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Archie Rice, a pathetic music hall comic, plagued by debts, manipulates those around him in a defiant and selfish attempt to survive against improbable odds. He drinks, makes crude philosophical jokes about sex and politics and humiliates his lamenting, gin-soaked wife. Archie lures his father, Billy Rice, out of retirement for a benefit performance which will ultimately bring financial aid to Archie and his impractical investments. Written by
It is amazing to me how many critics and reviewers of this film seem to have missed the subtleties in this story, and in Archie's character. Far from living in a world of futile fantasies, I think, Archie's character is much more accurately expressed by the line "The only thing I know how to do is to keep on keeping on." All available options (Canada, failure, escape, or perhaps, suicide) being unthinkable, what choice has he but to chase another hopeless dream of somehow, finally, nailing a successful show? Perhaps I identify with Archie more strongly than many viewers, having myself been at the helm of a sinking ship (a business.)
One unreasonably scathing critic (did he actually watch this film??) commented on Archie's daughter, Joan's, "blind love" for her father. I think it was not "blind love" at all, but a recognition of the (probably useless) courage Archie has to muster to continue to face each day -- a day likely to hold for him only more demoralizing failure and unceasing accusation and blame. And far from being totally selfish, as some commentators have written, Archie really seems to be the only person in the family able to look beyond the extremely small focus on their own interests: he is, in fact, the only person in the Rice tribe making a real effort, despite the pain, to find a path out of the mess to a place of security for them all.
Perhaps we have forgotten how dependent families were in that era on the earnings of "the breadwinner," and yet, reviewers seem to have been just as blind as many wives and families of that time to what a man often had to give up in order to be that breadwinner, including, as in Archie's case, any fantasies of greatness or even, finally, his last shreds of self-esteem. Was Archie aware of his utter failure? Oh, I think absolutely so. This is why his admission to his daughter that he was "dead" behind his eyes. All the brightness of hope or illusions of personal excellence have been hammered out of him on the iron-cold anvil of real-world failure. Even so, he found it in him to dredge up the understanding and compassion to alleviate his wife, Phoebe's drunken crash into despair and hostility; and shore up his father's nostalgic dreams. Though, alas, the latter, too, led to yet another "unforgiveable" tragedy (-- or was it?.
The most exquisite and poignant tragedy of it all is that maybe, just maybe, Archie might have pulled it off, but for the failure of his clueless family to understand him or the grim realities of his doomed profession. Forget metaphors of Imperial England, this tale has surely played itself out millions of times, whenever a new technology has made an old craft obsolete -- as when the printing press replaced scribes, or when electric lights eliminated the town's lamp lighter, or when automated projectors replaced skilled projectionists. Many of the movie's reviewers, in my opinion, are as blind to what is really going on here as is Archie's family. They assume that Archie's failures are the result of his negligence and selfishness, and that his dalliance with the beauty queen is a real romance (and threat to their security), when, in his eyes, it is just another, necessary, desperate and ultimately demeaning business deal. Joan alone, it seems, finally understands -- far too late to avert the inevitable end. Ultimately, every family member's myopic conception of Archie's reality leads them to take the reflexive steps that seal his doom.
Shakespeare would have been completely a home with this tragic tale, and I think it was not such a great leap away from Hamlet for Olivier.
The story is richly-detailed, unexpected and though-provoking. And Olivier is superb. A stunning performance from beginning to tragically inevitable end.
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