By complete accident, the censorship troubles experienced by the Guy Hamilton film “The Party’s Over” when it was first submitted to the BBFC under Jon Trevelyan in 1963 and which came to delay its theatrical release for eighteen months while various re-edits were considered (and rejected), with the bowdlerised theatrical version eventually being made available in 1965 sans 18 minutes-worth of footage and with the addition of a cheesy voiceover narration intended to give extra ‘moral clarity’ to the film’s - or rather, the censor’s - intended message, resulted, inadvertently, in a languid and gritty essay in corrupted youth culture which now seems almost uncanny in its foreshadowing of the disintegration of the optimism, the vigour, and the cultural exuberance at the heart of the Swinging Sixties, just at the very moment - mid-decade - when it seemed to be at its height.
Guy Hamilton’s film displays much of the cynical tone also to be found in the jaundiced post-sixties come-down thrillers that dominated the latter part of the decade and the early ’70s. A commentary on the supposed solipsistic dissipation and shallow moral listlessness of ‘the youth of today’ is at the centre of writer Marc Behm’s (“Help!“) story - which revolves around the mystery surrounding the disappearance of an American businessman’s fiance while she’s staying with a group of beatnik friends in London’s fashionable Chelsea district. And with the film’s cost-cutting substitution of soundstage studio sets for on-location shooting, while no doubt intended as a cheap means of emulating the stark realism of the then ubiquitous ‘New Wave’ style of British cinema, it actually gives it a strong flavour of all those cult rarities from the ’70s, such as “Goodbye Gemini”, or even some of the work of Pete Walker, which dealt, if rather more explicitly, in similar themes. A score by John Barry (during which the legendary composer plagiarizes a few cord progressions from his own James Bond theme) and a sultry title song by Annie Ross adds an attractive layer of sixties sophistication to proceedings, though.
Of course, this early pre-release version, made available for the first time anywhere by the BFI (a duel format release in both standard DVD and Blu-ray versions) is a great deal stronger than the faint hearts at the BBFC at the time were prepared to allow; indeed, some of the subject matter is still quite shocking, and the modern viewer will be surprised to find quite unexpected and incongruous parallels with one notorious exploitation flick and an esteemed cult horror film of the ’70s - as we’ll see later.
In actual fact, though, that delay in release caused by the film’s extended travails with the censor, meant that a work originally commissioned and written to address some of the cultural worries and anxieties that were capturing minds in the late ’50s and early ’60s, which had came around as a negative reaction to Britain’s post-austerity economic boom (later known as the ‘affluent society’), ended up forecasting the end of a different party to the one it had been commenting on in the first place by the time it was actually released. When director Guy Hamilton arrived back in London in 1961, he was already aware that changes were taking place in the cultural life of the city and he wanted to make a film that documented and commented upon them. Britain’s economy under Macmillan’s Conservative Government was constantly lurching from boom to bust, its periodic bursts of cultural innovation largely financed by the Government’s electioneering fiscal profligacy. There was great uneasiness among contemporary commentators of the time, on both Left and Right, which focused on a perceived increase in Americanisation and the erosion of traditional British culture. Hire Purchase-based consumerism and the rapid emergence of the affluent teenager (as well as the attendant, media-facilitated popular culture that was springing up in response to a strange new musical fad dubbed ‘Rock n' Roll’) were rapidly transforming the landscape of society; there was also a corresponding rise in youth crime and delinquency and an ensuing tabloid-led moral panic (something which seems as cyclical as the economy itself). The response to many of these changes was often grounded in a confused and mistrustful view of the rampant materialism which seemed to many to be at the root of it all.
A film about beatniks must have seemed like a particularly apposite way of addressing these issues in a nuanced and intelligent way at the end of the ‘50s: here was a youth movement that was undoubtedly one of those dubious American imports, but which was also a reaction against materialism and the cynical, conformist Establishment attitudes that were endorsing it as the panacea to all ills. Beatniks opted out of society but tended to be intelligent, art school-attending middle-class dropouts; they were against the Bomb, and consequently suspicious of American influence on British culture, but nonetheless loved their trad jazz - which at that time, pre-Beatlemania, was poised (believe it or not!) to sweep away the shallow, commercialistic teenage thrills of Rock n' Roll. The trad jazz scene was heavily associated with the newly emerging CND during this period, as well. So “The Party’s Over” is a film with a deeply conflicted attitude to its subject matter: on the one hand, sympathetic to the outlook and disenchantment experienced by these more urbane rebels (as opposed to the working class-based ’yobbery’ of the Teddy Boy phenomena) yet also appalled by their reckless rejection of all society’s norms.
