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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tom Courtenay, Wilfred Pickles, Mona Washbourne, Gwendolyn Watts, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie
Director:  John Schlesinger
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  July 10, 2001

Film ***1/2

Billy Fisher (Courtenay) is at once likable and frustrating.  His imagination is keen, as he is able to escape into Walter Mitty-styled fantasy worlds where he is ruler, hero, soldier, and everything else in between.  He has talent, as evidenced by the surprise performance of a song he wrote by a band at a night club.  He has ambitions of writing scripts for a famed comedian, and we think, well, why not?   But all the while, our worst fears are being confirmed…he has the imagination to dream, but not the fortitude to chase them.

Such is the underlying paradox of Billy Liar, a smart British comedy made by John Schlesinger in 1963, a few years before his Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man heyday.  This charming picture depicts in great detail the uneventful and sometimes smothering life of the English working class.  Billy's real world involve unsympathetic and unsupportive parents (Pickles and Washbourne), a dull job at a funeral home where the boss muses plastic coffins as the future, and a love life entirely overcomplicated by his own doing.

His imagination sometimes equates to irresponsibility.  He daydreams instead of making it to work on time.  He stashes away a cache of calendars that his bosses entrusted him to mail out (it's never made clear what he did with the postage money, other than he didn't spend it on postage).   Instead of making the most of his job, he plans to quit in order to accept an imaginary offer from a popular comic to write scripts.  And, with his penchant for fantasy (read: lying), he's managed to get himself engaged to not one, but two women (Watts and Fraser) with a single ring.  Complications ensue.

But we watch Billy with a sense that he's capable of great things, if only he could harness his great imagination instead of letting it run wild with him.  We also sense that because he prefers his fantasies to reality, that he sadly won't amount to what he could be.  Our first real clue is when he sits alone in the office and begins pounding out his first novel on an old typewriter.  It starts out promising enough, but soon, Billy gets hung up over a simple thing like the by-line.  He keeps making his own name sound grander and more prolific, until soon, there is no more novel.

A new door opens for Billy when he meets up with Liz (Christie), who seems to be the perfect girl for him, despite his engagements.  She's a pretty, liberated spirit who chases her dreams with abandon.  She also believes in Billy's talents.  Her idea?  If he wants to write scripts, they should throw caution to the wind and head out for London to make his dream come true.  He is left, after all, with no real commitments to his working class life, after losing his job and facing probable legal action over the postage money, his parents' thorough disgust with him, and his two fiancées finally catching wind of his deceitful balancing act.

“Go on, Billy,” we think to ourselves, if not shouting at the screen, “go with her!  Do it!  Live the adventurous life you've always imagined for yourself!”  Does he?  Sorry, can't tell.  That would be cheating.  Just know that you'll be entirely wrapped up in Billy's moment of critical decision, cheering him on, and keeping your fingers crossed for him.

Video ***1/2

Criterion delivers yet another remarkable anamorphic transfer for a classic film.  This is one of the best black and white video offerings I've seen, with a clean print (save one or two minor instances of scratches), a full range of grayscale including deep blacks and clear whites, sharpness without grain and strong image detail throughout, from close-ups to deep focus shots.  There is no shimmering or other distortions present to mar the quality.  A terrific effort.

Audio **

This original mono track is presented cleanly, with clear dialogue and a fair amount of dynamic range in the musical score and occasional sound effects.  Nothing overwhelming, but well constructed and suitable for the viewing experience.

Features ***

I enjoyed the commentary track, which mainly features director John Schlesinger, but also has a few thoughts from co-stars Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie.  All talk about the development of the project from book to play to film, and how the audience for the picture has grown over the years.  There is also an excerpt from the BBC series “Hollywood UK”, devoted to British cinema in the 1960s hosted by Richard Lester, that documents two of Schlesinger's films, this one and A Kind of Loving.  Rounding out the extras is the original theatrical trailer.


The escapist world of Billy Liar is a nice place to spend an hour and a half, though it drives the point home that no fantasy, however elaborate, can completely replace reality, for better or for worse.   But this thoughtful, somewhat overlooked British comedy is a jewel of a film, with a good cast and smart, sensible direction from Schlesinger.  This quality DVD offering makes this a must see for fans of British cinema or classic comedies in general.