Billy Liar seems to me to have a lot in common with Lindsay Anderson’s great films If… and O Lucky Man! It’s sort of like those films plus a more common “Kitchen Sink” film like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Tom Courtenay – who I know best from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – plays Billy, a, as the title might indicate, perpetual liar, but also a dreamer. He lives with his working-class parents and works for the local mortician, but all he wants to do is write scripts for the famous comic Danny Boon (Leslie Randall).
Like those Anderson films, Billy Liar is a smart mix of fantasy and reality. It’s not as anti-establishment, but it’s close. Julie Christie makes an appearance as Liz-
-in the role that really made her famous. She’s a confident confidant in here, and plays the role beautifully, though her screentime is minimal.
This is a very early John Schlesinger effort and one of his best, preceding the better known films Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man.
I really like Schlesinger’s style here. He mostly keeps the fantasies and realities obviously separate, though there’s a nice moment towards the end, as Billy runs to catch a train and head to London with Liz where the sound from a moment of fantasy bleeds in, blurring that aural delineation.
Schlesinger’s all about blocking in depth. He frequently features a character or characters in the foreground, with another in the background, and those positions change constantly. His style reminds me of another famous John’s: Frankenheimer.
Here’s one of the more simple examples of it. Billy comes home. His father, Geoffrey (Wilfred Pickles) is in the foreground. Billy sneaks behind him and into the living room:
Once in the living room the roles of depth have been reversed. Billy is closer to camera, with his father in the distance-
-until his father gets closer and evens their footing:
This is all good, classic blocking, where characters’ movements change in accordance to power shifts.
Here’s a great scene. Billy argues in the kitchen with his father and his mother, Alice (Mona Washbourne). Notice how Schlesinger frames them in front of that doorway so that we can see through to Grandma Florence (Ethel Griffies), sitting in the background:
As with the scene above, once Billy starts to lose control of the conversation he either occupies less of the frame as his mother and father come closer to the camera (which is static except for a pan)-
-or he occupies the background and remains out of focus, framed between one generation (his parents) and another (Grandma Florence), a literal representation of one of his problems throughout the film:
Billy leaves and Schlesinger cuts into the living room with Grandma Florence, having some kind of an attack, in the foreground. It’s a dramatic shot, but again allows him to continue his strategy of blocking in depth:
I really love how stacked these images are. There’s so much to look at on every plane, and Schlesinger, like any classic director, blocks it all fluidly and naturally.
That 2:35.1 aspect ratio also really helps Schlesinger’s cause as he frequently pushes people to the edge of frame. Look where his father is in the image just above.
Towards the end of the film, as Billy prepares to leave for London, there’s a camera movement and moment that’s different from anything else in the film. Throughout we’ve grown accustomed to seeing fantasy sequences. Though this short shot is set in reality, it comes off as perhaps the most fantastical of the film.
Billy runs down the street. Schlesinger’s camera, probably on a car, moves away from him. Billy shrinks in the distance, a mere silhouette. The streetlights flare the lens. The camera movement is slightly unstable. Billy eventually gets lost in the shadows almost entirely, and pushed to the extreme bottom right of the frame:
It’s such an odd, expressive moment, amidst an otherwise grounded – even during the fantasy sequences – film. It comes at a perfect, decision-making moment for the boy who cried wolf.