Saturday, 5 November 2016

Lunch Hour (James Hill, 1961)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2011)

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 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 – or France at least.

Indeed, at one point, when she is drinking milk from a bottle through a straw during a lunch hour, and the couple are looking out over London from a balcony, he says ‘it’s a big town, I mean it has 7 million inhabitants. Look at all those building projects, redevelopments ... there must be somewhere we can go.’  It's almost as if the film had received instructions on filming outdoors in a capital city from the French new wave, but they came over on the cross-channel ferry and customs and excise pored over them and stamped them with the words ‘permission must be sought for all filming,’ and ‘no local bylaws should be contravened in the filming of this entertainment,’ along with their standard rubber-stamped notice applying to the whole film that ‘no incitement to immorality should be condoned.’ That and the obligatory inclusion of a scene featuring ‘a nice cup of tea’.

She and He make an interesting, if mismatched 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 upon hearing its lyrics). 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 are going to be left with their stern, matronly auntie while said chat takes place.

Sandra Leo, who plays the daughter after her apparent father’s story has come to life, has one of the best lines in the film. ‘We don't like auntie,’ announces her brother, ‘she sort of crackles while she walks,’ chimes in the girl. By now, the man is floundering into confusion in the hotel room. ‘She’s not real,’ he says; ‘She’s real to me,’ the woman replies. And there we have the nub of the film’s conceit. The poised ambiguity around the question comes from whether she truly believes what she is saying through some inner disturbance (“If anyone says ‘I want to talk to you’ I get this sick feeling”) or whether she is play-acting, going along with the hopeless charade all the better to show up the hypocrisy of the society’s morals.

Before this point, they go for lunch to celebrate her 24th birthday, where his musing on the menu ­– ‘to start with, prawn cocktail, or smoked salmon or pate maison ... followed by scampi ... duck a l’orange’ is cut short by the unimpressed waitress’s ‘Halibut’s off’ and banging down a bottle of OK sauce on the table. The woman insists it doesn't matter and praises his eyes, ‘they’re very honest,’ she says, ‘they look like they’d never tell a lie.’ ‘Well not unless it was absolutely necessary,’ he replies. And that may well be the set-up that leads to the absurdist denouement in a room in the Durbar ‘Private & Residential’ hotel with a picture frame without a picture, a horribly ornate chiming clock and a dog-eared train timetable on the mantelpiece, in which their argument about the non-existent kids and the Victorian relic of an auntie, and the reason for dragging her 203 miles down from Scarborough for a serious talk, comes to a head. ‘You should never have explained our presence,’ she says. Their overcoats stayed on. He resignedly picks up the temporary ring that she has left on the mantelpiece and turns off the gas fire (in which they have lost a shilling in the meter); she goes back to her painting of parrots on a branch and smiles enigmatically to herself.

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 looking forward to the decade ahead as an outrider alert to hypocrisy, dishonesty and needless 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 is indeed what it is, or ever was.

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