(Dir. Tony Richardson) (1960)
This is probably John Osborne’s best play and he scripted the film that centres on Archie Rice and the closing days of his “Act” at one of merry England’s many depressing beach-side town-lets, whilst the Empire slides into the Suez Canal. There is a potent whiff of death hovering about the whole diseased enterprise – when you see the various scenes of music hall depravity, dreadful old routines and songs in the local pub, or the gorgeously hideous Lovely Girls Contest, poolside and prurient, you can picture a young David Lynch, wide-eyed and with a beatific grin, imagining future scenes from Eraserhead or Twin Peaks.
Laurence Olivier has to perform the worst of vaudeville’s repertoire, which he does stoically. As Rice off-stage, he does rather more: a magnificent performance as a weak, selfish, kind, debauched, conniving, self-centred, hedonistic, deluded, two-faced down-at-heel, heroically facing personal and moral bankruptcy. Full of wit, anger and maudlin charm; defying the indifference of audiences, the decline of Empire, technical insolvency, merciless ageing, and the onslaught of television, Archie could well be his best later film role (sadly, since the film was met with the same cold reception attending Archie’s shocker of an Act).
Joan Plowright as Archie’s daughter, is Olivier’s match, solid, sensible, and knowing, an archetypal Osborne gamine. She is the only member of the family to prick Archie’s bubble, including her memorable reference to one of Rice’s objects of desire: “She’s a Professional Virgin.”
Debutantes Alan Bates (as the drippy son), and Albert Finney (off to the dirty, disastrous little war in Egypt), have very good bits, and Roger Livesey is, as always, perfect as the lecherous, grumpy and doomed Granddad.
In sum, this film is heartless and yet full of heart, contradictory and cold. As Rice sings in his swan song: “Why Should I Care?…What’s the use of Despair? If they see that you’re blue, they’ll look down on you, so why, oh why, should I….?”