Look Back in Anger


1h 55m 1959
Look Back in Anger

Brief Synopsis

An embittered young man spews venom on all around him, particularly his upper-class wife.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Release Date
Sep 26, 1959
Premiere Information
London opening: 26 May 1959; Los Angeles opening: week of 14 Sep 1959; New York opening: 15 Sep 1959
Production Company
Woodfall Film Productions, Ltd.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
Great Britain and United States
Location
Elstree, England, Great Britain; London, England, Great Britain
Screenplay Information
Based on the play Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (London, 8 May 1956).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 55m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Film Length
9,014ft

Synopsis

After a night of playing trumpet at a jazz club in a dismal town in Northern England, college drop-out Jimmy Porter returns to his apartment where he lives with his oppressed young wife Alison and their close friend, Welshman Cliff Lewis. The next morning while Alison irons, Jimmy, having noticed a letter from Alison to her mother, rages that his wife's upper-class family is arrogant and dim-witted, noting that Alison does not even mention his name in her letters anymore. Cliff, who comes from a working-class background like Jimmy, tries to make light of Jimmy's insults by engaging him in a satirical vaudevillian act. While playfully roughhousing, Jimmy pushes Cliff into Alison, who burns her hand on the iron. After she orders Jimmy to leave the apartment, Alison confesses to Cliff that she cannot continue to take Jimmy's abuse. Later that day, after Alison learns from her doctor that she is pregnant, she asks for an abortion, but the doctor refuses to discuss it as an option. Meanwhile in the town market, Jimmy and Cliff tend their candy stall, which was given to Jimmy by cockney Mrs. Tanner, whom Jimmy cherishes. Soon after, Jimmy takes Mrs. Tanner to lunch at a nearby pub, where Alison finds them after her doctor's appointment. When Alison tries to have a moment alone with Jimmy to share the news about the pregnancy, Jimmy berates his wife for being rude to Mrs. Tanner. Once outside, Alison mentions the doctor's appointment, but Jimmy accuses her of reporting the ironing incident as spousal abuse before Alison can explain the real reason for the visit. Jimmy then escorts Mrs. Tanner to her husband's grave, where his elderly friend asks what he wants in life. The confused and disillusioned Jimmy can only reply, "everything and nothing." That night at the apartment, after Jimmy apologizes, the couple embrace and kiss passionately and then enact a game they have created to escape the real world: Alison plays a pert young squirrel who scampers around the room, while Jimmy, a big gruff bear, preens and protects her. Before Alison can introduce the subject of the child, however, they are interrupted by Alison's best friend, Helena Charles, whom Alison has invited to stay with them after learning Helena needed a place to live while acting in a town play. Jimmy, who hates Helena for her self-assuredness, ridicules his wife for naïvely liking her and rages that a real experience like losing a child in childbirth might help Alison grow up. Helena witnesses this and other tirades and later asks Alison why she married Jimmy. Alison explains that after their initial romance, Jimmy was determined to marry her, spurred on by her parents' rejection of him. That evening, Jimmy and Cliff burst in on Helena's rehearsal at the theater and perform their slapstick routine, shaming the actress. When Jimmy returns to the apartment later, Helena announces that Alison is going with her to church, prompting Jimmy to insult Alison's family again. Although Helena, who has secretly arranged for Alison to return to her parents, Col. and Mrs. Redfern, defends Alison, the haggard wife only asks for peace. When Jimmy receives a call announcing Mrs. Tanner has had a stroke and is dying, he tells Helena that he is tormented by the memory of watching his father slowly die, then asks Alison to go with him to the hospital, but Alison leaves with Helena. Later, when a distraught Jimmy returns to the apartment after visiting Mrs. Tanner on her deathbed, he finds Alison's farewell letter on the mantle. Helena, who cannot move out until the next day, tells him Alison is having a baby, but Jimmy, far from being moved by the news, calls Helena an "evil-minded little virgin" and dismisses the child. Outraged, Helena slaps him, but her exasperation quickly turns to passion, as Jimmy kisses her and an affair ensues. Only weeks into their relationship, Jimmy and Helena have settled into a domestic routine eerily similar to that of Jimmy and Alison's. During one of Jimmy and Cliff's antic-filled routines, Helena's writing case falls open, revealing a letter to Alison, which Helena promptly rips up to prove her loyalty to Jimmy. Meanwhile at the Redfern home, the colonel asks Alison why Jimmy married her if he had such contempt for their family. Alison explains that while her father hurts because "everything has changed" since the end of his military posting in India, Jimmy grieves because "nothing has changed." At the market, bigoted constable Hurst is prepared to confiscate Indian vendor Johnny Kapoor's license based on an upper-class white woman's complaints that he sold her faulty merchandise. However, when Jimmy and Cliff insist Hurst hear both sides of the story, the constable is forced to give Johnny back his permit when the woman reveals that she bought the shirt several weeks before Johnny moved to that marketplace. Later, Cliff, uncomfortable with the new relationship between Jimmy and Helena, announces to Jimmy that he is moving out. In a movie theater that afternoon, Helena professes her love to Jimmy, who begs her not to let anything go wrong between them. During the walk home, after Helena suggests he find a more meaningful job, Jimmy rages that taking a scholarly job is useless in a society that is falling apart. When Johnny loses his license because of Jimmy's working-class friends' prejudice against East Indians taking English business, Jimmy encourages him to seek justice, but Johnny just wants to move to the next market, explaining that he was an untouchable in India, a far worse position than being run out of one English market. At the train station that evening, after Jimmy wishes Cliff farewell, he tells Helena they should move and start a new life together. When they go to train station bar to toast their decision, Jimmy and Helena find a disheveled Alison there. Jimmy leaves abruptly, while Helena remains behind to hear Alison's story. She has lost the child and has come to the town out of desperation but does not want to come between Helena and Jimmy. Alison tells Helena that she is returning to her parents, but when Helena follows her to the train platform and discovers Alison does not have a return ticket, she announces her affair with Jimmy is over. Returning to the apartment, Helena tells Jimmy about the miscarriage and says she cannot be a part of further suffering. Jimmy goes to Alison at the train station and admits that he is a "lost cause," but he "thought if you loved me it doesn't matter." As Alison tells him that she is tough enough to survive the grief over the child, Jimmy comforts his weeping wife and reassures her that they will remain together now, as a bear and squirrel in their cave.

