April 27, 2012

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage, Michael Redgrave

What it's about. An English black and white "kitchen sink" drama, a genre that peaked near the time of filming. Colin (Tom Courtenay) is a disaffected youth with a troubled home life. His father (Peter Madden) is dying, presumably of cancer, and his tough-as-nails mother (Avis Bunnage) takes a new lover (Alec McCowen), an office worker with contempt for unemployed troublemaker Colin.

Colin turns to non-violent street crime, partnered with his best friend Mike (James Bolam). They acquire two girlfriends also from the lower middle class, Gladys (Julia Foster) and Audrey (Topsy Jane). Audrey and Colin quickly become serious but Colin's refusal to take a job threatens their relationship.

Colin and Mike rob a bakery, and bobby Dervis Ward promptly suspects Colin, who ends up in a juvenile reformatory. Despite factory labor, the place is better than its American equivalent, with dormitory beds, presentable clothing, and plenty of athletic recreation.

It turns out that the reformatory governor, Michael Redgrave, is a sports enthusiast. He finagles a competitive athletic meet with a comparatively upper class boys school, and becomes obsessed with winning the long-distance cup. New arrival Colin shows running ability, and promptly becomes the governor's favorite. Colin trains for the cup, but secretly retains his disdain for authority.

How others will see it. On paper, this could have been an outstanding film. Director Richardson had a commercial success with his prior film, A Taste of Honey, but the one before that was even better, The Entertainer. Writer Alan Sillitoe was responsible for both the screenplay and its source short story. He had also filled both roles for the best kitchen sink drama of them all, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Nonetheless, critical praise for The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was hardly deafening. At BAFTA it garnered only a single nomination for Courtenay as "most promising newcomer to leading film roles," even though Courtenay was somewhat miscast, about eight years older than his character. The movie was ignored altogether at the Oscars, though Richardson's next film, Tom Jones, became the toast of both England and America. As a period comedy, no less.

Today, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is primarily remembered as a star-making role for Courtenay, who years later did such a fine job in The Dresser (1983). At imdb.com, the present film has a fairly low vote total but the user ratings are high at 7.6.

Grades are consistent among male viewers, but show a significant range within female age demographics. Women under 30 give it an 8.1, but women between 30 and 44 grade it a substantially lower 7.0. Women over 45 divide the middle of those two ranges with a 7.6.

Younger women presumably feel sympathy for Colin. His father has died, he has no money to fund his relationship with Audrey, and he gets sent to a reformatory. Middle-aged women, though, are ambivalent toward Colin. After all, he is a street hood and malcontent who turns down his father's factory job.

How I felt about it. What people remember about the movie is its ending. Is Colin justified in tanking the race and essentially thumbing his nose at Redgrave? What he is really doing is telling the world, I will not conform. You can put in prison, but you can't make me one of you.

A similar life decision arises for many of us. Do we woo the girl with a wealthy father? Or the wealthy, older widow? More often, do we try to get that promotion by sucking up to the boss(es), or by agreeing to their dubious code of ethics, or do we accept a rank and file position where we can be true (more or less) to ourselves?

What a crafty or practical person would do is much different than what a cynical person would do. The cynic sees the dark underbelly of life. The practical man sees life as a long-term game that can be won by adhering to certain rules. The rebel sees those rules not only as a limitation, but as an abhorrence. Why be courteous to those you dislike? Why pretend that you enjoy a tedious job?

Usually, the distinction is not as great as between athletic conquest and a longer stint in a teen reformatory. After all, you can brown nose the boss and still not get that promotion. Or, you might get the promotion, only to get pushed out by a more competitive colleague. When facing the crossroads, the choice is not as clear cut as you might think.

But Colin was wrong to steal the car, rob the bakery, and throw the race. There's little doubt. He trained hard, ran all those miles, and earned the trophy. And he got what he deserved after he threw the race, placed back at the bottom of the pecking order at the reformatory. Some people are born losers, and others make themselves that way.