Lunch Hour DVD+Blu-ray
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Directed by James Hill
Produced in 1961
Main Language - English
Countries & Regions - British Film
Shirley Anne Field stars in John Mortimer's fascinating drama, which arrives with three charming trade test colour films as extras. It's an excellent package, says Graeme Hobbs.
There's a new girl in the art department of Amalgamated Wallpaper & Associates. She (she is not given a name) has attracted the immediate interest of the males in the company: one particularly oily individual says, 'bit of new? Art school if you ask my opinion. Well they present no problems,' to his smitten colleague, who is the other person (also without a name) with which this intriguing little film, adapted by John Mortimer from his own play, is concerned.
The opening credits play over that immediate marker of distance - railway tracks, travelling one way then the other, mixed up and fractured in their editing, before we fetch up in a cheerless but respectable hotel room overlooking a station. The couple - the woman and the man already mentioned - are shown into the room. He is eager, she less so. 'What is this place?' she says, 'It's just a hotel' says he as a statement of trivial fact. 'Hotel' she repeats, the word suddenly new and loaded with uncertain significance in her mind, its meaning open to question. 'It's convenient' says he, 'what for?' says she, with a curious questioning smile that we will see quite a lot of throughout the film.
They have come for a tryst, an illicit lunchtime liaison. He is out for a 'long business lunch' with the textile buyers; she is 'having an open continental sandwich in the coffee bar'. With their previous attempts at finding a little loving space for themselves interrupted by gallery attendants, an usherette's torch, chatty friends and a wintry park attendant spearing happiness like litter on the end of his spiked stick, they are a couple with nowhere to go, trapped by a crowded city, weather and the assumptions of conventional morality. More practically however, at this moment, they are trapped by their overcoats. Heavy, warm, practical things. 'You look so big in that overcoat, like a house' she says. 'I'll take it off' says he, 'not yet', she replies, which goes quite a long way to proving Philip Larkin's contention about sexual intercourse not having yet begun. The setting is England in 1961, and sex seems to inhabit a different universe entirely.
They are a curious couple. She is younger, fresh from Essex Technical College, and more inscrutable as to her motivation for going through with the affair. He is older, 37 ('that's not too bad' she says), and the way he wears his honest, desperate seriousness is painful to see, nudging at the tragic. He has the luckless, hangdog look of a man facing middle-age while living with his obviously dominant mother and her many labour-saving devices in the home. 'Of course, in the daytime, I'm more my own master then' he says (a line which for me unfailingly calls to mind Kathy Kirby singing her Tarzan fantasy for the suburban male, Big Man, a couple of years hence. I can imagine the man's mirthless laugh on hearing it). This girl is his chance to escape drizzly loneliness. Hence the ridiculous subterfuge he has gone through to rent a 'respectable' hotel room for an hour one lunch time at the exorbitant price of 2 guineas, spinning the owner a tale about the Rotarians and needing a space for a good family chat with his wife, who happens to live in Scarborough, but is coming down for the day with their two young children in tow who, for the duration of their talk, are going to be left with a stern, matronly auntie.
When this tale comes to life through the woman's interpretation, the man is floundering into confusion. 'She's not real,' he says about the auntie; 'She's real to me' the woman replies. And there we have the nub of the film's conceit. Her poised ambiguity comes from whether she truly believes what she is saying through some inner disturbance or whether she is going along with the hopeless charade all the better to show up the hypocrisy of the society's morals.
It's fascinating how Lunch Hour looks forward to the decade ahead. On her side is escape and possibility; she makes me think of Julie Christie's character in Billy Liar, when she comes swinging into the picture, smoking a cigarette and hopscotching the paving slabs, looking like she inhabits another realm entirely, one of possibilities, opportunities and fresh starts. I think this is partly because there is something curious about Shirley Anne Field's character and her performance, as if she is play-acting her own words - which, as it turns out, she might well be. All along, she doesn't seem to be quite in the same physical space as her would-be beau, played by Robert Stephens (and this in a film that takes place largely in one room). It's as if she is the decade's outrider, alert to hypocrisy, dishonesty and unnecessary embarrassment. It seems to be a course she decides on from the time that Stephens' character manufactures an excuse to walk past her in the art department early on in the film, and can do no more than make a sort of embarrassed gulping sound of approval as he looks at the work on her easel. On his side, and this came to me as the man goes around the London streets looking for a suitable place for their lunchtime rendezvous, checking the small ads in newsagents' wall cabinets, investigating hotels with 'Models Top Floor' and 'Lita - Trained Masseur, by Appointment' signs outside, the seedy world of Arnold L. Miller and his exploitation documentaries such as 1964's London in the Raw, loom darkly and shamefully ahead. No wonder he is so serious about this opportunity, if that's indeed what it is, or ever was.
Collectors of cult TV will also be overjoyed by the inclusion of three films James Hill made for BP between 1959-196?, which were used as 'trade test colour films' on TV in the 1960s and 70s. They are Skyhook (1958), Giuseppina (1959) - an Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Short Subjects, and The Home-Made Car (1963). The films may be familiar to some. Their use as trade test films led to them being screened numerous times on British television. The latter two shorts especially are thoroughly delightful, smile-inducing films, which also - unsurprisingly, given their use as test films for the then new colour transmission system - look wonderful.
Graeme Hobbs on 9th March 2011
Author of 289 reviews
Shirley Anne Field gives a fiery performance as a young designer on the brink of starting an affair with a married male supervisor (Robert Stephens) at the wallpaper factory where she works. Based on the play by acclaimed writer John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey), Lunch Hour is directed by James Hill (Black Beauty, Born Free). With its tightly-focused plot and real-time narrative this stylish examination of an illicit lunch-hour rendezvous features an underlying sexual radicalism that tells us much about the time in which it was made.
Also presented here are three of James Hill's critically acclaimed and fondly remembered short films, all of which have more recently garnered an appreciative fan-base amongst enthusiasts of so-called Trade Test films (which were broadcast, to test the then-new colour transmission system, by BBC TV engineers during the 60s and 70s).
Length: 70 mins
Format: DVD+Blu-ray B&W
Released: 25th April 2011
Cat No: BFIB1042
- 2 discs
- All films newly remastered using materials preserved in the BFI National Archive
- Skyhook (James Hill, 1958, 17 mins): Sumptuous colour documentary film
- Giuseppina (James Hill 1959, 32 mins): Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Short Subject
- The Home-Made Car (James Hill, 1963, 28 mins): Fondly-remembered and hugely entertaining short film
- Fully illustrated booklet with newly commissioned sleevenotes.