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Film Details

Genre
Drama
Release Date
Sep 26, 1959
Premiere Information
London opening: 26 May 1959; Los Angeles opening: week of 14 Sep 1959; New York opening: 15 Sep 1959
Production Company
Woodfall Film Productions, Ltd.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
Great Britain and United States
Location
Elstree, England, Great Britain; London, England, Great Britain
Screenplay Information
Based on the play Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (London, 8 May 1956).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 55m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Film Length
9,014ft

Articles

Look Back in Anger


People today think of the 1950s as a time of conformity, consumerism, and cold-war paranoia, but there were plenty of people who rejected that cookie-cutter mindset. Not long after Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg launched the Beat Generation in the United States, the young English playwright John Osborne penned a work called Look Back in Anger, which had its London premiere in 1956. Osborne's gritty drama was a textbook example of the "kitchen-sink realism" that pumped new counter-cultural energy into British art over the next few years – this was the first time an ironing board played a key supporting role in a hit play – and Osborne's reputation as an "angry young man" made those words the internationally known label for a whole generation of mad English males.

This movement gained added momentum when the play came to Broadway in 1957 and reached the screen in 1958, starring Richard Burton and Mary Ure as a feuding couple (well before Burton's triumph in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966) along with Gary Raymond as their flatmate (played by Alan Bates onstage) and Claire Bloom as another woman in their lives. The movie was the first feature by Tony Richardson, who also directed the stage production and went on to make such powerful working-class dramas as A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) as well as the 1963 hit Tom Jones, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director.

The main character of Look Back in Anger is Jimmy Porter, a part-time jazz trumpeter who supports himself and his wife, Alison, by running a candy stand in a marketplace near the run-down flat they share with Cliff, a friend. Although he's more educated than his blue-collar mates, Jimmy stays loyal to the working-class roots he shares with Cliff, venting his rage at society's upper strata through abusive rants about Alison's well-off family and verbal attacks on Alison herself. Alison is pregnant, but awareness of her marriage's fragility leads her to hide this from Jimmy and ask her doctor for an abortion, which he refuses even to discuss.

