This film represents British cinema between two eras, as the young cast improvises its way as defendants in a trial played out by more traditional actors as prosecutors. The scenes in which the four accused are cross-examined in a courtroom filmed from asymmetrical angles has Richard Todd, Felix Aylmer and Robert Morley as the barristers and judge, largely sticking to script against Dudley Sutton, Jess Conrad, Ronald Lacey and Tony Garnett.
Three of the accused were present in this screening at Elstree, 55 years after The Boys had been shot there. Sutton, Conrad and Garnett were unanimous in their praise of Robert Morley and damning of Todd, who was inflexible and unhelpful; performing the minimum required whereas Morley had taken an interest in these three youngsters and seemingly improvised alongside them.
Todd’s performance is not bad and has enough flexibility to convince but Morley is a revelation especially when he recalls being bullied as the “fat boy” at school; it’s heartfelt and all too believable. In comparison Mr Todd appears to be acting in a different film.
Dudley Sutton – no fan of watching his own performances – has enjoyed a huge career with a list on IMDB as long as your arm – if your arm is very long - and felt his film debut was self-conscious. He said it took him until well into his forties to realise that the best actors don’t “try” so hard. But in The Boys, he is still highly watchable as Stan Coulter a working-class boy with an unpredictable edge.
Tony Garnett, here playing Ginger Thompson, an apprentice labourer proud of his union card, went on to work with Ken Loach for many years and produced Cathy Come Home, Poor Cow and many other landmarks of social realism. He praised the great Carol White’s cameo in this film, The Battersea Bardot speaking with truthful accent and manner, no RP here! Garnett was the most constructed in his thoughts on The Boys, as you’d expect from a man who, realising he wasn’t going to better Albert Finney changed direction to get more involved in the creative process of his films: he wanted to be there when the decisions were made on tone and message.
Jess Conrad, who is a force of nature, supernaturally good humoured but with his humble origins providing the drive to make the most of himself, was the one cast perhaps mostly for who he was rather than his ability to act. This is no bad thing and with Ronald Lacey completing the line-up of the accused, there was plenty of acting ability on show. To paraphrase Louise Brooks, there are two types of actors, those who act themselves (she included herself) and those who act…
The Boys tells of these four teenagers – Garnett felt they were all miss-cast all being well into their twenties – who are accused of robbing a petrol station and killing the attendant. The story begins with their appearance in court and their plea of “not guilty”.
|The Ace Face: Jess Conrad|
At first the succession of witnesses makes it clear that the circumstantial evidence is stacked against them as is the opinion of the prosecution and jury. Richard Todd plays the prosecuting counsel Victor Webster whilst Robert Morley is Montgomery, defence counsel who looks to have a hopeless cause. Every single account seems to push the lads further into the mire from Wilfrid Brambell’s toilet attendant, Roy Kinnear’s bus conductor to Carol White’s Evelyn, who claims they harassed her.
But Montgomery takes every account and questions whether or not the witness was influenced by the way the boys look: youth and Teddy Boy jackets a marker of defiance and potential trouble-maker. In fairness, the lads aren’t entirely Teds as Jess Conrad’s smart white Italian suit – chosen to make him stand out – is a movement forward in style.
But Montgomery is flying kites unless he can get more information out from the boys themselves… is this just a natural mistrust of authority and a society that views them as always being guilty of something?
|Mr Morley and the boys|
It’s a tribute to their performances as well as the writing and Sidney J. Furie’s direction that we find ourselves gradually viewing the boys as innocent despite of what seemed conclusive evidence. But we should never judge any book by its cover and the viewer’s own faculties and prejudice is being tested here as well.
Furie went on to success winning the best film BAFTA for The Ipcress File (1966) and then directing Brando in The Appaloosa (1966) and Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967). He also directed The Leather Boys (1964) again with Dudley Sutton as well as two Cliff Richard films… but the least said about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) the better. He still makes films to this day.
Here the Canadian was still learning about the British class system but listened to his young charges when they complained about attempts to “slum-down” the Peabody Estate flats in which they were filming. Jess Conrad had relatives in this part of London and they took a pride in their flat as did most people.
|The Battersey Bardot: Carol White - one of the finest actors of the era!|
Ironically enough, the same double standards that the film is trying to expose… As opinions are slowly called into question, what seems to have been just a rather cash-strapped and unsuccessful night out for the boys seems to have been painted far too black… But the fat lady is not singing and there may be time for the odd twist of two.
The Boys real agenda is more about the punishment than the crime as, if found guilty and in the specific circumstances of violent theft, the Judge would be left with only one option and that would be to sentence the guilty party to death. This was two years before the death penalty was finally dropped and the film was obviously feeding into the contemporary debate.
Asked whether he thought it had “made a difference” Tony was doubtful… and also pointed out that The Boys did not receive much support from the studios and distributors at the time…with the result that it never enjoyed wide release.
|The high line over the strictly-regulated space of the court room|
Dusty Verdict: The Boys packs a powerful punch and feels fresh because of the actors and the improvisation encouraged be Furie. It is indeed a mighty performance from Robert Morley and a story that is hard-hitting and uncompromising. Part of the movement away from the kitchen sink to more complex issues relating to the working man’s place in the world.
Tony Garnett clearly went into more overtly political film-making and even later in his career, amongst the hits like the TV series This Life, he has made films that challenge accepted thinking. He was the thinker and Dudley Sutton we know was the Tinker but he is also an actor of exceptional range and expression who remains a compelling presence. As is Jess Conrad a man who took the time to patiently answer our questions about his hit single, This Pullover…
The screening was arranged by Talking Pictures TV and Renown Pictures who included a DVD of The Boys in the package: the first digital release for this important film! Well done on both parts but particular gratitude to the three gentlemen who were, long ago, The Boys.
Copies are available direct from the Renown website.
Copies are available direct from the Renown website.