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The comic story of an imaginative young man who escapes his dull home life , numbing job and dreary industrial town through wild fantasies and fabrications, John Schlesinger's Billy Liar (1963) is often described as a British version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). You can trace the roots back to James Thurber's original story, but it's nothing like the Danny Kaye movie of the meek dreamer turned courageous hero. Set in "the provinces" of the industrial north of England in the early sixties, it explores the same fears and frustrations that roil through Look Back in Anger , The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner , This Sporting Life  and other films of the early British New Wave of "angry young man" films. The difference is perspective: this portrait of ambition aching to break out of suffocating conformity and social expectation is viewed through the prism of fantasy and puckish humor and accomplished with a sprightly style and a succession of zany asides that, like Billy's fantasies, pinballs through the conventional world around it.
Tom Courtenay's Billy Fisher has boundless imagination but little discipline. "He can't say two words without telling a lie," complains Billy's dad (Wilfred Pickles), and he's not far from wrong. Fabrication is reflex with Billy, and not merely out of self-aggrandizement. It's an escape from a humdrum life, a game, an improvisational challenge in a world of straightmen, and Courtenay (who had earlier played the role on stage) gives it a wide-eyed sense of play. "Tom Courtenay had such an innocence that was right for the part," observed director John Schlesinger in 2001. In his imagination, he's not only the President of his own fictional country, he's every hero he can think up.
But there's a darker side to his playfulness. His daydreams swallow him up until he can barely function. When his grandmother has a spell, he gets so caught up making faces in a nearby mirror that he forgets all about retrieving her pills, like a child distracted by a balloon. (Today, you wonder if he'd be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.) And while he exasperates everyone around him with his impromptu impressions and goofy comic improvisations, he has little patience for the distractions of others. His suppressed frustration finds release in a recurring fantasy where he mows down everyone from his parents to his boss with a machine gun. At times his daydreams are interrupted and he explodes with rude outbursts and tantrum-like protests. He's unreliable at best as a clerk of a local funeral parlor, constantly late for work and more interested in goofing around with his work mate than actually getting any work done. The rest of his day is spent trying to dispose of the evidence of his failure to deliver hundreds of business calendars (for which he's already pocketed the postage money) and holding at bay the two girls who both believe they are engaged to Billy; one is a dim virgin who barely lets Billy kiss her and the other is a brassy, crude waitress who is far less prudish and far less tolerant of his excuses. The two girls even share the same engagement ring, which Billy schemes to keep swapping back and forth.
His real-life dream girl is Liz (Julie Christie), an old friend and a free spirit who lives the life that Billy only dreams of. Liz alone understands and appreciates Billy's creative streak. When she hears him fall into spinning a tale, she merely smiles at him until he catches himself and fesses up. Christie practically dances into the film as Liz, a natural beauty without a trace of vanity, bounding down the street with a sunny smile and not a care in the world. "The swinging handbag entrance was a very good entrance into this movie and into movies in general," recalled Schlesinger. "Julie has a kind of fresh, spontaneous quality, which was right for Billy Liar, because she has a free and easy style, and that's what caught the audience." Christie was not Schlesinger's first choice. He imagined Liz as an "ample, Earth mother figure" and he cast a young, vivacious actress named Topsy Jane in the role. It was only when she fell ill (some reports infer that it was a nervous breakdown) that Schlesinger called in Christie, who had auditioned for the role but delivered disappointing screen tests. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role in hindsight. "I think the reason that we chose Julie... is that she has an indefinable screen quality," Schlesinger mused years later. "You want to watch her." Though she has barely ten minutes screen time, the performance earned her a BAFTA nomination and London Films Critics Award and launched her fledgling career.
Billy Liar was Schlesinger's second feature, and it reunited the creative team of his directorial debut, the well-received drama A Kind of Loving (1962): producer Joseph Janni and screenwriters Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, who adapted their own hit play (based on the novel by Waterhouse). For all the fantasy and comedy, however, it shares the working class milieu and the smothering social atmosphere of his first film. "When I first read the novel, I realized that it was about...this boy's need for a healthy fantasy life to get him through the difficulties he found with his family and his surroundings in the life he was leading." Schlesinger shot Billy Liar largely on location in the Northern England town of Yorkshire and establishes an atmosphere of staid conformity in a provincial city that is, quite literally, being demolished around him.
Schlesinger keeps up a bounding pace and a snappy series of comic asides and escapes through the first two acts of the film, most of it driven by Courtenay's energetic character turns. Schlesinger jumps from the dynamic absurdity of Billy's inner world to the mundane distractions of the real world in abrupt jump cuts and at times drops his fantasies into the CinemaScope frame like thought balloons in a comic book. It was somewhat adventurous for British cinema at the time yet it hasn't dated at all. Billy Liar is something of a time capsule, to be sure, a snapshot of the north of England on the cusp of a cultural upheaval, when the vitality and cosmopolitan culture of London was but an echo reverberating through the rest of the country; it's also alive with personality and yearning. It may have been a mere few hours away by train, but for Billy, it might well have been across the universe. Or only a daydream away.
Producer: Joseph Janni
Director: John Schlesinger
Screenplay: Willis Hall (screenplay and play), Keith Waterhouse (screenplay, novel)
Cinematography: Denys Coop
Art Direction: Ray Simm
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Film Editing: Roger Cherrill
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).
BW-99m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Sean Axmaker