Looking Back At Look Back In Anger

This piece was originally written as a way for actress Charlette Hove to become more familiar with her character’s graduate thesis in our next film How Is One To Live?  But instead of just emailing her some notes, I thought it better to publish the piece here on our website.  I hope you enjoy.

Tony Richardson’s Look Back In Anger (1959) is perhaps one of the most enduring British films made during the genre’s renaissance from 1957 to 1966.  Stark and unflinching in its portrayal of daily life in London, this film also functions as a pseudo time capsule of the moment in which Jazz took the city by storm.

The films visual palette is stark in its black and white compositions of cluttered spaces and busy streets.  Often the cinematography by Oswald Morris grounds the primary character (played by the incomparable Richard Burton) in the foreground with the naturalist setting fading into soft focus.  This tactic, employed this way, emphasizes the primary subject of the scene, even if at times that character does little in terms of speaking or perpetuating the plot.  Like This Sporting Life, Look Back In Anger is more concerned with creating character and making the character’s environment tangible to an audience as opposed to abiding by more standard narrative mechanisms.  Thus the film becomes emotive of Jimmy (Richard Burton) and Helena’s (Claire Bloom) romance, in favor of addressing the relationship in strictly intellectual terms.

It can also be said that unlike the American realist movement of the day (Marty, On The Waterfront, Edge Of The City) Richardson’s film has more in common with the German Silent Film genre of the kammerspiel.  Like the German Kammerspiel films (The Last Laugh), Look Back In Anger was shot on lavish sets, and not on location as can be seen in later films of this movement.  Though this could have allowed a sense of plasticity to permeate Richardson’s film, the director worked conservatively with naturalist lighting techniques, only exaggerating shadows during night sequences (much in the way Carol Reed did a decade earlier with The Third Man and Murnau even earlier with Sunrise).  In this way Look Back In Anger demonstrates the filmic melting-pot which Britain had become, finally maturing into a consistent national voice (other filmmakers had come close or simply succeeded as an isolated case, such was the like of Carol Reed, Anthony Pelissier, Bryan Forbes and most famously Michael Powell).

Today, Look Back In Anger is most easily accessible as a film about alienation and loneliness.  Few performances in a film of such sentiments ever live beyond their moment, but Burton and Bloom pull it off with the subtle nuance of seasoned actors.  It’s well worth a look if one is interested in British Cinema.

-Robert Curry

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