The Light Touch of Tony Richardson: Pushing the Boundaries
I have always gone on to new places and undertakings, each different from those already familiar to me (‘oh where is that sense of unifying style?’ the critics would say [...]) Each time I’ve pushed off it has not been from the necessity or wish to get away but because the newer world holds the promise of a positive and glowing thing which I wanted to experience or create.
– Tony Richardson (1)
I. Introduction: Defining Tony
It is understandable that so many critics have decried British director Tony Richardson for either being overly concerned with style or for having no style of his own; Richardson’s œuvre is difficult to encapsulate. Many critics fail to appreciate that Tony Richardson’s approach to filmmaking was his style. He believed in trying new or neglected material, and was lauded for the integrity of his film adaptations of literary and dramatic works. Many of his films are socially relevant and often deal with stories about an individual’s struggle against authority. He insisted on shooting on location, sometimes to the annoyance of cast and crew. He allowed for spontaneity and encouraged actors to experiment. When filming, it was his habit to have everyone on the set break for a glass of champagne at 11 am. He did not believe in perfection and ended his memoir with something he heard Samuel Beckett murmur to an actor: “Go on failing. Go on. Only next time try to fail better.”
Born in 1928 in Shipley, Yorkshire, Richardson’s formative years were uneventful. The only child of a lower middle-class pharmacist, he was a sickly child and learned to manipulate the adults in a household that included both grandmothers. He read a great deal and developed a lifelong love for animals, birds and flowers (as an adult he kept an aviary of exotic birds). When twelve years old, he was shipped off to boarding school – which he loathed – and began acting, directing and staging plays. Before going to Oxford in 1948 on a scholarship, he started an amateur theatre company; once at Oxford, his life in theatre took off and he quickly rose to fame.
Abounding with energy, Richardson was prolific. From the start of his directorial career in the early 1950s until his death in 1991, he directed 36 stage plays, 20 films and 44 television dramas. While his contribution to the revitalization of British theatre and cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s is widely acknowledged, his subsequent film career is generally overlooked. Film critic Peter Cowie wrote of Richardson’s post-Tom Jones (1963) cinematic endeavours, “Richardson limped from one half-baked production to the next.” (2) Although some critics have given a more positive appraisal of his films (most notably film scholars James M. Welsh and John C. Tibbetts, who believe Richardson’s forte was adapting literary and dramatic works for the screen, and Don Radovich, who has general admiration for Richardson) (3), Tony Richardson remains relatively under-appreciated.
I suggest that, until his death, Richardson continued to produce original, entertaining films, many with critiques of the British class system and American capitalism. A chronological survey of the films highlights how Richardson, especially in the 1960s, leapt from one genre to another, sometimes creating one-of -a-kind films along the way. Contrary to the assertion that Tony Richardson had no style of his own, I believe that Richardson’s versatility and ability to work in many styles was an asset rather than a flaw, and perhaps an important key in his approach to filmmaking. He launched and revived many careers, visualized each project with a fresh eye, and explored the possibilities of cinema as a malleable form. As with any artist who experiments and is prolific, not all works will be successful, but in the course of his career Richardson made at least eight films that are worthy of any cinéphile’s attention.
First Films: Leading the Revolution 1955-1960
Richardson’s early films are best understood against the backdrop of mainstream British cinema of the 1950s, which was æsthetically stagnant and whose subjects were limited to classics or dramas about the affluent classes. Working-class people only appeared as side characters or in comedic or denigrating roles. Richardson and others reacted against this.
Richardson’s first foray into film was as a participant in the Free Cinema movement, the precursor to the British New Wave. In the early 1950s, while writing film criticism for the progressive film journal Sight and Sound, Richardson became associated with its editors, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. They were all aware of the exciting cinematic developments taking place outside of Britain’s borders. At the time, Richardson was directing dramas for the BBC and had already made a name for himself as an imaginative theatrical director while at Oxford University. Anderson and Reisz had made short documentaries about working-class subjects and found the films revelatory; their films were far more engaging than the stuffy British studio productions. In 1955, Richardson co-directed Momma Don’t Allow with Karel Reisz. Filmed with a handheld camera by cinematographer Walter Lassally, it is a 22-minute black-and-white documentary with wild sound that shows young adults at menial jobs, then later dancing with abandon at a jazz club in London. Program notes stated that the directors sought to capture the “freedom, exuberance, and vitality” of the dancers – they did. Richardson, Reisz and Anderson signed and published a Free Cinema manifesto that advocated films that valued the personal over the commercial. Richardson was involved in organizing the first of six Free Cinema screenings that showcased their films, including Momma Don’t Allow.
