BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Lunch Hour / BFI Flipside Blu-ray Review

Joining Joanna (1968) in this month's BFI Flipside releases is Lunch Hour (1962) an intimate two-hander starring Robert Stephens and Shirley Ann Field. The film was distributed by Bryanston, a consortium of filmmakers formed in 1959 by Maxwell Setton, John Bryan, Tony Richardson, Ronald Neame and led by Michael Balcon. An independent production company, they were backed by British Lion and Twickenham Studios. In 1961, Seven Arts Productions, founded in 1957 by Ray Stark and Eliot Hyman, independent producers who had made The Misfits (1961) for United Artists, joined them as producing partners and investors. Seven Arts are probably better known for their partnership with Hammer Film Productions in the mid 1960s. They later went on to acquire the controlling interest in Warner Brothers.

Bryanston had already had enormous success with a number of British New Wave films, particularly the Woodfall productions overseen by Tony Richardson, such as The Entertainer (1960), Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961). As a subsidiary of British Lion they also distributed a number of independent productions and Eyeline Films' Lunch Hour fell into that bracket. Eyeline were a small outfit backed by the likes of Alfred Shaughnessy, Kenneth More and John Mortimer and usually specialised in short features, advertising and documentaries. James Hill, the director, also had a successful background in documentary and advertising, as seen in his extraordinary work with BP in the 1950s and highlighted in the three colour Trade Test Transmission films that are included in this BFI release. Hill, like many of his Eyeline partners, had a realist approach to his material and this naturally reflected the agenda adopted by distributors Woodfall and Bryanston.

... an extraordinary textual somersault
Hill's career began in documentary, working firstly with the GPO Film Unit and then later, having joined the airforce, with the RAF Film Unit. While working for Gaumont-British after the war, he also joined the Children's Film Foundation and directed their first release, The Stolen Plans, in 1952. It was a relationship that he maintained for several decades, directing a number of films for the CFF until 1976. His work for BP started in 1955 and one of his documentary shorts Giuseppina, made in 1960, bagged him an Oscar.  

Lunch Hour was his second feature proper and he went on to develop a very varied directing career as a director for both cinema, notably with A Study in Terror (1965), Born Free (1965), Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969) and Black Beauty (1971), and television with work on series such as The Human Jungle, Gideon's Way, The Saint, The Avengers, Journey to the Unknown, The Persuaders! and The New Avengers and as producer-director of Worzel Gummidge.
 
Lunch Hour was developed from a play by John Mortimer, first presented on radio in 1960 and then transferring to the stage in 1961 with Wendy Craig in the lead. Mortimer refashioned the script with additional material even while the film was shooting, incorporating, as co-star Shirley Ann Field attests in the accompanying booklet, many of the anecdotes told to him during production. The story opens with an unnamed young couple (Robert Stephens and Shirley Ann Field) being shown into a hotel room where they hope to consummate their illicit affair during the lunch hour away from their jobs at Amalgamated Wallpapers. They represent the binary of male/female co-workers from different echelons of the working environment where she is a designer-illustrator, creating flowery patterns for new ranges, while he is the older male executive.

The central narrative thus spins out into flashback, showing how they both met in the factory and incorporates his desperate search for a place for them to meet. He begins to tell her the subterfuge he has had to concoct with the landlady (Kay Walsh) at the hotel in order to secure the room. He has invented a scenario where they are married with children but their relationship is under strain because of the distance that separates them, him working in London and she, trapped as a housewife, back in Scarborough. Through an extraordinary textual somersault, the young woman intervenes in this fantasy and turns it against her lover, as a scream of outrage at male domination in the workplace and at home.
"art-school...they present no problems"
Lunch Hour eschews the dominance of the male subject that is the focus in films such as Look Back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) or Room at the Top (1959), where the tendency had been to play out the social and sexual identity of the central male character and to trace, as Stephen Lacey considers in British Realist Theatre: The New Wave in its Context 1956-1965, "their trajectory... from bachelorhood to marriage via an adulterous affair". It is usually male conformity to marriage that these texts explore and women are often seen in context as "sexually active and adventurous on the one hand, and... as wives and symbols of entrapment on the other."

Hill's film takes these tropes and cleverly deconstructs them as an oppressive male fantasy, conjured into life by the Robert Stephens character as the older man seeking to seduce a female ingenue. Though she's initially labelled as "art-school...they present no problems" by a work colleague, intimating easier control of her libidinous desires, Robert Stephens gets rather more than he bargained for when he seeks to do just that. The Shirley Ann Field character inverts this male orientated repressing fantasy of women as both sexually available and as figures of restriction and it is, as Sue Harper claims in the notes accompanying this release, "a rejection of both her lover and her imaginary husband... and of domestic drudgery... financial dependence... and above all the sheer hell of child rearing." Unlike many female characters in British New Wave cinema, she neither accepts the inherent misogyny, prevalent in the workplace of Amalgamated Wallpapers as Michael Robbins rants "girls... what use are they?", that her lover also directs at her nor the trap of falling for his emotional inferiority.

