The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Directed By: Tony Richardson
Starring: Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave, Alec McCowen, Avis Bunnage
The British "Angry Young Man" theatrical and literary tradition began in earnest in 1956 with the premier of John Osborne's play "Look Back in Anger". One of the finest cinematic offshoots of this movement was this 1961 film directed by Tony Richardson with a screenplay adapted by Alan Stillitoe from his own short story.
Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts. - Steve Prefontaine
Tom Courtenay stars as Colin Smith, a borstal (British reform school) boy from Nottingham. The Borstal Governor (Redgrave) takes a particular interest in Colin when he discovers that he is a talented runner. Colin reflects on the circumstances that led him to the school and his place in the world as he trains for a forthcoming race versus a team from a privileged public school.
Colin's cross country training serves as more than just a metaphor for his attempts to escape his family life and/or the authorities. It also provides the dramatic impetus of the film as his extended solo training gives him an opportunity to transition from being impulsive to being contemplative. While this makes him no less rebellious or confused about his place in the world than when the film began, it shows that the choices he makes are not the result of an unexamined life.
Colin's internal conflict is paralleled by the low-key conflict between the Governor, who holds the traditional view that wayward boys will find meaning and discipline through hard work at tasks deemed worthwhile by their superiors, and the younger house master, Brown (McCowen), who advocates a more modern approach involving psychological analysis. Neither man seems to quite grasp that Colin is disatisfied with the options available to him, fiercely determined to live on his own terms, and uncertain about how to do it in society as it exists. This becomes clear to the audience as his memories play out during his flashbacks and build to a crescendo during the climactic race.
Richardson shoots the film in a flat documentary style, using lots of handheld shots and natural light, but with carefully chosen painterly compositions and occasional fanciful moments where he undercranks the camera for a humorous effect. The grainy photography captures the mood of the dreary countryside, claustrophobic borstal interiors, and lower class urban settings of the story. Even the flashback sequence that takes place at the seaside juxtaposes the beautiful scenery with cloudy skies and cold weather. In keeping with the realistic style, the editing maintains a measured pace through much of the film until, very effectively, during the climactic race. At this point, flashes of Colin's memories begin to be quickly intercut with each other to reflect his frenzied thought process in the competetive situation.
The cast gives uniformly strong, generally understated, performances. Courtenay, in one of his earliest screen appearances, is especially good as the disaffected youth at the film's center, although his running form looks a bit unorthodox to say the least. Keep an eye out for actor James Fox in one of his earliest adult roles as Gunthorpe, Colin's chief competitor during the climactic race. His running style appears even more awkward than Courtenay's.
The black and white transfer for "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. While I have previously seen it framed at 1.66:1, which seems a more likely OAR, the framing did not seem overly tight on my projector, which has no overscan. It is not particularly sharp and a bit grainy in spots, in keeping with the quasi-cinema verité style of the photography. A high bitrate is maintained throughout with compression only occasionally not being able to keep up with the film grain, resulting in minor artifacts. I noticed no significant ringing around high contrast edges. There are occasional variations in contrast, especially in some of the darkest scenes, due to issues inherent to the film element used for transfer.
The audio is presented via an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track encoded at 192 kbps. The sound is somewhat pinched, with narrow frequency response, and minimal dynamic range. While there is little hiss or background noise present, louder dialog and music passages have audible distortion.
The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in a 4:3 format. The trailer strongly emphasizes the filmmakers' pedigrees, directly referencing Stillitoe and Richardson's previous work on "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and "A Taste of Honey" respectively. It also sets Tom Courtenay up as the new Albert Finney.
The disc comes in a standard Amaray-type hard case with no insert. The cover image is similar to that from previous video releases. While I normally advocate adapting original movie promotional art for video covers, I have to admit to being glad that they did not go with the bizarre contemporaneous poster art that had Courtenay's face with a garish red green and yellow bulls-eye over it.
While light on extras, Warner has delivered a very nice transfer, within the technical limitations of the source material, of this important entry from the resurgent British film industry of the early 1960s.