The Free Cinema films paved the way for the British New Wave because they began focusing on the struggles of working-class people, subjects that the British New Wave directors would later dramatize. In addition, the Free Cinema films were shot on location with minimal equipment and had a refreshing æsthetic that was emulated by British New Wave directors. Finally, the Free Cinema directors, Lindsey Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, made many of the seminal British New Wave films. The primary difference between the films of the Free Cinema and the New Wave is that the Free Cinema films were short, low-budget documentaries, whereas the British New Wave films were feature-length fictional films. The early British New Wave films were based on the writings of a new generation of British writers who were critical of the class system and status quo, and their stories had working-class protagonists. Mainstream critics dubbed these writers the Angry Young Man movement, and the British New Wave films based on their writings, “kitchen sink dramas”.
Richardson effectively launched the Angry Young Man movement in 1956 when he directed the play Look Back in Anger, written by the then unknown playwright John Osborne. Look Back in Anger is about the angst of the well-educated working-class Jimmy Porter. He rages at his middle-class wife, Alison, in retaliation for her parents’ disdain for his job as a candy-stall shopkeeper in an open-air market. Jimmy’s antagonistic behaviour and rants against church and state disrupt his marriage. The Jimmy Porter character captured the frustration of Britain’s postwar generation with a class system that had remained intact. Although there had been social reforms after the war and the working class was provided a better education and achieved greater affluence, its social status had not improved.
In 1958, following the financial success of the stage production of Look Back in Anger, Richardson and John Osborne founded the film production company Woodfall Films for the purpose of allowing directors freedom from studio control and to give new writers, directors and talent an opportunity to work. The British studios were stultifying and conservative. (In the 1950s, Richardson was also instrumental in the founding of the British Theatre Company at the Royal Court Theatre, thus invigorating the English Theatre.) Many of the best British films of the 1960s were Woodfall productions. (4)
For his first feature, Richardson filmed an adaptation of Look Back in Anger, released in 1959. Starring Richard Burton, the film brought Richardson to prominence, but it retains a theatrical feel as most of the drama occurs indoors and the dialogue feels scripted. However, Richardson made an effort to employ tools unique to cinema, shooting a few scenes on location and using dynamic, fast edits of close-ups. (All of Richardson’s films employ a satisfying use of close-ups). With this fresh approach, Burton’s on-screen vitality and the new socially relevant subject matter, the film is an auspicious beginning to Richardson’s film career. However, today the film seems dated for its passive and mannered characterization of the female leads.
Richardson’s next film, The Entertainer (1960), is also based on a play he’d directed for the theatre. It’s about the demise of the career of a third-rate music hall performer, Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier). Archie’s financing for a new variety show is bungled, his son is killed in war and then his music-hall-performer father dies of a heart attack the opening night of a show they were contracted to do together. Following the father’s death (he was the bigger draw), the show folds and Archie must leave Britain or go to gaol for tax evasion. Lawrence Olivier’s brilliant portrayal of the blathering Archie Rice and the location shots of the decaying façades of music halls in the seedy resort town of Morecambe create a dingy ambience. This film is an oddity and symbolic of the fall of the British Empire; American rock ’n’ roll and television have taken over.
II. Embracing the Wave: Lyrical Social Realism 1961-1962
Richardson’s next two films, A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), are among the greatest of the British New Wave films because Richardson synthesizes the Nouvelle Vague style and atmospheric lighting of cinematographer Walter Lassally, the modern scores of John Addison (which use small musical combos rather than full blown symphonic orchestration) and naturalistic acting of unknown actors to tell poetic stories that give insight into the souls of ordinary people. These elements combine to create a lyrical social realism, the trademark of early British New Wave films.
A Taste of Honey (1961): Commune of Outcasts
While the dialogue in Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer seem scripted, and the films were largely carried by the strong performances of Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier, in A Taste of Honey Richardson’s ability to elicit nuanced performances from unknown actors and make dialogue seem natural, funny and fresh comes to the fore. Although he first directed it on stage, before doing so he’d envisioned it as a film and freely adapted Shelagh Delaney’s play for the screen; he was able to realize the story in cinematic terms.
A Taste of Honey offers a realistic portrayal a lower-class teenage girl. Richardson auditioned more than a two thousand girls before choosing unknown Rita Tushingham for the role of Jo. (She won an award at Cannes for her performance and her acting career was launched.) As Jo, Tushingham is defiant, awkward, independent, spunky, childish and naïve. Neglected by her boozy, middle-aged single mother (Dora Bryan), Jo has a flirtatious relationship with a black sailor who ships off after they spend a night together. Once finished with secondary school, Jo gets a job in a shoe store and leaves her newly engaged mother and rents a flat that she offers to share with a lonely homosexual, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), a new friend. When Jo discovers that she’s pregnant as a result of her night with the sailor, Geoff offers to be a surrogate father, but Jo’s mother finally arrives, kicks him out and moves in, after her younger alcoholic husband dumps her.
