In much the same vein as Man of a Thousand Faces (cross-reference below) the adaptation of John Osborne’s play (Nigel Kneale assisting with the screenplay) strips away the mask of an entertainer to reveal the twisted personality audiences seldom see. Of course, the biggest difference being Lon Chaney (James Cagney) rose to stardom while Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) never got past the twilight zone of mediocrity.
Director Tony Richardson has crafted a detail-rich backdrop on which to let his talented cast dig deep into Osborne’s insights and anguish. Enlivening the seaside resort town with exotic animals and period-setting billboards (“Drinka Pinta Milka Day”), bringing current events into the stream of consciousness via newspaper headlines (“British Ultimatum to Egypt”) and the ever-dependable BBC Home Service moves the plot along wordlessly. The choice of songs (a British Navy send-up and a “March to Victory” musically frame Archie while the subplot of his son’s capture during the Suez Canal crisis weaves its way into the drama; a few measures of Chopin’s “Military” Polonaise subtly reinforces the news to come. Perhaps the finest shot of the film sees Rice, staring out of a monogrammed life-preserver prop after his tedious stage production, then reflecting on “being dead behind the eyes.” Shooting everything in glorious black-and-white is the icing on this deeply layered cinematic cake. Marvellous.
The first-class cast employ their theatre skills to Oswald Morris’ camera, supporting each other, the text and their individual characters with a literal and figurative sense of family. In her first major screen appearance, Joan Plowright foreshadows incredible dynamic range as she brings Jean Rice dangerously deep into her father’s womanizing escapades. Brother Frank’s all-business/ready-drinking-buddy persona is as smooth as single malt thanks to Alan Bates. The current Mrs. Rice has to suffer wave after wave of insults and letdowns from all of the men in her home; apart from going a bit over the top in her fits of crying, Brenda Da Banzie suffers/endures with stoicism assuaged by a Dubonet-fuelled compassion: her one brief song around the family’s piano is a miracle of poignancy.
Grandfather Billy—himself a retired showman who disdains his son’s failures just as much as he unwittingly contributes to them—is given just the right mix of caring patriarch and ill-conceived meddler by Roger Livesey. Laurence Olivier is at the top of his game in lifting Archie out of his self-created gutters, dusting him off, freshening the makeup and putting everything behind him as the follow-spot warms his lecherous skin and fuels his unending desire for a large pint of public success. The three renditions of “Why Should I Care?” are presented with an ever-engaging presence and exceptionally personal undercurrent of self-knowledge and despair that only a master like Olivier could deliver. By journey’s end, having lost a bedazzling beauty, family, billing and backers, there’s nothing left to eat but crow washed down with copious amounts draught Bass and gin. JWR