Jimmy has his good points, including real affection for Alison when they manage to get on the same emotional wavelength, sometimes helped by a childish game where they pretend to be a bear and a squirrel. He's also fiercely devoted to Mrs. Tanner, the old cockney woman who provided the candy stall he operates. But his hostility can be explosive toward people he doesn't like, such as Alison's friend Helena, an actress who needs a place to stay while she prepares for a new play. Alison invites her to move in, making Jimmy so furious that he and Cliff barge into the theater where she's rehearsing and embarrass her in front of everyone. Things get worse when Alison goes to church with Helena instead of visiting Mrs. Tanner in the hospital, where she's lying gravely ill. Alarmed at the extent of Jimmy's all-encompassing anger, Helena calls Alison's father to come and rescue his daughter, and he soon arrives, taking Alison back to the family home. Returning from the hospital, Jimmy berates Helena so viciously that she slaps him – and then passionately kisses him, starting a love affair that reinvents the household with Helena in Alison's place. Feelings continue to run high as Cliff moves out, Alison returns after undergoing a new tragedy, and Helena grows increasingly ambivalent about her effect on the couple's lives. Subplots center on Alison's relationship with her befuddled father, a retired military man, and Jimmy's attempt to help an East Indian market vendor stave off the racism of a mean-spirited cop.

It's said that Osborne based Look Back in Anger on his own unhappy marriage to a woman with little faith in his playwriting ambitions; if so, the play solved more than one problem for him, since he fell in love with Ure, who played Alison onstage and in the movie, and they married in 1957. Jimmy was played by Kenneth Haigh in the London and Broadway productions, but Richardson needed a star in order to finance the movie, which the British film industry regarded as too pungent for average tastes. Burton said yes as soon as the part was offered, motivated by his respect for Osborne, and by the role's antiestablishment views, and (paradoxically) by the prospect of working with a director who had a high-toned Oxford education. Burton's financial handlers were extremely upset, since appearing in Richardson's movie meant walking away from a highly profitable three-picture deal with Warner Bros., according to a Burton biography. This couldn't have bothered Warner Bros. much, since the studio gave funding to Richardson and handled the picture's US distribution, and it certainly didn't ruffle Burton, who was very pleased with his work, writing to his brother, "I am for the first time ever looking forward to seeing a film in which I play." Not everyone shared his enthusiasm – producer Harry Saltzman decided Burton had been "monumentally miscast" when the movie slumped at the box office – but the performance did much to revive his reputation, which was somewhat shaky at the time.

Look Back in Anger also did a lot for Richardson, who set up his long-lasting Woodfall company (named after the street where Osborne and Ure lived) to produce the picture, which was fairly expensive for an art-house film. He prevailed on Osborne and screenwriter Nigel Kneale to open up the play a bit, adding some dialogue and characters (including Mrs. Tanner, played by Edith Evans, a legendary English actress) and setting several scenes in outside locations –the marketplace, a railway station, Helena's theater, Alison's family home, and more – so the movie wouldn't be claustrophobically confined to the Porter apartment. This notwithstanding, Richardson wrote in his autobiography that "the core of it remained as it should have done – a filmed play."

In addition to making Osborne the most influential British playwright of his time, Look Back in Anger "defined a generation, provided a watershed in Britain's view of itself and brought [Osborne] into the public prints as a controversial, dangerous figure," as Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg wrote. The movie has sparked mixed reactions from the start; for instance, Burton wrote to his brother that "there isn't a shred of self-pity in my performance," while New York Times critic Bosley Crowther described Jimmy as "a conventional weakling, a routine crybaby." Apart from a few sentimental moments (the bear-and-squirrel game is a bit much) I don't think his performance hits one false note, and the other principal players are consistently fine. Ditto for Richardson's resolutely earthbound visual style. A milestone in both the Angry Young Man crusade and England's budding Free Cinema movement, Look Back in Anger is still riveting to watch.

Producer: Harry Saltzman
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, with additional dialogue by John Osborne; based on Osborne's play
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Film Editing: Richard Best
Art Direction: Peter Glazier
Cast: Richard Burton (Jimmy Porter), Claire Bloom (Helena Charles), Mary Ure (Alison Porter), Edith Evans (Mrs. Tanner), Gary Raymond (Cliff Lewis), Glen Byam Shaw (Colonel Redfern), Phyllis Neilson-Terry (Mrs. Redfern), Donald Pleasence (Hurst), Jane Eccles (Miss Drury), S.P. Kapoor (Kapoor), George Devine (Doctor), Walter Hudd (Actor), Anne Dickins (Girl A.S.M.), John Dearth (Pet Stall Man), Nigel Davenport (1st Commercial Traveller), Alfred Lynch (2nd Commercial Traveller), Toke Townley (Spectacled Man), Bernice Swanson (Sally).
BW-100m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by David Sterritt
Look Back In Anger