From the film’s start, the score by John Addison – varied themes from a children’s game song “Alley, Alley O” – suggests the passage from childhood to adulthood. Addison had also worked on Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, and wrote scores for a majority of Richardson’s best films and plays, winning an Academy Award for the score for Tom Jones. Addison’s contribution to the films of Tony Richardson must not be underestimated. Like Richardson, Addison adapted different songs, styles and instrumentation to authentically represent the time and place of each of the films (for example, he taped children’s songs in Manchester to find a theme song for A Taste of Honey.) The working relationship that Richardson had with Addison is indicative of Richardson’s ability to recognize the creative potential of his crew and allow them freedom; this may be one reason his films vary so much in visual style and reflect their time.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962): Ultimate Defiance
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, like A Taste of Honey, involves an adolescent coming to terms with his lot in life and is about the longing for individual freedom. In Alan Sillitoe’s short story of the same name, Colin Smith is a tough, cynical criminal with few redeeming qualities. Richardson’s paints him as a more sensitive character. He cast the then unknown, unconventionally handsome actor Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith. Courtenay’s intelligent, romantic portrayal of Colin gives the character universal appeal making it easier to identify with his rebellion against exploitation.
After the credits, the film begins with the scowling teenage Colin in a paddy wagon on the way to Borstal juvenile prison. The snobbish Governor of the prison (Michael Redgrave) takes special interest Colin once he sees that Colin is capable of winning the championship race that the Governor’s organized between Borstal’s inmates and boys from an élite school. The governor arranges for the disrespectful Colin to take early morning practice runs through the countryside. While running, Colin reflects on his working-class background and the events that led to his arrest for the burglary of a bakery. When the day of the race comes, Colin chooses to defy the governor and deliberately loses the race, knowing that this will result in a longer stay in prison. The film ends with Colin and other inmates assembling gas masks.
The final shot recalls an army-recruiting poster that is prominently displayed in earlier scenes of the prison’s dining hall and underscores the prison authorities’ objectification of the young inmates: they’re fodder for war and cheap labour for factories. There are recurring references to the exploitation of the poor for war in Richardson’s first four features: Jimmy Porter bitterly recounts his father dying from a war wound, Archie Rice’s son is killed in a war that’s only profiting the upper classes and Jo walks over the names of fallen soldiers engraved in the sidewalk of a ghetto. In the flashbacks, Colin becomes conscious of class exploitation and, on a romantic visit to the seashore, tells his girlfriend, “I’ve been knowing things lately.” Of course, when he stops running just short of the finish line, Colin knows he’s won the race – for himself, not for the Governor.
Richardson liked The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner best of all his films, and called Colin his “spiritual son”. Refusing to “play the game” is a cry for personal freedom and marks one as an outsider. In her introduction to Richardson’s memoir, Joan Didion comments that Richardson was something of an anarchist and “loathed the British class system and all its attendant rituals”. While not as outspoken as Vanessa Redgrave, whom he married in 1962, Richardson chose leftist causes as subject matter for several of his films.
Richardson’s first four features belong to the British New Wave as they reflect the dissatisfaction of the working class in post-war Britain. (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in particular shares themes with Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960, which Richardson produced, and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, 1963.) Richardson, like the characters in these first films, was frustrated with the British class system and he turned his eye towards France and America, where he would soon spend most of his time. (In 1967, he bought an old hamlet in the South of France, then relocated to the Hollywood hills in 1974.) He never made another film that dealt with contemporary British social issues.
III. Tom Jones: Riding High 1963
With Tom Jones, Richardson left lyrical social realism in black and white behind and made his first comedy and colour film. Based on Henry Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones: A Foundling, Richardson’s film is a bawdy farce set in Georgian England. It was Richardson’s biggest box-office success and won four Oscars in 1963 for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Film Score. The sexual adventures portrayed were racy for the time and heralded the beginning of the swinging 1960s. Richardson was innovative in translating Fielding’s literary devices to the screen. For example, the characters at times wink at the camera and a narrator is used to comment on the character’s actions.
Richardson’s comedic sense and directorial spontaneity is exemplified by his incorporating into the film an accident that happened on set: Hugh Griffith, as the raucous Squire Preston, took his role to heart, arrived on set drunk, and when riding pulled his horse’s rein so hard that it fell backwards on top of him. Richardson used the footage and added narration in keeping with Fielding’s habit of addressing his audience, “Even the best of horsemen should avoid the bottle.”
IV. Charting New Territory: Subversive, One-of-a-Kind Films
During the remainder of the 1960s, Richardson sprinted through uncharted territory. Immediately following the success of Tom Jones, he easily obtained financing for any project of his choosing and he worked at a frenetic pace, completing seven more films before the end of the decade. From Tom Jones on, throughout the ’60s, Richardson never repeated himself and experimented with different styles, subjects and genres in a remarkable show of versatility. A survey of his films of the ’60s provides a catalogue of the various cinematic movements of the time.
