Three movies about competition, property, and rank. Knife in the Water from Poland, Mad Mad Mad Mad World from the USA, and Billy Liar from England. All three are chases and each with a beast in view but only the American film actually runs away with itself down a nightmare slope of greed and violence. The other two are painful enough but generally well in hand; especially Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, a vigilant, metallic piece set on board a small sailing boat. In fact this movie is so artfully cool, so muted and slit-eyed that it sometimes seems downright camp. Two men compete for the favors of a bored girl who wishes the hell with both of them—a spare sexual isosceles which is nicely symbolized in clean, stripped images of sail, sky, and water which group and re-group in triangles and trapeziums of gray and white as the boatload of trouble skims trimly across the lake. A stylish three-finger exercise on the theme of pride.
But there is something else which brings this film into line with the other two. For it’s also a political story about privilege and envy. It was made after all in a country which has begun to emerge from social and economic austerity—from a section of the world which is seriously embarrased these days by the liveliness of the acquisitive spirit. We have a journalist who has worked his way, apparently from a position of great poverty to one of comfortable privilege. He comes on at the start in a nifty little German car and unloads a bundle of expensive dacron sails for his racing dinghy, the cabin of which turns out to be an Aladdin’s cave of ritzy sporting gear—shipboard cookers, inflatable water toys, frog-flippers, chronometers, and a whole trove of out-door stuff from some Polish Abercrombie & Fitch. The student who hoists himself aboard this pleasure barge is understandably consumed with envy and resentment—not to mention a certain ideological dismay at all this middle-class hedonist equipment. Before long the two men are engaged in a silly tournament of wit and daring as the student’s envy provokes him to score off the older man’s vanity. But while they are both challenging each other’s manliness in this way they are also locked in a concealed political dispute: about who does and who doesn’t have a right to expensive personal property. Even the wife is reduced to a sullen chattel for whom the men are haggling, along with all the other tackle.
Polanski has played a cool trick by taking this ordinarily social squabble out of the city and putting it down in the middle of a watery nowhere. In this way the two men, one deprived and the other privileged, are isolated from the familiar evidence which they might otherwise call upon to explain the puzzling difference in their fortunes. Out in the wild like this, without legal credentials at hand, everything seems to be up for grabs and the only way of establishing rank and rights of ownership is to fall back on natural selection. And by these improvised criteria the tables are turned and the poor student gets the girl and takes over the ship. Moral: The rights of ownership do not cover the possible effects of wind, water, or acts of God.
Mad Mad Mad Mad World of Comedy by Stanley Kramer is a raucous wrap-around Cinerama farce which somehow goes seriously out of kilter and zooms off into a mirthless crescendo of injury and violent punishment. It was clearly modeled on the Sennett formula but the simple chase plot gathers unto itself a disproportionate momentum which carries the film to an inconceivably crushing climax. Part of this can be explained by Cinerama, which is so bloody enormous that almost any violence that takes place on its surface has the force of an overwhelming personal concussion. By contrast, the accidents that went on in the movies of Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were pleasantly distant. The idiotic staccato of the old cameras made everything seem reassuringly artificial. But in addition to that everything was choreographed with some tact. Collisions were delicately timed, syncopated even, so that each one had the entertaining form of impact but without the actual shock. On Cinerama every crash seems absolutely deadly, and painful as hell.
But all this only partly explains the exhausting brutality of Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The film is internally violent. It is intrinsically and deliberately vicious. All the characters are mean, cruel, and greedy. They lie, steal, cheat, smash, and wreck with single-minded depravity for which they are punished in the end by a series of excruciating physical torments. The violence of the crimes and the severity of the punishment are completely out of scale for comedy and so the movie fails in this respect. Nevertheless, it is more than just a comedy gone wrong. It has a positive vileness which is almost a virtue. It is as if what started out as a comic extravaganza broke down under its own weight; and then, instead of falling to bits, got taken over, lock, stock, and barrel, by something else which then drove the dilapidated mechanism at a ferocious pace in the opposite direction. In fact it’s an interesting example of the evacuated shell of a bad comedy being seized by seriousness and turned over to the service of a deadly Puritan them. All that remains of the comedy is subordinated to the prevailing sternness and the comedians themselves dwindle to the scale of those tormented clownish figures in a Hell by Hieronymous Bosch.
There is an unshriven demon abroad in America these days; a free floating collective remorse looking for a place to dramatize itself. Mad Mad Mad Mad World has been taken over by this poltergeist. It’s a haunted film.
Billy Liar is a sturdy little film made with austere flatness by John Schle-singer. It’s about an ambitious but flimsy young clerk in a funeral parlor who improvises lies, fibs, and footling fantasies of grandeur to make up for the actual defeat of real life. He secretes a have of euphoric hallucination, in which he guns down employers and nagging parents, struts triumphantly at the head of a regiment of victorious. Fidelistas (how punctual fantasy can be!) and generally drowns his ambitions in a sea of wish fulfillment. The background to this cut-rate Quixote is splendidly drab, rather “down,” and very “Sixties” English. It is more permanently English, however, in the way in which the admirable cast seem to get odder and more memorable as they are further from the action. In this respect the film is very close to Dickens. That is to say, it uses a childish perspective; in the sight-lines of which adults, who surround a young central character, loom up with impenetrable oddness. A great deal of English comedy depends on the psychological opacity which develops in the characters who are viewed from this primitive egocentric perspective. It distances the adult scene down what then becomes a comic vista, and characters, placed beyond the understanding of the viewer, automatically become inexplicable, grotesque, and odd. This optical trick of Dickens is repeated almost angle for angle in Billy Liar and although Billy is cockier and naughtier than any of Dickens sexless young prigs, at heart he is all of a piece with Pip, David, and Oliver—an ambitious young innocent, a gentile nebbish, pressed in upon by a crowd of gibbering grown-up gargoyles.
Through Dickens this movie establishes connections with another well-known English situation. Billy is a descendent of a line of thwarted young intellectuals—or marginal intellectuals—stifling in the depths of the lower middle class. There is David Copperfield consumed with snobbish disdain for his colleagues at Murdstone and Grimby. Hardy’s Jude panting after academic recognition in the obscurity of a stone-mason’s yard. Poor Leonard Bast making an ass of himself in front of those snooty Schlegel girls with his idiotic cultural malapropisms. Well’s Kipps and George Gissing himself. On the brighter side there are those garrulous Fabian burglars of Bernard Shaw. Billy comes off rather badly by contrast with this lot who sad as they are, at least show a flailing heroism. Even dismal old Leonard Bast has a lucky end and Jude’s scholastic odyssey has an almost Homeric grandeur. With all the supposed advantages of the Opportunity State, however, Billy just rolls up in a cocoon of fantasy. And yet the closer one looks, the worse his predicament seems. For, in a sense, he is the wretched victim of the very opportunity from which his predecessors were so cruelly protected. He is a casualty of meritocracy. His talents, unlike those of the obscure Jude, have actually been exposed to open competition and found wanting. To the eager Victorian auto-didact, failure and frustration could always be put down to something outside the abilities of the competitor. Nowadays, as it becomes easier to enter the competition, the self esteem of the aspirants is more acutely threatened by the same token, and fantasy becomes the only resort of frustrated ambition.
Worse than that. Society has even transformed the honorable ambition itself. Unlike the lean and earnest Jude, Billy has no intention of scholarly or artistic fulfillment. He has a fantasy in view. He wants above everything to become the script writer for a sleazy radio comic. So that even the original aim belongs to the same masturbatory day-dream as the palliative. Ay me! the Woods decay and fall.
February 20, 1964