David Thomson is the author of The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies—and What They Have Done to Us; Have You Seen . . . ? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films; and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Alan Bates, Roger Livesey,
“That’s right, chaps, remember we’re British!” That’s a running joke in this series, but it starts here. John Osborne’s screen adaptation of his tragicomisatiric play unabashedly retains an aura of theater, set against the evocative backdrop of a seedy seaside town. Laurence Olivier portrays a never-was music-hall comedian and philanderer, Archie Rice; Joan Plowright and Alan Bates (his screen debut), Archie’s grown children; Brenda de Banzie, his pitiable wife; and Roger Livesey, Archie’s father, the Colonel Blimp of the music-hall stage. When Archie announces, “I’m dead behind the eyes,” he puts a name to Olivier’s extraordinary feat in a role critics consider one of his best. Albert Finney’s first screen appearance lasts only minutes, but it is enough to make the absent brother Mick, off to fight the Suez War, a presence throughout, and his famous last words—“Life isn’t as bad as all that”—an anthem, as the music hall, the war, and England itself prove to be very like Archie Rice: bankrupt.