The Loved One (1965): Blatantly Subversive
The Loved One, billed as having “something to offend everyone”, was an updated version of the 1948 Evelyn Waugh novel, The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy, scripted by Christopher Isherwood and the irreverent Terry Southern. This is Richardson’s most subversive film. It pokes fun at the corruption and cheapening of the sacred under American capitalism in the Cold War and post-Kennedy assassination years, and is one of the funniest films ever made and a good companion to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964), also co-scripted by Terry Southern. Although Richardson faithfully adapted many scenes and dialogue from the novel, the critics lambasted him for all deviations from it, as if Waugh’s novel were sacrosanct. (It is this author’s opinion that Richardson’s film is much funnier than Waugh’s book.)
Shot in crisp black and white by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the plot involves a love triangle. While making funeral arrangements for his uncle, Sir Hinsley (John Gielgud) at Whispering Glades, an ostentatious LA cemetery, newly arrived British expat Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) becomes infatuated with Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), a naïve and earnest cosmetician for the dead. He woos her with plagiarized romantic poetry. But Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), the fruity head embalmer of Whispering Glades, also has his eye on Aimee as they both share an unparalleled reverence for founder of cemetery, the Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters), who is actually the lecherous and cut-throat developer Henry Glenworthy. Rev. Glenworthy destroys Aimee’s dreams when she learns of his “Resurrection Now” scheme to disinter all the “Loved Ones” and send them into outer space so that he can redevelop the cemetery into a more profitable retirement community. Completely disillusioned by her suitors and the Reverend, Aimee ends her life.
Richardson captures the Whispering Glades of Waugh’s novel through Haskell Wexler’s moody lighting and low-angle shots of the statuary and halls of Whispering Glades, coupled with Addison’s tongue-in-cheek, overblown organ and choral music, and the gravitas of recordings of the Reverend’s voice booming over the cemetery grounds. The addition of Rev. Glenworthy as an active character and the scenes related to the “Resurrection Now!” scheme received much derision from the press. Yet the “Resurrection Now!” addition places the film in the Cold War era and broadens the scope of Waugh’s novel from a poke at the snobbish British expats to an indictment of the shallowness and cheapening aspect of Hollywood and capitalism. Further, not all of the scenes of Waugh’s novel would have translated well to film and Richardson was right to change them.
In addition to the actors in the lead roles, The Loved One includes stellar comedic performances by Liberace, Milton Berle, Roddy McDowell, James Coburn and others. Both Steiger and Winters praised Richardson for his creativity and openness as a director.
Mademoiselle (1966): From Black Comedy to Austere Allegory
Richardson, excited by the development of the French New Wave, chose to work in France with Jean Genet for his next project. With Mademoiselle, Richardson again jumped to a completely different genre, switching from black comedy to austere allegory, from the satirical writing of Terry Southern to the dark eroticism of writer Jean Genet, who wrote the original story, and scriptwriter Marguerite Duras.
In another deadly love triangle, Mademoiselle (Jeanne Moreau) is a sadistic, sexually repressed teacher in a remote French village. She is out of place among the peasant villagers: she is urban, educated and of a class above them, walking about town in shiny patent leather spike heels and black lace gloves. Her isolation is made all the more bitter because she’s stigmatised as a spinster teacher. Mademoiselle is romantically obsessed with a philandering widower and itinerant Italian woodsman, Manou (Ettore Manni), whose sexual appetite is sated by adulterous village women. Jealous of Manou’s sexual liaisons, Mademoiselle wreaks havoc on the village, flooding corrals and burning barns, and then covets the sight of bare-chested Manou as he rescues victims. Ironically, Manou is suspected of the crimes, as he’s the only foreigner in town. Manou’s son, Bruno (Keith Skinner), discovers Mademoiselle is the culprit but, tragically, his love for her seals his lips.
Richardson went against the advice of Genet and others and cast glamorous star Jeanne Moreau in the role of Mademoiselle. (During the film, he began an affair with Moreau, causing his wife, Vanessa Redgrave, to file for divorce.) Yet, Moreau excelled in the role and evokes a spidery castrating female with her crisp, deliberate movements, cold eyes and venomous verbal attacks against Bruno, a student in her class.
To create an atmosphere suited to the story, Richardson again experimented and didn’t use any music in the film, only the diagetic sound of wild and domestic animals; for example, a woodpecker’s thuds echo in the forest in a sexually tense moment when Mademoiselle encounters Manou on a wooded road. This is eerie and amplifies the loneliness and psychological isolation in which Mademoiselle lives, and hints at the animal passion waiting to be unleashed. In addition, Richardson chose to use a static camera, so it seems that only the passive landscape is observer to the tragedy that unfolds.
On the surface, Mademoiselle is about an evil woman. Underlying this is Genet’s subtext of the repressive nature of Church and society as a cause of pathological behaviour; none of the churchgoing characters are in control of their passions and in the end they are all destructive: the village women cheat on their husbands, Manou is a womaniser, Bruno betrays his father and the village men murder an innocent man. Critics hoping to see a romping comedy like Tom Jones were disappointed. Further evidence of Richardson’s versatility, Mademoiselle is more akin to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard du Balthazar (1966), in its austere portrayal of the sadistic side of human nature, than to any British film.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968): An Unconventional Anti-War Film
Since his youth, Richardson had been haunted by the account of the unnecessary slaughter of the British cavalry in the Crimean War given in Cecil-Woodham Smith’s book, Reasons Why. The affair with Moreau ended, Richardson returned to Britain to work on a screenplay of the 1850s battle.
