Appellate Judge Dan Mancini is happy to report that watching this British classic won't make you cramp up and doesn't require a second wind.
"As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner. I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age (and still am) and in any case I didn't mind it much, to tell you the truth, because running had always been made much of in our family, especially running from the police."—Colin Smith, from Alan Sillitoe's short story, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
After being arrested for robbing a bakery, Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay, Billy Liar) is taken to Ruxton Towers reformatory. Colin is a cagey, angry young man who resists psychological probing by the house master who believes that the aggressive behavior of most of the boys at Ruxton is rooted in emotional instability. When the borstal's kindly governor (Michael Redgrave, The Browning Version) realizes Colin is a talented runner, he drafts him onto the cross country team. Ruxton is to compete against Ranley School on their sports day. It's the first time a public school has deigned to compete with the reformatory, and the governor badly wants to win the contest. Colin proves he has both the physical talent and heart to be a solid cross-country man, but this only makes an enemy of the school's former star runner.
In a series of flashbacks, we see Colin's dull but stifling working class family life before his arrest. The boy's mother and grammar school-aged siblings putter on with life as usual even as his father lies on his deathbed. The old man's pending demise weighs on Colin. Not only will he soon be the man of the house, but he suspects insurance money and poison may have more to do with his father's condition than natural illness.
Director Tony Richardson's (Look Back in Anger) adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's short story (from Sillitoe's own screenplay) is nothing if not structurally sound. It draws smart but organic parallels between Ruxton's governor's callow ambitions to win the cross-country cup from Ranley School and Colin's mother's reveling in the new clothes, rugs, and television set purchased with the insurance payout on his father's death. Caught in the middle of two worlds of crass and self-centered adults, Colin is understandably enraged. His mother's taking a boyfriend soon after his father's death even renders a part of Colin's turmoil a cheeky riff on Shakespeare's Hamlet. The boy's climactic act of defiance comes off as organic instead of poetic precisely because of keen and precise observation on the part of both Richardson and Sillitoe.
Sillitoe was a prime mover in the Angry Young Men school of British literature of the 1950s, which also included John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim), and Harold Pinter (The Homecoming). Sillitoe's sophomore novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (adapted into a film by Karel Reisz), is one of the finest and rawest revelations of the lives of young postwar working class Brits written in the last half of the 20th century. Coming as it does from an angry young man, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is appropriately angry and anarchic. And because of the authenticity of Sillitoe's writing, it's surprisingly relevant and true today considering it was made over 40 years ago (it certainly doesn't hurt that Colin and the other lads are effectively the older brothers of the mohawk-, leather-, and safety pin-sporting punks who made hay with anarchy in London a little over a decade later). While Michael Redgrave is understandably given top billing, the movie's real star is Tom Courtenay. His jutting cheekbones and hooded eyes bring the quiet, palpable rage of Sillitoe's literary character to full dramatic life.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner isn't Tony Richardson's first Angry Young Men film adaptation (he'd shot John Osborne's plays Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer in 1958 and 1960, respectively), but it's my favorite. In Loneliness, Richardson applies the aesthetics of the French New Wave to a story that reads like British kin to Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Godard's Breathless. The film offers a black-and-white world seen through the lens of a handheld camera operating in natural light. As a result, some scenes are riddled with coarse grain, and there are occasional density problems. That's okay, though. The picture's technical "flaws" befit the story's anti-authoritarian themes. Richardson's sense of composition ensures that even the most haggard shots have a kind of jagged, almost documentary beauty. The film's plot is punctuated with scenes of Colin running alone, practicing for his race against Ranley. Set to John Addison's (Torn Curtain) jazz score, these are the only scenes in which Richardson crosses the line into visual poetry. The poetry doesn't feel out of place, though, because of what running represents to young Colin.
Warner Brothers' DVD reproduces the film's ragged visual style with aplomb. The image is clean where it ought to be clean, but Warner's digital wizards didn't try to repair shortcomings rooted in the way Richardson chose to shoot the film. The movie is presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.66:1, and the transfer is enhanced for widescreen displays.
The single-channel mono audio track offers extremely cramped dynamic range. Its limitations are the fault of the original source.
The only supplement is the film's theatrical trailer.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a thoughtful, intelligent, and stylish film about the travails of late adolescence and early adulthood. It's uniquely British, but also universal. It's a work of '60s that resonates today. It's a classic.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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