Look Back in Anger

People today think of the 1950s as a time of conformity, consumerism, and cold-war paranoia, but there were plenty of people who rejected that cookie-cutter mindset. Not long after Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg launched the Beat Generation in the United States, the young English playwright John Osborne penned a work called Look Back in Anger, which had its London premiere in 1956. Osborne's gritty drama was a textbook example of the "kitchen-sink realism" that pumped new counter-cultural energy into British art over the next few years – this was the first time an ironing board played a key supporting role in a hit play – and Osborne's reputation as an "angry young man" made those words the internationally known label for a whole generation of mad English males. This movement gained added momentum when the play came to Broadway in 1957 and reached the screen in 1958, starring Richard Burton and Mary Ure as a feuding couple (well before Burton's triumph in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966) along with Gary Raymond as their flatmate (played by Alan Bates onstage) and Claire Bloom as another woman in their lives. The movie was the first feature by Tony Richardson, who also directed the stage production and went on to make such powerful working-class dramas as A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) as well as the 1963 hit Tom Jones, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director. The main character of Look Back in Anger is Jimmy Porter, a part-time jazz trumpeter who supports himself and his wife, Alison, by running a candy stand in a marketplace near the run-down flat they share with Cliff, a friend. Although he's more educated than his blue-collar mates, Jimmy stays loyal to the working-class roots he shares with Cliff, venting his rage at society's upper strata through abusive rants about Alison's well-off family and verbal attacks on Alison herself. Alison is pregnant, but awareness of her marriage's fragility leads her to hide this from Jimmy and ask her doctor for an abortion, which he refuses even to discuss. Jimmy has his good points, including real affection for Alison when they manage to get on the same emotional wavelength, sometimes helped by a childish game where they pretend to be a bear and a squirrel. He's also fiercely devoted to Mrs. Tanner, the old cockney woman who provided the candy stall he operates. But his hostility can be explosive toward people he doesn't like, such as Alison's friend Helena, an actress who needs a place to stay while she prepares for a new play. Alison invites her to move in, making Jimmy so furious that he and Cliff barge into the theater where she's rehearsing and embarrass her in front of everyone. Things get worse when Alison goes to church with Helena instead of visiting Mrs. Tanner in the hospital, where she's lying gravely ill. Alarmed at the extent of Jimmy's all-encompassing anger, Helena calls Alison's father to come and rescue his daughter, and he soon arrives, taking Alison back to the family home. Returning from the hospital, Jimmy berates Helena so viciously that she slaps him – and then passionately kisses him, starting a love affair that reinvents the household with Helena in Alison's place. Feelings continue to run high as Cliff moves out, Alison returns after undergoing a new tragedy, and Helena grows increasingly ambivalent about her effect on the couple's lives. Subplots center on Alison's relationship with her befuddled father, a retired military man, and Jimmy's attempt to help an East Indian market vendor stave off the racism of a mean-spirited cop. It's said that Osborne based Look Back in Anger on his own unhappy marriage to a woman with little faith in his playwriting ambitions; if so, the play solved more than one problem for him, since he fell in love with Ure, who played Alison onstage and in the movie, and they married in 1957. Jimmy was played by Kenneth Haigh in the London and Broadway productions, but Richardson needed a star in order to finance the movie, which the British film industry regarded as too pungent for average tastes. Burton said yes as soon as the part was offered, motivated by his respect for Osborne, and by the role's antiestablishment views, and (paradoxically) by the prospect of working with a director who had a high-toned Oxford education. Burton's financial handlers were extremely upset, since appearing in Richardson's movie meant walking away from a highly profitable three-picture deal with Warner Bros., according to a Burton biography. This couldn't have bothered Warner Bros. much, since the studio gave funding to Richardson and handled the picture's US distribution, and it certainly didn't ruffle Burton, who was very pleased with his work, writing to his brother, "I am for the first time ever looking forward to seeing a film in which I play." Not everyone shared his enthusiasm – producer Harry Saltzman decided Burton had been "monumentally miscast" when the movie slumped at the box office – but the performance did much to revive his reputation, which was somewhat shaky at the time. Look Back in Anger also did a lot for Richardson, who set up his long-lasting Woodfall company (named after the street where Osborne and Ure lived) to produce the picture, which was fairly expensive for an art-house film. He prevailed on Osborne and screenwriter Nigel Kneale to open up the play a bit, adding some dialogue and characters (including Mrs. Tanner, played by Edith Evans, a legendary English actress) and setting several scenes in outside locations –the marketplace, a railway station, Helena's theater, Alison's family home, and more – so the movie wouldn't be claustrophobically confined to the Porter apartment. This notwithstanding, Richardson wrote in his autobiography that "the core of it remained as it should have done – a filmed play." In addition to making Osborne the most influential British playwright of his time, Look Back in Anger "defined a generation, provided a watershed in Britain's view of itself and brought [Osborne] into the public prints as a controversial, dangerous figure," as Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg wrote. The movie has sparked mixed reactions from the start; for instance, Burton wrote to his brother that "there isn't a shred of self-pity in my performance," while New York Times critic Bosley Crowther described Jimmy as "a conventional weakling, a routine crybaby." Apart from a few sentimental moments (the bear-and-squirrel game is a bit much) I don't think his performance hits one false note, and the other principal players are consistently fine. Ditto for Richardson's resolutely earthbound visual style. A milestone in both the Angry Young Man crusade and England's budding Free Cinema movement, Look Back in Anger is still riveting to watch. Producer: Harry Saltzman Director: Tony Richardson Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, with additional dialogue by John Osborne; based on Osborne's play Cinematography: Oswald Morris Film Editing: Richard Best Art Direction: Peter Glazier Cast: Richard Burton (Jimmy Porter), Claire Bloom (Helena Charles), Mary Ure (Alison Porter), Edith Evans (Mrs. Tanner), Gary Raymond (Cliff Lewis), Glen Byam Shaw (Colonel Redfern), Phyllis Neilson-Terry (Mrs. Redfern), Donald Pleasence (Hurst), Jane Eccles (Miss Drury), S.P. Kapoor (Kapoor), George Devine (Doctor), Walter Hudd (Actor), Anne Dickins (Girl A.S.M.), John Dearth (Pet Stall Man), Nigel Davenport (1st Commercial Traveller), Alfred Lynch (2nd Commercial Traveller), Toke Townley (Spectacled Man), Bernice Swanson (Sally). BW-100m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. by David Sterritt

