There’s a lot going on in Look Back In Anger. Despite the ‘kitchen sink’ nature of this drama, and its status as a cornerstone of the English Angry Young Men concept in the late ’50s-early 60s, the film is fundamentally a psychological study. Richard Burton, as the underachieving Jimmy, definitely spends most of his time being, well, angry. The plot revolves around Jimmy, particularly his relations with his wife Alison (Mary Ure), her friend Helena (Claire Bloom), and his friend Cliff (Gary Raymond). Although the change is incremental, he does tone down towards the end, mostly as a result of his affair with Helena.
I agree with many who say that Burton is too old for the part; he seems more of a dissipated, crazy older lover to Alison, rather than a husband. In any case, Jimmy is over-the-top abusive to her. At the same time, it’s clear that he loves and needs her. Their goofy ‘bear’ and ‘squirrel’ role-playing is exactly the type of fun that people in love and spouses engage in, especially to relieve tension. That they’re a terrible match goes without saying; nonetheless, they do persevere, with predictably rocky results.
One crucial thing that Jimmy’s not angry about is his rather menial job as a candy vendor; in fact he’s actually content, even happy, dealing with the old folks and children who seem to be most of his customers. He gets along with everyone, even taking up with the immigrant vendor, whom everyone else ultimately rejects. The pompous police inspector is his only antagonist in the world of the street, and for good reason.
What really alters his already chaotic domestic scene is Helena in effect taking Alison’s place after Alison goes back to her parents to have her baby. It seems completely arbitrary that Jimmy and Helena fall in love, especially since he’s been as rude to her as he’s been with Alison. Maybe we’re to understand that Helena, simply by being a fresh face, having no history with Jimmy, let’s him feel safer, at a distance from his fears. Paradoxically, then, he’s more vulnerable, but more open too. With Helena he noticeably calms down. It’s at this point that you begin wondering what’s going to happen.
Jimmy has no sooner pledged to Helena that he’s going to turn over a new leaf, when Alison reappears, distraught at having lost her baby. Again, there’s a leap of faith, as Helena checks out, and, finally, Jimmy gets Alison back. The end is very poignant, if a bit wordy, but what seals the deal for me is that they both find comfort in the ‘bear’ and ‘squirrel’ story–honey and nuts all around. That pantomime is uniquely theirs. They want what they are as a couple, nothing else. We can see that things will be a little better for both of them.
There’s some stuff in the film that’s hard to figure out. When Jimmy play-acts with Cliff he’s funny and entertaining; why is it that no one suggests he try acting, especially since, through Helena, he’s somewhat familiar with that scene? Maybe for the same reason that his music remains more or less a hobby; he’s afraid of failing at something he actually has a high regard for–as opposed to street-vending. The strangest scene is one of Jimmy and Cliff’s impromptu acts in which they sabotage Helena’s audition. It’s completely gratuitous. Cliff’s character is problematic. He’s so passive that it comes as a shock when he, not Jimmy, takes the lead in convincing the cop that the Indian vendor isn’t dishonest. Otherwise he’s merely a sounding board or punching bag for the other characters. Another way of looking at Cliff’s character is that it ought to be he who ends up with Alison. He’s definitely a much more decent guy than Jimmy. As it stands, his character is underwritten. Probably this was necessary to give Jimmy as much room as possible.
The cinematography is excellent: there’s a gritty, noir-like atmosphere, particularly in the beginning and ending scenes. Similarly, the music, whether in the background or from Jimmy’s playing, adds both frantic and plaintive touches. There’s no low spots at all; in fact, here and there I wish things were drawn out a little more. Jimmy is not very likeable or sympathetic; even though, as I’ve tried to point out, he does eventually come down a few notches. But I don’t think it’s a knock on the film that the main character is mostly unsympathetic.
You can certainly say that the Angry Young Men of that time and place had misplaced motives. Look Back In Anger, though, shows an individual as well as a type, and his zeitgeist may not have been unique to him, but his personality certainly was. 9/10.