom a working-class background, Courtenay is convincing and charismatic as the rebel determined to outwit the system. Colin refuses to conform to be a victim, thug or dupe of authority. By stopping in front of the finishing line, he proves his talent, but denies the Governor the credit.
The film is very much of its time, in context and style. Like the other new wave films it shows a British working class with money for the first time but still without power or prospects. Stylistically perhaps its time has come round again - the fast pace and mixing of styles seems fashionable once more.



Published by


Volume 29, No.346, November 1962, page 148


Colin Smith is sent to Ruxton Towers, a stately home which has been turned into a Borstal institution. Son of a £9 a week factory worker who died of cancer, Colin is by nature a rebel, an anarchist. His mother splashes the £500 employer's compensation for his father's death on a new carpet and a "telly", then takes up with a fancy man whom Colin loathes. A weekend spent with his friend Mike and a couple of girls at Skegness ends in frayed tempers and a dispiriting return; the exhilaration of the robbery, carried out with Mike's help; the bullying police enquiries and arrest. Colin feels no guilt at finding himself in Borstal, only contempt for Society - an inimical image most strongly embodied for him in the bland, well-meaning presence of the Borstal Governor. The one thing Colin does well is run, and the Governor trains him to win the first long-distance cross-country race ever arranged between the institution and a team of amiable young men from a neighbouring public school. But the Governor's obsessive faith in Colin urges the boy to set up a record not in running but in sheer, basic bloody-mindedness. He runs his rival into the ground then, within striking distance of the tape, stops dead. His victory solitary but sweet, he is sent back to his old, useless job in the workshops, stripping down gas-masks.

Fashionableness can be a fickle, limiting thing for an artist, and needs considerable personal style if his efforts are not only to persuade for the moment but to endure. Tony Richardson's expansion, via the author's own screenplay, of Sillitoe's wiry but tenuous short story is very fashionable indeed. Its protagonist is young, disingenuous, a social outlaw; his environment a mixture of grimy restriction and tantalising, lyrical glimpses of freedom; his gesture of unrelenting war a terse, deliberate refusal to accept Society's conditional offer of integration and the big Step Up - win a race like any self-respecting public school boy; take your chance of fame in the Olympic Games. Richardson, the producer and director, makes his point clearly enough, but at quite a price: bias trailing off into parody, forcefulness impaired by stylistic inconsistency, a dispiriting familiarity of approach.

First, there are the flashbacks, accounting for Colin's present predicament at a length (about half the running time?) in no way justified by their content, which adds up to nothing we haven't seen time and time again in the recent past, or by their uninteresting and laboured presentation (the spending spree done after the style of a TV shopping gazette). The script as a whole has that bitty, desultory, involved construction which is the bane of so much British screenwriting, old and new; every attempt to hide the fact that a tiny anecdote is being spun out leads to the most reactionary longing on the part of the viewer for some solid, dramatic meat of the most old-fashioned kind. Just as fussy are the devices tagged on to some otherwise attractive running scenes - water-reflected shots, upside-down shots, whirling tree-top shots, and the self-indulgent barrage of "thought stream" cut-ins from previous flashbacks during the actual race, a sequence simply crying out for clarity.

The lack of confidence behind this restless tricksiness extends to all sorts of other things. The riot, for instance, is shot in fast, lateral tracking movements back and forth, indicative less of trapped rage on the screen than of panic behind the view-finder. The photographic texture keeps switching from the grainy, pseudo-documentary to the intrusively pretty (much of the open air material). It seems significant that Lassally's camerawork is most effective at its closest and most straightforward, moving in on a fight or observing the subtle irritations of Redgrave's Governor in the face of the inanities of a psychiatrist-housemaster. The sound-track not only plugs ironies like the gap between boys singing Jerusalem and one of their number being chased, caught and probably beaten up; it goes in, in a studied, academic way, for such recently popular devices, à la Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as dialogue preceding image. When these devices step outside the realm of British "new wave" film-making into what can only be described as cribs (though doubtless an homage was intended) from Truffaut's Quatre Cent Coups, one's doubts as to the course Richardson's style is taking reach disquieting proportions. Speeded-up movement, jump-cuts, bits of business with a hat and a typewriter, the interview with the psychiatrist, even if such borrowings were justifiable they would still have to work in themselves in a way they certainly don't here. And, anyway, where is Richardson's own style?

Against this, and a great deal of childishly unacceptable caricature (the concert artists, the pompous TV Tory, elements in Redgrave's sometimes perceptively underplayed Governor), must be set several excellent performances - James Bolam as the friend, almost all the boys (surprisingly enough the public school types are absolutely believable, done with untypical generosity) and Tom Courtenay as Colin. Courtenay displays a surly iconoclasm tempered with humour and intelligence that preserves a much-needed equilibrium between the viewer's sympathy and his natural impatience. His portrait of a sturdy recalcitrance channelled by depressingly unhealthy, hopeless circumstances into something genuinely tragic is exactly right. He persuades, in fact, where the film doesn't. Still, one looks forward to Richardson's next, Tom Jones, with undiminished interest and curiosity.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - 11 x 17 Movie Poster - Style A

Directed byTony Richardson
Written byAlan Sillitoe
StarringTom Courtenay
Michael Redgrave
James Bolam
Ray Austin
John Thaw
Alec McCowen
Editing byAnthony Gibbs
StudioWoodfall Film Productions
Distributed byContinental
Release date(s)1962
Running time104 min

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