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A Hard Day's Night
cast: the Beatles, Wilfred Brambell, Norman Rossington, and Victor Spinetti

director: Richard Lester

84 minutes (U) 1964
Miramax VHS retail
Also available to buy on DVD
[released 30 September]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
The first - and best - of the Beatles' feature films, A Hard Day's Night purports to cover 36 hours or so in the life of the Fab Four in the run up to a live TV performance. The director, Richard Lester, made such archetypical 1960s' films as The Knack (1965), How I Won The War (1967) and Petulia (1968), as well as another less successful Beatles' film, Help! (1965). His style, at once comic and gently surreal, is at its best in the present production, which gets much of its strength from an informal mockumentary style. It is shot in suitable black and white, as well with as a rich array of British character acting.
   The decision to assemble a swollen supporting cast was a sensible stratagem. As actors themselves, the Beatles - while at this stage in their careers unassuming and fresh in their own right - are no less and no more than can be expected from amateur dramatic performers. Instrumentals aside, Ringo is perhaps the most charismatic one out of the four, while George is the most wooden. The other two just hang round cheerfully. Lester acted on these understandable deficiencies by regularly breaking the dialogue scenes into short, pithy, elements in which the Four, when speaking, do so virtually in catchphrases. Thus spoken in isolation, and then assembled into an off-the-wall continuity by a skilled editor, many of the weaknesses could be minimised, at the same time improving the film's pace. Then, by surrounding the guys with a pleasurably distracting range of minor turns (Wilfred Brambell, Norman Rossington, John Junkin, Victor Spinetti, Deryck Guyler, Anna Quayle, Robert Ray, Richard Vernon, Kenneth Haigh, et al), the dramatic weight could be further distributed.
   The result is a film which is very light on its feet, and in which the Beatles' slightly smug solecisms never drag or appear self-indulgent. Chief amongst the professional actors around the Four are Brambell (as Paul's erstwhile granddad), their permanently stressed manager Norm (Rossington) and the sweater-wearing and vaguely feminine TV director, Victor Spinetti. Interestingly, while the band are pursued and besieged by women, and repeatedly express their desire to make female acquaintances, this is primarily a male musical universe. During the press reception they flirt with women journalists, while later Paul and another Beatle are seen chatting to some dancing girls. John is cornered by a woman (Anna Quayle), for some notable sexual banter on the backstage stairs in the theatre. Outside of these accidental meetings, women - or more specifically, girls - are kept at arm's length, either literally behind a physical barrier (as during the performance on the train) or left ineffectually screaming in their seats in the television theatre. In a film that begins with famous images of mass female pursuit of their objects of desire, it is noticeable that none of the Four are either caught or are confronted by these fans, whose adolescent desire is appreciated but never explicitly acknowledged.
   The result is to present the group virtually as a sealed unit, contributing to the feeling of claustrophobia they experience, and creating the dramatic impetus which drives much of the later plot: the need to 'escape' and find some degree of relaxation and freedom. This is most made concrete with the 'Ringo on the loose' scenes, as the drummer dons a cap and raincoat, grabs a camera (he's the only one of the group associated with non-musical interests) and heads off to the canal. Allegedly stoned while he was acting these scenes, Starr's wonderings might have strayed in from a different film. They have a meditative and lyrical quality about them, providing a welcome contrast to the madcap pace shown elsewhere. Drugged or not, Ringo's escape also injects a dramatic crisis into the film - will he or will he not be back in time for the live broadcast? - Which the film needs to avoid a feeling of flatness in its last third. The only other 'escape' in the film is less adventurous, but funnier, as Harrison wonders into a fashion guru's (Haigh's) office and gives blunt Liverpuddlian comments on a range of trendy clothing ("I wouldn't been seen dead in that"). This scene, for all of Harrison's shortcomings as an actor, is also one of the best in dramatic terms - a moment when, temporarily freed from his necessary Beatles' locus, Lester can ridicule the absurdities of youth fashion and prick the whole 1960s style industry.
   Outside of the Fab Four, and the source of the longest running gag ("He's very clean isn't he?") is Paul's grandfather, played by Brambell. His scowling face, deviousness, and cynicism born of experience is a necessary counterweight to the charming, yet flighty, naivety of the Four. Having little or no familial contact with his relative, it is he who persuades Ringo to step outside the theatre to do his thing - an act for which he later apologises, but one that we feel has been for the ultimate good. It is Granddad, too, who remains the most resolutely anti-Beatles in tone and appreciation, and even his final presence and enjoyment at the concert is less than convincing. It is interesting to consider the likely effect had Lester cast Brambell as the Police desk sergeant for the arrest scenes, rather than the genial Deryck Guyler. In A Hard Day's Night the police are comic stooges, generally inefficient. They never offer any real threat to the disruption offered by the Beatles' mild anarchy. There is little of the social confrontation that would develop as the decade wore on and the Fab Four's politics became more obvious. Brambell's underlying caustic nature would have made all the difference.
   Lester's film shies away from social concerns, for the concert is the thing and the boys remain above controversy. The plot even includes elements of whimsical fantasy, as when Lennon abruptly vanishes from his bath, or when the Four's instruments suddenly materialise to play in the guard's van. These timeless elements, as well as Lester's light directorial touch, are what have helped it to remain undated and fresh, for the film still enjoys a large following and belongs on the shelf on anyone who enjoys 1960s culture. The video seen has a re-mastered soundtrack, but sadly lacks the 15-minute or so of extras included in an earlier issue.
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