Richard Burton, Mary Ure, Claire Bloom, Gary Raymond

Directed by Tony Richardson

Besides “Equus” (1977), this to me is the one movie that cements Richard Burton’s legendary status as one of the acting professions greatest auteurs. Made in 1959, at the “start” of Richard Burton’s rise to Hollywood fame (he was almost 40 when the film was made) “Look Back in Anger” begins the pattern of Burton’s self-loathsome, alcoholic and abusive portrayals that come to represent, perhaps unfairly, his most successful films.

Stylishly adapted and directed from the John Osborne play by Tony Richardson, Burton is Jimmy Porter, a jazz trumpeter and self-destructive masochist whose only real joy in life is demeaning and belittling his delicate, emotionally catatonic wife, Alison, played by Mary Ure. A visit from her friend, Helen, who Jimmy despises even more, leads to a consuming, dialogue-rich drama of mental, emotional awakenings for Jimmy. Films adapted from plays have the advantage of clear-cut, engrossing dialogue that establish strong characters and plots.

In Look Back in Anger, its main leads are all gifted, experienced stage thespians. Ure reprises her role as Alison from the play, and Claire Bloom uses her considerable talent to play Helen, a woman torn between her friendship with Alison, and her mixed hatred and desire for Jimmy. Burton is the star, a role and position he knows well and will continue to accrue in his career. He is vicious, deprecating and scathing in his vitriol. He hates himself, his life, and everyone around him. No one but Burton could play such a role convincingly.

While the film’s end may seem somewhat unrealistic, its themes of forgiveness and fatalistic romance surprising and almost unwelcome, Look Back in Anger is one of the great stage adaptations of the 50s and 60s, of which there were many gems. In terms of Burton’s Hollywood chronology, this small film cemented his status as a film actor on the rise and is a must-watch for fans of Burton, fans of stage adaptations, or just fans of strong film.

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