In terms of themes if not in style, Karel Reisz was the most consistent of the young directors most closely associated with the British New Wave of the late 1950s and early 60s. Though his output was disappointingly small and some of his films performed poorly at the box-office, Reisz regularly commanded critical respect and esteem as a film-maker, critic, and educator. His later work as a stage director of uncommon insight also brought him applause.
Reisz was born on 21 July 1926 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia. At the insistence of his parents, he came to England when he was twelve, just before the Nazis invaded his country (his parents stayed behind and perished in a concentration camp). Reisz attended Leighton Park, a Quaker school in Reading, where David Lean had been educated a few years earlier. During the Second World War he served as a fighter-pilot in one of the RAF's Czech squadrons. Afterwards he studied chemistry at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, before teaching for two years at a London grammar school.
His association with cinema began with film criticism written for the magazine Sequence; he co-edited the last issue in 1952 with Lindsay Anderson. He then wrote The Technique of Film Editing - less of a text-book than an aesthetic appreciation of the expressive possibilities of montage, containing illuminating analyses of sequences from Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1948), Lean's The Passionate Friends (1949), and other British classics. The book has rarely been out of print since its publication in 1953. After working as a programme planner at the National Film Theatre, Reisz became a driving force behind the Free Cinema movement, which aimed to provide an alternative to a national cinema considered tepid, uncommitted, and class-bound. Under the Free Cinema umbrella he co-directed Momma Don't Allow (1955) with Tony Richardson, a short, vivid social portrait shot in a north London jazz club; co-produced Lindsay Anderson's film about Covent Garden market, Every Day Except Christmas (1957); and directed the fifty-two minute We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959), an ambitious, often poetic survey of life in and around a south London youth club.
Reisz's debut as a fiction feature director took place the following year. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), an adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's controversial novel of working-class life, though made with limited resources and no established stars, proved a critical and popular success. Albert Finney's Arthur Seaton, the hero who compensates for his job's monotonous grind with regular boozing and an affair with a married woman, represented something entirely new in British cinema. Subsequently Reisz produced Lindsay Anderson's equally powerful This Sporting Life (1963), but this was essentially the last gasp of the New Wave. Surprisingly, his next film was an updated adaptation of Emlyn Williams' 1930s melodrama Night Must Fall (1964). Finney gives a virtuoso performance as the psychopath happy to keep a previous victim's head in a hat-box; but the film's emotional coldness makes it less satisfying than Richard Thorpe's American version (1937), where the psychopath (Robert Montgomery) is matched against a plucky and resourceful woman (Rosalind Russell).
Reisz was far less detached in Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), based on a television play by David Mercer. The director - at this time - shared Mercer's attitudes towards madness and Marxism, and he shows uncharacteristic warmth and humour in his treatment of David Warner's gangling, anarchic working-class artist, hostile to the stuffy conformism of bourgeois society but unable to believe in the comforting platitudes of his old Mum's Communism. Morgan is very different from Finney's Arthur Seaton, but both men can be seen as representatives of rebellious youth, unwilling to accept their allotted roles in life or the assumption that their elders are their betters.
With Isadora Reisz focused on an earlier rebel, the early twentieth-century dancer and free spirit Isadora Duncan, who flirted with Russian revolutionaries and shook up European audiences with her sensual, uninhibited performances. But in contrast to the exuberant fun of Morgan, Isadora seems fatally afflicted by vapidity, as though over two hours of pretentious dancing had drained even the stoic Reisz of energy. He revived himself - after a six-year gap - with two vigorous American films, The Gambler (1974) and Who'll Stop the Rain (1977), both featuring tough heroes struggling to survive in a sleaze-ridden, dystopian society. James Caan in The Gambler is a university professor (a thinly veiled portrait of screenwriter James Toback) whose gambling addiction leads him into the violent lower depths of inner city life. Nick Nolte in Who'll Stop the Rain (based on Robert Stone's novel Dog Soldiers - the title retained for the film's UK release) is a Vietnam veteran, who returns to an America where the 1960s' counter-cultural revolution has been degraded by drugs and pornography. The bleak vision of America presented in these films attracted critical interest but not a mass audience.
Ironically, Reisz's biggest commercial success came with his adaptation of a novel set in nineteenth-century Dorset. John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) centres upon a new woman at odds with rigid Victorian morality - precisely the kind of outsider sympathetically explored in the director's earlier films. Reisz and his screenwriter Harold Pinter turned this supposedly unfilmable text into a boldly imaginative screen adaptation, juggling between past and present in a film-within-a-film structure that effectively replicates the book's modern perspective on the Victorian novel. If audiences felt confused, they still stayed the course, soothed by visual finery and the passionate entanglements of Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.
By contrast, Reisz's next film, Sweet Dreams (US, 1985), pursued an overly rigid narrative line. The plot of this biopic about the American country singer Patsy Cline offered nothing unfamiliar, though gutsy music and heartfelt performances give emotional satisfaction. For Reisz, this was another story of a character trapped in an uncaring society, seeking personal fulfilment. Everybody Wins (US/UK, 1990) a private-eye thriller written by Arthur Miller, with Nick Nolte as a tough but honest man in a corrupt world, failed to generate the same excitement; as the title implies, Reisz and Miller hedge their bets too cautiously, wryly shrugging off the bitter critique they seem to offer of American society. The film was greeted with critical and commercial indifference. Aside from a minuscule Beckett adaptation, Reisz turned his back on cinema and spent his last years working in the theatre, where his productions of Ibsen, Rattigan and Pinter met with greater acclaim.
Two qualities stand out from Reisz's film work: its intelligence, and its fastidiousness. Both became double-edged swords. He brought to the screen some of the best work of major actors, British and American, from Albert Finney to Jessica Lange, and he collaborated fruitfully with writers from Alan Sillitoe to Arthur Miller. At times his precision in detail, in framing and editing, could cool the films' temperatures, and obscure another of Reisz's strengths: the warm sympathy with ordinary people he displayed in his pioneering Free Cinema films and his contributions to the British New Wave. Reisz is undeniably a significant figure in British film culture - though, like Alexander Mackendrick, Thorold Dickinson and Robert Hamer, one impossible to contemplate without pondering what more might have been achieved. Reisz's second marriage was to the American actress Betsy Blair. He died in London of a blood disorder on 25 November 2002.
Gaston, Georg, Karel Reisz (Boston: Twayne 1980)
Hill, John, Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema and Society, 1956-1963 (London: BFI Publishing, 1986)
Kennedy, Harlan, 'The Czech Director's Woman', Film Comment, Sept/Oct. 1981, pp. 26-31
Reisz, Karel, The Technique of Film Editing (London: Focal Press, 1953)
Török, Jean-Paul, 'To Stand Outside and to Risk', pp. 2-3, + 'Entretien avec Karel Reisz', pp. 6-11; and Michel Ciment, 'Bio-biblio Filmographie de Karel Reisz + 'Nouvel Entretien avec Karel Reisz', pp. 12-21, Positif n. 212, Nov. 1978
BECTU History Project, tape no. 193, held in the BFI National Library, London
Neil Sinyard, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors