REVIEW: Billy Liar [1963]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 98 minutes | Release Date: June, 1963 (USA)
Studio: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors / Warner-Pathé Distributors / Continental Distributing
Director(s): John Schlesinger
Writer(s): Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall / Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall (play) /
Keith Waterhouse (novel)

“Today’s a day of big decisions”

When you live in a small town where everyone knows your name, flights of fancy can prove your only escape. Not everyone imagines a whole country to forget him/herself in when times get tough, but Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a one-of-a-kind guy. You can’t even blame him since fantasies of unearned heroics and power do sound better than a sedentary life at home with nagging (for good reason) parents (Wilfred Pickles‘ Geoffrey and Mona Washbourne‘s Alice) and at work as a mortuary clerk. With aspirations to make it as a comedy screenwriter in London, this monotony starts becoming more liability than source for inspiration. So he talks himself into insane situations, talks some more to postpone truth, and ultimately discovers he told the biggest lie to himself.

Keith Waterhouse exposes us to one day in young Billy’s life as the author of Billy Liar in novel, play, and film form (co-writing with Willis Hall on the latter two). Paired with John Schlesinger as director, this trio takes us through the streets of Bradford in Yorkshire to discover what happens when the house of cards Billy built comes tumbling down. It was inevitable—you can’t keep lying to your parents, employer, and multiple fiancés without the walls eventually closing around you as each separate sphere of yourself collapses onto the others. The intrigue therefore lies in his reaction since we assume a fifty-fifty shot between his doubling down on the deceit or resigning himself to the reality that coming clean is the lesser of many evils.

The odds are probably closer to seventy-thirty depending on his confronter at any given moment. If it’s his parents: lie. His boss Mr. Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter): lie. His fiancé with the ring, Barbara (Helen Fraser), and fiancé waiting for the ring, Rita (Gwendolyn Watts): lie. It’s not that he doesn’t like or respect them. He simply knows dealing with them is easier if he can control the conversation—even if he ultimately can’t once the lies compound enough to gradually pull the curtain back. To Billy these people are all a means to an end either for shelter, money, or sex. He cares about them as far as he can use them to his benefit. So, to a point, they have to bear some blame in allowing it.

Those that don’t: Shadrack’s partner Counselor Duxbury (Finlay Currie) and prospective girlfriend number three (or one depending on chronology or proposal status) Liz (Julie Christie). These two aren’t fooled by Billy’s forked tongue because they have either lived long enough or well enough to not be so naïve. We don’t know if Duxbury has ever left Bradford, but he is established and aged to know a punk kid when he sees one. Liz is young by comparison, but she’s also found the confidence to leave for real. While Billy dreams of more, she reached out and grabbed it by traveling around the world for no reason other than the thrill. She doesn’t have to believe him because she doesn’t need him. But she loves him just the same.

The beauty to Billy Liar‘s construction is that the lies overlap at multiple points, forcing Billy to keep track of everything while using those in his vicinity as players in each ruse. If he’s told someone his father has one leg and he/she sees him, Geoffrey becomes Uncle Ernest. If he’s been talking about a sister someone has never seen, running into him/her with Barbara renders her his sister. But while this works at first with everyone carefully delineated, it doesn’t once interactions expand town wide. After all, if everyone knows Billy, they would in turn know everyone else. So using this person as that person to someone who knows the “actor” won’t do anything but prove the fabrication. Put them all in one room and chaos ensues.

This brings us to the climactic scene at that evening’s big dance. Barbara and Rita both believe Billy is taking them. Liz hopes to run into him. And Shadrack (possessing unfinished business with his employee) and other co-workers (some friends and some not) also come for a good time that might be ruined by seeing him. What’s so great about the scene, however, is that the filmmakers keenly set everything before it up as farce. Between the quick-witted dialogue and numerous fantasy sequences breaking in and out of reality, we’re constantly having a laugh at or with Billy. But as the dance shows, the film isn’t a strict comedy like one might assume. At the end of the day Billy must own his actions for better or worse.

He must confront his failures and mistakes. He must experience the embarrassment of getting caught in a lie as well as the embarrassment of transforming truth into one. Billy’s entire trajectory forward is based on a dream he deludes himself into thinking is real, something people genuinely believe. But since it’s also his escape from trouble he’s spent the past few months getting into, any chance of it not coming to fruition means more than mere disappointment. And if he finds a way to bring that hope into existence differently than how he may have originally predicted? Well, life might just rear its head in a way that he cannot ignore. Sometimes the dreams we strive to achieve are only formed to pretend current responsibilities aren’t real.

It all leads to a rather bittersweet finale we can all relate to in our own way. We can spend so much time with our heads in the clouds that we destroy all chances of success by ensuring we never lift our feet off the ground. Every lie Billy tells seems pointless to him because he won’t be in Bradford for the fallout. He forgets the ramifications of his actions affect more than just himself and could ultimately prevent his departure. What then is left to do? If he’s truly the unfeeling egomaniac act one introduces, he’ll go anyway and say to hell with those caught in his wake. However, if he’s the man so many forgive and love, perhaps his conscience will prevail to make things right.

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