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Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)

Main image of Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)
35mm, black and white, 104 mins
Directed byTony Richardson
Production CompanyWoodfall Film Productions
Produced byTony Richardson
ScreenplayAlan Sillitoe
PhotographyWalter Lassally
Music byJohn Addison

Cast: Michael Redgrave (Governor); Tom Courtenay (Colin Smith); Avis Bunnage (Mrs Smith); Alec McCowen (Brown); James Bolam (Mike)

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Colin Smith, a young Nottingham delinquent, is sent to borstal, where he develops a talent for cross-country running with the encouragement of the Governor. When he competes in a race against a public school he has to choose which side he is on.

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Tony Richardson's film of Alan Sillitoe's short story intersperses Colin's (Tom Courtenay) life in borstal, where he is encouraged by the Governor to take up running, with flashbacks to the months leading up to his arrest.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was released in 1962, quite late in the new wave cycle. In his memoirs Richardson describes shooting as "a lovefest... I felt free and happy making a film for the first time without constraints."

By contrast with the theatrical basis of Richardson's earlier films Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960), the camera is very evident. The 'poetic realist' approach dominates - Colin's runs are shot in an impressionist style and there is an experimental approach to sound, for instance in a scene in which the boys riot in the canteen. Instead of being portrayed naturalistically, everyday scenes are shot in a heightened way reflecting Colin's state of mind and his view of authority.

The film faced more unfavourable criticism at the time than many of the new wave films. Critics noted the influence of the French New Wave, especially Fran├žois Truffaut. The stylistic devices were considered too gimmicky and derivative and the anti-authoritarianism denounced as crude. There is certainly a lack of subtlety in some scenes but they can still prove effective, for example the beating of Stacey as the boys sing 'Jerusalem'.

Even hostile critics, however, praised the intensity of Tom Courtenay's performance as Colin. Himself rom a working-class background, Courtenay is convincing and charismatic as the rebel determined to outwit the system. Colin refuses to conform to be a victim, thug or dupe of authority. By stopping in front of the finishing line, he proves his talent, but denies the Governor the credit.

The film is very much of its time, in context and style. Like the other new wave films it shows a British working class with money for the first time but still without power or prospects. Stylistically perhaps its time has come round again - the fast pace and mixing of styles seems fashionable once more.

Phil Wickham

*This film available on BFI DVD and Blu-ray.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Monthly Film Bulletin review
This Sporting Life (1963)
Out of Control (2002)
Bolam, James (1938-)
Courtenay, Tom (1937-)
Finlay, Frank (1926-)
Fox, James (1939-)
Gibbs, Antony
Lassally, Walter (1926-)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)
Richardson, Tony (1928-1991)
Sillitoe, Alan (1928-2010)
Thaw, John (1942-2002)
British New Wave
The 'Angry Young Men'