Captain Nolan (David Hemmings) is a conscientious cavalryman distressed by the pettiness of Commander of the Light Brigade, the pompous Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), who severely punishes men for no sound reason. For example, in one scene he has Captain Nolan arrested for ordering a beverage in a “black bottle” at dinner because he insists that officers drink champagne only. (Officers had to buy their position; consequently, only aristocrats occupied high ranks.) When the Light Brigade is finally engaged in battle, Captain Nolan heroically attempts to lead the cavalry away from the enemy, but it’s too late; the mistakes of the inept and arrogant aristocratic generals results in the Light Brigade being ambushed and slaughtered.
Richardson went to great pains to ensure that the costumes and sets were historically accurate, even making a faithful copy of a surviving battlefield note. He filmed on location in Turkey and employed part of the Turkish army. In addition, cinematographer David Watkins used the same sort of lens that was used for postcards in the 1850s and the battlefield scenes have a muted, painterly quality. The attention to historical detail is carried over to the successful inclusion of animation into the film; the animation is modelled after the Punch cartoons of the 18th century, and complements and supports historical verisimilitude. There’s an innovative transition from film to animation when a woman (Vanessa Redgrave), enamoured with Captain Nolan, receives a newspaper erroneously announcing that the British have captured Sebastopol. Overcome with joy, she dances and, as she twirls, the film becomes polarized and seamlessly switches to animation. John Addison’s overblown choral music is used to satirize the aristocratic generals’ glorification of war, as an animation shows a British lion in a Union Jack overwhelming a Russian bear. An abrupt cut to a filmed explosion neatly contrasts the fantasy of war with its bloody reality.
While the film is an indictment of war, Richardson again lightens serious subject matter with his keen sense of humour. The Commander of the army, played superbly by John Gielgud, is absurdly genteel. For example, instead of interrogating a captured Russian spy for intelligence, he scolds a general for bringing such a lowly character into his presence, thus missing an opportunity to avert an impending ambush. Then, as the Russians are surrounding the British cavalry, he sits overlooking the battlefield and babbles about the beauty of flowers, babies and table linen.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is unique in how it mixes animation and humour in a dramatization of a tragic battle. Released at the height of the Vietnam War, Richardson makes his anti-war protest by offering a historical perspective and again referencing the upper-class exploitation of the poor in war to achieve ignoble causes. Unlike other protest films of the time, The Charge of the Light Brigade is a gentle prod against the Establishment.
Laughter in the Dark: Unhappy Endings
It is surprising that Laughter in the Dark (1969) is one of Richardson’s least well-known films and out of distribution, as it includes a superb performance by the sexy Anna Karina, star of many Jean-Luc Godard films and siren of the French New Wave. Based on Vladimir Nabokov’s Camera Obscura (later retitled Laughter in the Dark), it is about a wealthy art dealer’s demise. Sir Edward More (Nicol Williamson) becomes infatuated with Margot (Karina), an usherette at a cinema, who ruins his marriage by indiscreet calls and visits to his home. Once installed as mistress in his house, she secretly reunites with a former flame, Herve Tourace (Jean-Claude Drouot), and gets Sir Edward to hire him as an assistant. Together they plot to cheat Sir Edward out of money. When the dealer finally discovers that Margot and Herve been having sex under his nose, he drives off with Margot and has a car crash that leaves him blind and at the mercy of Margot. She takes him to a isolated villa by the sea in which she and her lover share a bedroom, unbeknownst to the blind Sir Edward.
Just as he’d been chastised by the critics for updating The Loved One from the Hollywood of the 1940s to the 1960s, so too they complained of his changing the setting of Laughter in the Dark from Berlin in the 1930s to the swinging London of the 1960s. Yet this update makes the disparity between the conservative Sir More and Margot all the more poignant; she is even more the destructive tease in her micro-miniskirts and with her household additions of inflatable furniture and rock ’n ’roll parties of pot-smoking long-haired mods. The entrapment of Sir Edward at the hands of the sadistic Herve calls to mind Roman Polanski, and the film continues Richardson’s trend of dark, unhappy endings.
Richard Burton was initially cast in the role of Sir Edward, but as he continuously showed up on the set hours late, Richardson was forced to replace him with Nicol Williamson. Richardson, always an astute critic of his own work, thought that, although Nicol Williamson gives a compelling performance, he comes across as a weak cuckold and fails to arouse the audience’s sympathy. Still, the film is an engrossing psychological drama that deserves to be distributed once again.