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

The opening and ending onscreen cast credits differ in order. Although the Variety review states that the film's running time was 115 minutes, this was either the result of an error or the time was taken from a cutting for a press preview. John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger opened in London on May 8, 1956 and was directed by Tony Richardson, who then directed the movie. An April 18, 1958 Daily Variety article noted that producer Sam Spiegel was interested in purchasing Osborne's play; however, Daily Variety then reported on May 23, 1958 that Associated British Elstree Studios had purchased the rights with plans to star Richard Burton.
       According to a January 1, 1961 New York Times article, British Woodfall Film Productions was a company formed by Harry Saltzman, Osborne and Richardson. Warner Bros. was involved at the beginning of the production and provided financing for the project. After Woodfall filmed Look Back in Anger, the company produced several other British films including the The Entertainer and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70).
       Look Back in Anger marked Richardson's feature film directorial debut. Actress Mary Ure, Osborne's wife at the time, reprised her role as "Alison Porter" from the London and Broadway productions. According to a modern source, Bert Bates was an editor for the film, in addtion to Richard Best, who was credited onscreen. In addition to studio filming at Elstree, portions of the film were shot on location in London.
       Look Back in Anger was among one of the first films to be considered part of the British New Wave cinema, a movement in which working-class characters became the focus of the film and class conflict a central theme. During the scene in which "Jimmy" and "Helena" are in a movie theater, footage from the 1939 film Gunga Din (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40) is shown onscreen.
       Two television adaptations of Osborne's play have been produced, both entitled Look Back in Anger: a 1980 version directed by Lindsay Anderson and David Hugh Jones and starring Lisa Banes and Malcolm McDowell and a 1989 version directed by Judi Dench and starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1959

Released in United States 1994

Released in United States 2000

Debut for Woodfall Film Productions, formed by Tony Richardson and John Osborne in 1958.

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1959

Released in United States 1994 (Shown in New York City (Walter Reade) as part of program "Laughter in the Dark: Tony Richardson" August 26 - September 13, 1994.)

Released in United States 2000 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "The British New Wave: From Angry Young Men to Swinging London" October 27 - November 16, 2000.)

Voted One of the Year's Five Best Foreign Films by the 1959 National Board of Review.