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BILLY LIAR (director: John Schlesinger; screenwriters: from the novel by Keith Waterhouse/Keith Waterhouse/from the play by Willis Hall & Keith Waterhouse/Willis Hall; cinematographer: Denys Coop; editor: Roger Cherrill; music: Richard Rodney Bennett; cast: Tom Courtenay (William Terrence ‘Billy’ Fisher), Wilfred Pickles (Geoffrey Fisher), Mona Washbourne (Alice Fisher), Ethel Griffies (Florence, Billy’s grandmother), Finlay Currie (Duxbury), Gwendolyn Watts (Rita), Helen Fraser (Barbara), Julie Christie (Liz), Leonard Rossiter (Emanuel Shadrack), Rodney Bewes (Arthur Crabtree), George Innes (Stamp), Leslie Randall (Danny Boon), Patrick Barr (Insp. MacDonald), Ernest Clark (prison governor), Godfrey Winn (disc jockey); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Joseph Janni; Criterion; 1963-UK)
“Even though it’s a seminal movie of the sixties, it never reached me emotionally.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on a West End hit play by Keith Waterhouse, who wrote the novel and cowrote the screenplay with Willis Hall. John Schlesinger (“Darling”/”A Midnight Cowboy”/”Sunday Bloody Sunday”) directs this New Wave British bittersweet comedy/drama by playfully depicting the angst of the young working-class man stuck in a dreary deadend job. Cinematographer Denys Coop films it in a rich black and white Cinemascope, which gives it a refreshingly proper Dickensian look as intended.

Young Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a clerk for the funeral directors Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter) and Duxbury (Finlay Currie) and lives with his nagging mum Alice (Mona Washbourne), his hectoring father Geoffrey (Wilfred Pickles, and his senile old grandmother (Ethel Griffies) in a comfortable middle-class private house in the provinces of an industrial Northern English city. His two teasing workplace mates, Arthur Crabtree (Rodney Bewes) and Stamp (George Innes), dub him Billy Liar because of all the tall tales he tells. Billy is a confused man who fantasizes to compensate for his drab existence and dreams of going to London as a television scriptwriter for the popular comedian Danny Boon (Leslie Randall), who is in town to cut the ribbon for a new supermarket opening. He also imagines himself a general leading men to war in a fictional state called Ambrosia. The lad’s fantasies are dramatized onscreen, with him playing the various heroes he imagines himself to be.

In reality, Billy’s a lazy unhappy worker engaged to two working-class girls, the hot-tempered vulgarian diner waitress Rita and the more genteel but homely and not too swift Barbara (Helen Fraser). Billy’s also intrigued by the return to town of the free-spirited Liz (Julie Christie), a constant traveler who looks radiant and tempts him with her plans to next to go to London (which is just a few hours away by train, but to Billy it might seem like journeying to the other side of the world).

The lad’s lies begin to add up and he finds himself on all fronts in hot water. The question becomes will the Yorkshire slacker flee to another place to start life anew, go on living the same way here in town or suddenly mature and get his act together.

Courtenay is fine in his ADD-like character role as an unreliable, flighty, daydreamer, who strikes a nice chord between playful innocence and having more impending mental problems. Even though it’s a seminal movie of the sixties, it never reached me emotionally. The colorful character-laden period piece lacked warmth, and the antihero’s negative behavior to his family and girlfriends turned me off more than it made me laugh or allow me to feel his pain.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”