Richardson’s cinematic output in the 1960s is remarkable for its originality and breadth. With just a few films failing to hit the mark – Sanctuary (1961), Red and Blue (1967) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1968) – he is to be admired for taking on such diverse projects. (He also made Hamlet with Nicol Williamson in 1969.) Unlike many British films of the period, Richardson’s films have stood the test of time.
V. The 70s: After His Day in the Sun
In the 1970s, having directed a string of films that weren’t box-office or critical successes, Richardson was not able to get as much funding for film projects and worked mostly in television. In 1970, made his one and only Western, Ned Kelly (1970), named after the Australian outlaw. It would have been a very good film had Richardson cast someone other than Mick Jagger in the lead role; Jagger fails to overcome being Mick Jagger. Richardson commented: “Ned Kelly was like having a stillborn child. The shape and features were all there, but without the breath of life.” (5)
Other projects included Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1973), essentially a filmed play. Starring Katherine Hepburn, it’s a claustrophobic drama about a wealthy and dysfunctional family in Connecticut. Dead Cert (1974), starring Judi Dench, is entertaining but cheesy. It involves a crooked jockey who wins races by drugging the competing horses and jockeys. Joseph Andrews (1977), another adaptation of a Fielding novel, The Adventures of Joseph Andrews and His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams, suffers from a predictable plot twist that is too easily resolved. The film has gratuitous campy scenes, such as when Joseph (Peter Firth) and his girlfriend are abducted and taken to an S&M-equipped chamber, drugged and nearly tortured – all with nuns in attendance. However, Richardson turned to more serious subject matter with a film for television, A Death in Canaan (1978).
A Death in Canaan (TV) (1978)
Richardson was intrigued by a high profile case in Connecticut involving the teenager Peter Reilly, who was convicted for the murder of his mother. Reilly confessed to the murder during a gruelling lie-detector test but soon recanted his testimony. Many townspeople, convinced of his innocence, launched a successful campaign to get him retried and released from prison. Richardson raised funds to make a television docu-drama about the case, and obtained transcripts of the exchange between a detective and the defendant during the lie-detector tests. Richardson wisely chose to employ the original transcript. Sergeant Tim Scully (Kenneth McMillan), acting the “good cop”, convinces the impressionable, sleep-deprived adolescent Peter Reilly (brilliantly played by unknown Paul Clemens) that he killed his mother but just blotted it out of his mind. It is one of those blood-stirring scenes in which the audience is put in Reilly’s shoes, wondering how they would respond if given such a test. Richardson praised his cast of actors as being the most professional he’d ever worked with. Death in Canaan was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama.
VI. The 1980s: American Nightmares
In the 1980s and ’90s, Richardson continued to work mostly for television, directing the dramas The Penalty Phase (1986), Beryl Markham: A Shadow on the Sun (1988), The Phantom of the Opera (1990) and “Hills Like White Elephants” (an episode of the portmanteau Women and Men: Stories of Seduction, 1990). While all of these are reasonably good, they’re hardly remarkable, and his feature, The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), is a rambling, ludicrous, novelty film.
Yet two films from this period deserve attention for their critical subject matter: The Border (1982) and Blue Sky (1994). The films’ style and the happy endings place them within the Hollywood tradition. The fine performances are further evidence of Richardson’s ability to bring out the best in his actors.
The Border (1982): A Rebel in American Hell
After moving to southern California in 1974, Richardson became fascinated by the treatment of poor Mexicans caught attempting to cross into the US for work and wished to make a realistic film about the issue. He collaborated with various authors on a script and took it to Jack Nicholson, who agreed to star. Shot on location in El Paso, it’s one of those rare films that address the corruption of the border patrol and the disparity between affluent Americans and their Mexican neighbours. The Border highlights the vapidity of American consumerism, prejudice and how the lust for money corrupts.
Marcy (Valerie Perrine), the materialistic, dizzy wife of Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson), convinces him to move to El Paso and buy a house next door to her equally mindless friend, Savannah (Shannon Wilcox). Savannah’s husband, Cat (Harvey Keitel), gets Charlie a job as a border patrol guard. As Charlie’s wife racks up debt buying a waterbed and a swimming pool on credit, he reluctantly joins Cat in a drug smuggling ring to pay the bills. After discovering the ring is involved in murder, Charlie refuses to participate, and becomes obsessed with the plight of a beautiful Mexican widow. He rescues her baby from kidnappers and walks across the river to deliver it to her arms.
As Charlie, Jack Nicholson is in his element as a misfit burdened by a stupid wife, and he has a temper tantrum that is reminiscent of the famous restaurant scene in Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970). Shortly after Charlie witnesses the murder of several Mexicans at the border, his wife hosts a party. Barbequing hamburgers, Charlie becomes exasperated as drunk, idiotic guests fall about. He rolls the grill into the pool, yelling, “Soup’s on!” This outburst is believable given the dire situation in which Charlie finds himself; Charlie is ensnared in a corrupt, materialistic and mindless society. He dreams of returning to his job as a Forest Ranger and of living a simpler, freer life. This yearning for personal freedom is a thread that runs through Richardson’s films.