Even though anonymity shrouds her character (the Chief Personnel Officer (Nigel Davenport) can't even remember her name at the tea break), she seemingly has achieved a sense of her self by the end of the film. Embryonic as the film's feminist tropes may be, it reflects those rare instances of independent women as the centre of narratives in film and who were not punished for their transgressions and non-conformity, something that Harper sees as central to A Taste of Honey, for example, where "the female generations control the action and, in the end, expel the men."
... the power of storytelling
At the end of the film's textual acrobatics, where the seedy reality of an assignation in a hotel room doubles over with the fictional world of husband and wife and their strained relationship conducted at a physical and psychological distance from each other, the young woman returns to work. She resumes her job as an illustrator, ironically as a creative engaged in that most domestic of consumables, wallpaper. Creativity is a central symbol of restriction and freedom in the film.

When Stephens observes her painting in the office, he comments on the nature of creativity and what a gift it is. He then mentions his childhood ability to make up stories and this imaginative legacy is later the cause of his undoing. As the loop of the narrative folds back on itself, the power of storytelling, from the white lie he told the landlady to the hysteria generated by the fantasy of a failing marriage (also symbolised by his imaginary daughter reading a storybook on the train journey to meet him), continues to blur the line between reality and imagination.

Hill uses editing to great effect, the first scene in the hotel dovetailing with their meeting in the factory via the recovery of a smashed ornament in the room jump cutting to Robert Stephens then helping Shirley Ann Field pick up a sheaf of drawings from the factory floor. As Hill explores the factory through the two characters, we also see how he is positioned initially as a more sensitive, middle class male than some of the cruder working-class figures on the factory floor.

Later, as she checks the distance between London and Scarborough to corroborate part of his marriage fantasy, Hill jumps to an interpretation of this scenario, unfolding another layer of the film, with Field angrily, and ironically, confronting him about the girls he meets at work and various domestic issues as she does the ironing in their Scarborough home. It slowly turns into her worst nightmare as we see how this reality, that he desperately declares to her is "not real", plays out as she starts to deconstruct his scenario.

Stephens and Fields develop the relationship in a sequence in the Embankment Gardens and we understand that he is a married man trapped in a domestic conformity of his own and that he is only sexually free in the daytime, in the lunch hour. This is underlined when Field gazes at a couple snogging on a park bench next to them and says, "they get very friendly in the Embankment Gardens, don't they?" and which leads to their first moment of intimacy. It is the first in a train of scenes that explore the journey to hiring the hotel room for their sexual act as they attempt to meet in a restaurant, a cinema, an art gallery and a park. There is a constant battle between private and public space where each attempt at intimacy is never allowed to develop until he believes the solution will be found in hiring the hotel room.

It's a subtle and intimate piece, soberly shot in a glorious black and white scheme by Wolfgang Suschitzky. The two central performances are intricately realised and Robert Stephens and Shirley Ann Field capture well the slowly evolving boundaries of male and female power that emerge from the narrative's exploration of permissiveness and conformity. Kay Walsh provides superb support as the hotel's landlady, the catalyst for much of the re-imagining of the couple's relationship.

Hill also contributes an evocative score, filled with a bittersweet longing, that enhances the moody cinematography and performances. The hotel room sequences are also punctuated by the sound effects of a rail yard and the shunting of trains, symbolising the imaginary train journeys between London and Scarborough, between a lover and ex-husband. It's a surprising and rather unassuming little gem of a film.

It's a stunning transfer, really crisp and full of details, especially in faces, clothing and backgrounds, and it maintains a consistent grain and contrast throughout. There are the odd instances of softness and slight wear and tear but they will not get in the way of enjoying such a gorgeous, luminous picture. Sound is clear and direct, with the all important ambient noises of the trains outside the hotel room well presented. A superb package that comes with three equally lovely colour films directed by Hill.

Special features
Three films made by Hill for BP,  fondly remembered when they were used by the BBC as colour 'Trade Test Transmissions' prior to the introduction of the colour television service. BBC2 ran the films for six years, starting in 1967, and these three examples here were shown a total of 726 times. This is the first time these films have been made available on DVD.

Skyhook (James Hill, 1958, 17 mins): the adventure of oil exploration, deep in the tropics of Papua New Guinea. A fairly straightforward documentary piece stylistically speaking but beautifully presented here in high-definition.
Giuseppina (James Hill, 1959, 32 mins): Oscar-winning short in which a young girl watches the quirky characters who pass by her father’s petrol station over the course of a summer’s day. Very stylish slice of pure cinema, gloriously presented in high-definition, and showing off Hill's skills at telling a narrative in strictly visual terms and very akin to the experimental techniques employed by Jacques Tati and his use of tightly-choreographed visual gags and carefully integrated sound effects.
The Home-Made Car
(1963, 28 mins): a man restores his dilapidated Bullnose Morris, under the watchful eye of a curious young neighbour. Another example of Hill's very personal and idiosyncratic approach to these films where the story is once again told through visual means and is full of wit and finely judged performances. Even more akin to Tati in that it uses no dialogue at all and instead substitutes Ron Grainer's lovely music to communicate emotions and themes. Looks absolutely stunning in high-definition.
Illustrated booklet with essays by Sue Harper, James Piers Taylor and Rob Harries.

All films presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition

Lunch Hour
Bryanston / Eyeline Films 1962
BFI Dual Edition (Flipside 017) / Released 25 April 2011 / Cat no: BFIB1042 / UK / Cert U / black and white / English language / 63 mins / original aspect ratio 1.66:1 / Region 0 // Disc 1: BD50 / 1080p / 24fps / PCM mono audio (48k/24-bit) // Disc 2: DVD9 / PAL / PCM mono audio (48k/24-bit) (Extras Dolby Digital 320 kbps)


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