Plot: What’s it about?
Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is an undertaker’s assistant and while his life is rather bland, he keeps himself above it through his dreams. Now I don’t mean aspirations for the future here, as he simply daydreams and then when called for, he simply lies about himself and his lifestyle. Billy is not a bad person per se, he just dislikes how mundane his life is and at times, tells some lies to keep himself interesting, as well as out of trouble. He hasn’t done much with his life and isn’t on the path to anytime soon, but he always has those dreams to fall back on. But when he finds himself in a spot of trouble here and there, his lies soon balloon out of control, which is why he is known as Billy Liar, to the locals and such. Soon however, he encounters a chance to escape from his doldrums and start over again, but is that what he really wants to do?
This is one of the films I always hoped would be released, but I never expected to see it on DVD, at least anytime soon. As such, I was pleased to learn Criterion was in control of the disc and now, I’ve been able to look it over and I think fans will be thrilled. I’ll talk more about the disc later however, as this space is reserved for talking about the flick itself. This is a very well written, well directed, and well performed picture, one I never tire of watching, to be honest. The characters are so natural, yet outlandish and the dialogue, this is some of the best stuff you’ll hear, to be sure. The events are sometimes a little bit of a stretch, but within the framework of the flick, it all fits together well enough to work out in the end. This is one of those movies that never fails to make me laugh and not due to cheap gimmicks either, this is a brilliant comedy without of this world workmanship. I simply never grow tired of watching Billy Liar and as I’ve shown it to friends, they have loved the flick and wanted to own it themselves. I recommend this release to anyone who likes good movies, especially well written comedies with a true sense of smart humor.
One of the real cogs that helps turn this picture is Tom Courtenay, who gives the performance of his career, to be sure. I’ve seen him in other films where he really shines, but here he is so on the mark, I can’t help but claim it to be his finest work. He is able to weave between reality and fiction so well, which is a must for this role, although I think Courtenay does it much better than anyone could have expected. I love how natural and smooth his performance is, as it never seems like acting and that is the ultimate compliment, I think. You can also see Courtenay in such films as Leonard Part 6, Doctor Zhivago, To Catch A Spy, King and Country, Operation Crossbow, and The Night of the Generals. The cast also includes Mona Washbourne (The Brides of Dracula, The Blue Bird), Ethel Griffies (The Birds, How Green Was My Valley), Finlay Currie (Cleopatra, Ben-Hur), and Wilfred Pickles (The Family Way, Serious Charge).
Video: How does it look?
Billy Liar is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. I knew this would look good, but it is even better than expected, some terrific work here indeed. I wouldn’t say this is a pristine, reference level treatment, but it is the best I’ve ever seen the flick look on home video, so I am most pleased. The print looks very clean, with minimal debris and other problems, so the image is allowed to shine and that it does. The black & white looks great and shows more sharpness than expected, which is always good news. Another great looking transfer from Criterion, who know how to handle these wonderful pictures.
Audio: How does it sound?
There just isn’t much to discuss here, as the included mono option is good, but won’t turn any heads, of course. This is a dialogue driven movie and that means mono is more than adequate, no real problems seem to surface here. I heard no hiss or distortion of any kind, which is good news with a flick of this age, to be sure. No errors in terms of dialogue either, which is crucial and all, since this is a movie dominated by dialogue, to be sure. Not much else to report to be honest, although optional English subtitles were included, should you need them.
Supplements: What are the extras?
This disc includes a fifteen minute clip on directed John Schlesinger from a British television series, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer. You can also listen to an audio commentary track, which features Schlesinger, as well as actors Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie. I found this to be a nice overall session and since Criterion does some good editing work, it remains brisk and informative, with minimal stops or slowdowns. I am always pleased to find commentary tracks on releases and this was a good one, so let’s hope to see more commentaries from Criterion soon, including existing ones from their laserdisc catalog and of course, brand new sessions.