Blue Sky (1994): Atomic Hollywood
Richardson’s final film, Blue Sky, is based on a true-life story about the military cover-up of nuclear tests and civilian radiation exposure. The film stars Jessica Lange, who won several awards for her performance, including an Oscar for Best Actress. Blue Sky garnered more critical praise than Richardson had received in decades. Unfortunately, Richardson had died of AIDS in 1991, three years before the film’s long-delayed theatrical release.
Set in the 1950s, Carly Marshall (Jessica Lange), a military scientist’s sexy, unstable wife, threatens to break apart the family when she has an affair with her husband’s slimy supervisor, Vince Johnson (Powers Booth). Meanwhile, her stoic and loving husband, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), monitors an underground atomic test, codenamed “Blue Sky”. He notifies his supervisors when he sees civilians on the test site, but they detonate the bomb anyway. Hank is outraged at the military’s refusal to disclose that civilians have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. When Hank protests the military’s cover-up, Vince has him arrested and lies to Carly, telling her that Hank can avoid prison if she commits him to a mental institution. She follows Vince’s advice, but soon becomes cognizant of the true nature of her husband’s situation. She pulls a heroic publicity stunt to save her husband and expose the Blue Sky cover-up.
Concurrent with the production of the film, investigations were underway of the military’s covert use of personnel as unwitting guinea pigs during the United States nuclear tests in the 1950s. Only a handful of films have dealt with the issue and the film is worth seeing for that reason alone. However, Richardson focuses on the human aspect of the story and makes an absorbing drama without being dogmatic. According to one of the screenwriters on the film, Arlene Sarner, Richardson was “relentlessly inquisitive about people’s personal lives” (6). Richardson always researched his subjects thoroughly during the scripting process, and strove for emotional authenticity. This is one of the reasons he insisted in shooting on location; he believed actors gave more authentic performances.
VII. Conclusion: Richardson’s Achievement
The films highlighted here are evidence of how Tony Richardson continually explored the possibilities that cinema offers as a form of expression, while often addressing socially relevant issues. From the time he joined the Free Cinema movement to Blue Sky, he never fell back on a formulaic approach or took the secure path. He is responsible for launching the careers of several actors and movie personalities who are now successful. Almost all of his films include nuanced and compelling performances from actors. In addition, he had a gift for adapting literature to the screen, and was able to convey the mood and setting of a novel even when he improvised and interpreted the text. In many of his films, Richardson’s keen sense of humour and gift for handling dialogue add a lightness that is uniquely his own. Above all, in the films surveyed here, he experimented and took risks. In the end, that is Richardson’s style: to produce original work and lightly push the boundaries of cinematic expression.
- Tony Richardson, The Long-distance Runner: An Autobiography (New York: Morrow, 1993).
- Peter Cowie, Revolution!: The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties (New York: Faber and Faber, 2004), p. 96.
- James M. Welch and John C. Tibbetts edited a book of essays about the films of Tony Richardon, The Cinema of Tony Richardson: Essays and Interviews (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999), and Don Radovich wrote Tony Richardson: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995).
- Richardson produced Karl Reisz’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, starring Albert Finney, and helped Ken Loach to produce his first film, Kes (1969).
- Richardson, p. 268.
- Arlene Sarner, quoted in the Toronto Star (5 October 1994), excerpted in Radovich, p. 165.
Momma Don’t Allow (1955)
Othello (1955) – television
The Makepeace Story (1956) – television series
Look Back in Anger (1958)
A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960) – television
The Entertainer (1960)
A Taste of Honey (1961)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Tom Jones (1963)
The Loved One (1965)
Red and Blue (1967)
The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967)
Laughter in the Dark (1969)
“Nijinsky” (1970) – unfinished project
Ned Kelly (1970)
A Delicate Balance (1973)
Dead Cert (1974)
Mahagony (Berry Gordy, 1975) – uncredited
Joseph Andrews (1977)
A Death in Canaan (1978) – television
The Border (1982)
The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)
The Penalty Phase (1986) – television
Beryl Markham: A Shadow on the Sun (1988) – television
Women and Men: Stories of Seduction (1990) – television
The Phantom of the Opera (1990) – television
Blue Sky (1994)
A Taste of Honey (1961)
The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967)
Ned Kelly (1970)
Dead Cert (1974)
Joseph Andrews (1977)
The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)
Happy and Glorious (1952) television series – assistant producer
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960)
A Taste of Honey (1961)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Tom Jones (1963)
Girl With Green Eyes (Desmond Davis, 1964) – executive producer
Picture Parade (1959) – episode dated 23 November 1959
Hollywood U.K. (1993) – television episode
John Osborne and the Gift of Friendship (Tony Palmer, 2006)
Eric Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Peter Cowie, Revolution!: The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties (New York: Faber and Faber, 2004).
John Hill, Sex, Class, and Realism: British Cinema 1956-63 (London: BFI, 1986).
Ephram Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001).
Alan Lovell and Jim Hillier, Studies in Documentary (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972).
Leonard Maltin, 2004 Movie & Video Guide (New York: Penguin Group, 2003).
Don Radovich, Tony Richardson: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995).
Tony Richardson, The Long-distance Runner: An Autobiography (New York: Morrow, 1993).
—-, in Harry M. Geduld, Film-Makers on Film-making: Statements on Their Art by Thirty Directors (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1967).
Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960).
Tony Thomas, Film Score: The Art & Craft of Movie Music (Burbank: California, Riverwood Press, 1991).
Anne Villelaur, Tony Richardson, Dossiers du Cinéma (Paris: Cineastes I, 1971).
Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England: The British Film Industry in the ’60s (London: 1975).
Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One; An Anglo-American Tragedy (Boston: Little Brown and Co, 1948).
James Welsh and John C. Tibbetts (Eds), The Cinema of Tony Richardson: Essays and Interviews (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999).
Anonymous, “Obituary”, Variety, 18 November 1991.
—-, “Obituary”, Variety, 18 November 1991.
—-, “Obituary”, EPD Film, Vol. 9, January 1992.
—-, “Obituary”, Revue du Cinéma, January 1992.
—-, “Obituary”, Film en Televisie, January 1992.
—-, “The End”, Skoop, December 1991/January 1992.
—-, “Obituary”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 2, May 1992.
J. Barron, “Recent Richardson, Director of Tom Jones, Dead at 63”, The New York Times, 16 November 1991.
T. Brandlmeier, “Tony Richardson”, EPD Film, January 1992.
P. Broeske, “The Company of Birds”, Stills, October 1984.
Adelaide Comerford, “The Loved One”, Films in Review, Vol. XVI, No. 9, November 1965, pp. 580-1.
Raymong Durgnat, “The Loved One”, Films and Filming, February 1966, pp. 19-23.
Jospeh Gomez, “The Entertainer: From Play to Film”, Film Heritage, Spring 1973.
Gordon Gow, “Within the Cocoon”, Films and Filming, June 1977.
Peter Harcourt, “I’d Rather Be Like I Am: Some Comments on The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, Sight & Sound, Vol. 32, No. 4, Autumn 1963, pp. 16–9.
Penelope Houston, “Two New Directors”, Sight & Sound, Winter 1958/59.
John Hughson, “The Loneliness of the Angry Young Sportsman”, Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 35.2 (2005), pp. 41–8. Accessed through Project Muse, January 2005.
Gavin Lambert, “Tony Richardson: An Adventurer”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 3, November 1993.
George Lellis, “Recent Richardson: Cashing the Blank Cheque”, Sight and Sound, Summer 1969.
Jonas Mekas, Film Culture, 1959. David Moller.
“Britain’s Busiest Angry Young Man”, Film Comment, Winter 1964.
The New York Times, 2 August 1968.
David Paletz, “The Loved One”, Film Quarterly , Vol. XIX, No. 3, Spring 1966, pp. 41-2.
Tony Richardson, “An Account of the Actor’s Studio: The Method and Why”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 26, No. 3, December 1956, pp. 132–5.
—–, “The Man Behind an Angry-Young-Man”, Films and Filming, February 1959.
—–, “The Metteur-en-Scène”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 24, No. 2, October/December 1954, p. 62.
—–, “The Two Worlds of Cinema: Interview”, Films and Filming, June 1961.
—–, “Review: The Great Adventure”, Sight and Sound.
—–, “Review: The Saga of Anatahan”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 24, No. 1, July 1954, p. 34.
—–, “Review: The Seven Samurai”, Sight and Sound, included in David Wilson, Sight and Sound: A Fiftieth Anniversary Selection (London: BFI, 1982).
—–, “Review: Wedding Breakfast”, Sight and Sound.
—–, “Review: The Golden Coach”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 23, No. 4 , April 1954, p. 198.
—–, “The Films of Luis Bunuel”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 23, No. 3, January/March 1954, pp. 125–30.
David Robinson, “Look Back in Anger”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 28, No. 1, December 1958, p. 31.
Paul Schroder, “Reviews: Laughter in the Dark”, Film Quarterly, University of California Press, 1970, pp. 45–8.
Michael Sragow, “Fan Letter”, Modern Review, April-May 1995.
Anne Villelaur, “Tony Richardson”, Dossieurs du Cinéma, 1971.
A. H. Weiler, “Film: ‘Laughter in the Dark’: Richardson Directed from Nabokov Novel”, The New York Times, 12 May 1969.
Colin Young, “Tony Richardson: An Interview in Los Angeles”, Film Quarterly, Summer 1960.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Free Cinema (British Film Institute): DVD review by Richard Armstrong
Click here to buy Tony Richardson DVDs and videos at Facets
Click here to search for Tony Richardson DVDs, videos and books at