This tension is expressed in the polarised relationships between the film’s three main characters; the most conspicuous of which, and dominating the screen at all times, is the young Oliver Reed in only his third screen role, as Moise - the head of a group of dissolute, party-happy beatniks. Reed is a simmering coil of dark-eyed cynicism and self-loathing, here; the centre of a sheep-like circle of dope- and booze-addled hangers-on over whom he seems to wield a positively Rasputin-esque level of influence. Moise is a conflicted character, like all three main protagonists: alternating between complete rejection of society and all its values on the one hand, and a deep disgust with his own rudderless leadership on the other, occasionally erupting into highly articulate, excoriating tirades against his own listless charges who, in the wake of their all night partying, follow him about in a somnolent daze as the group makes its way home during some eerie opening scenes on a deserted Albert Bridge and, later, the Chelsea Embankment: “You’re one big line of sheep and you make me sick!” he explodes at them all, at one point, as they joke over one more pointless ‘gag’ the group has played at the expense of their hapless American visitor, Carson.
One of these colourful but listless hangers-on is Melina: (Louise Sorel); the American daughter of a wealthy Minnesotan businessman who has attached herself to the entourage accompanying Moise on its endless and aimless search for ‘kicks’. She seems to regard him with some disdain but her unwillingness to give in to his advances only increases his fascination with this young, contemptuous but pretty waif. “You’re like a big, ripe, juicy, fuzzy peach - ripe for the picking; and I’m going to bite you!” he smoozes at her as he attempts to seduce her during one of the gang’s wilder party shindigs. “You’ll catch rabies,” is her witheringly sharp reply. “I wonder if I’ll ever have a daughter?” she then muses. “Will she get high too? Will some hobo maul her with his thick hands?”
For Melina’s very attachment to this group is born out of her own existential confusion, and she bears a conflicted, equivocal attitude to the dissolute lifestyle of her beatnik pals but an equel dissatisfaction with its only alternative: the ‘straight’ world represented by her bland American fiance Carson (Clifford David). She most represents the subtle viewpoint the film itself attempts to encapsulate; the doe-eyed and brilliantined Carson is nominally the top-billed protagonist, played by an American actor brought in to help sell the film across the Atlantic - as was the norm in British cinema of the fifties and early sixties; when he appears in London - sent by Melina’s father to track her down, bring her back and marry her - she avoids seeing him, leaving her friends to give him the runaround for their own amusement. Unwilling to return to the moneyed but sterile life awaiting her in Minnesota, but increasingly disgusted with the empty selfishness and childish games of Moise and his London group of fawning acolytes, Melina is caught in a state of hopeless inaction, unable to break away from her support group (leeching and lecherous and jealous of her though it is), but unwilling to even confront Carson and make a permanent decision about her future.
The first half of the movie anticipates a story structure that might seem very familiar to fans of a certain cult ’70s horror classic: we follow the fish-out-of-water Carson while he attempts to track down Melina for her father, and he encounters Moise and many of the other strange and colourful characters from the surrounding Chelsea beatnik scene, all of whom simply toy with him, sending him on wild goose chases around London and inventing wild stories about Melina’s whereabouts. The tone and structure of the film here is very much like that of “The Wicker Man”, with Oliver Reed cast in the Lord Summerisle role and Carson in the same position as Edward Woodward's Sergeant Howie. The difference is that Melina is actually around the whole time, usually tagging along at the tail end of the group and having to make a quick exit in order to avoid clashing with her fiance; she could so easily end the charade at any time, if she so pleased.
But just to add complication to the plot, Carson isn’t a character who is easy to wholeheartedly endorse: we’re given plenty reason to understand why Melina might be unwilling to give up her new freedoms in London, even if it means having to endure the lechery of Moise and his hangers-on, and the jealously of the harem of females who accompany him in their party circuit of London town houses and dingy basement jazz clubs. When Carson first meets Moise, he inelegantly informs him with regard to Melina: “We’re scheduled to be married.” “You make it sound like a business transaction,” comments the beatnik leader in response. As Carson continues his search, he flirts rather heavily with one of the pretty female members of Moise’s group - a girl called Nina (Catherine Woodville). Ironically, by the film’s disturbing second half, he really has fallen for her, and she for him; and, in the pre-release version on this Blu-ray release, they’re depicted in bed together (a clumsy cut-away of a phone was substituted for this scene in the theatrical version, as if this somehow avoided the implication!). We can see why the censors at the BBFC found all this to be problematic: they wanted a simple denunciation of Oliver Reed’s hooch-swilling gang of good-for-nothings, but instead found a film that was reluctant to take sides and that has a ‘hero’ who is increasingly attracted to the ‘drifting’ lifestyle represented by the character of Nina.
But the second half of the film ventures into darker territory still and, again, has a strange affinity with an even more unlikely ‘70s horror classic, namely Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left”! One of the girls most enamoured of Moise, and therefore rather more keen to see her unwilling rival Melina leave their group for good, is his casual girlfriend Libby (Ann Lynn). She takes Carson to one of their parties where, she tells him, he will be sure to find Melina. It’s being held by one of the gang’s most eccentric members: a Cuban jazz-loving artist called Geronimo (Mike Pratt) who holds wild parties in his attic-studio where he plays galloping jazz drums in accompaniment to the record player while the gang drink his home-made hooch and get stoned. By the time Carson and Libby reach the party though, Melina is once again nowhere to be seen. But various members of the group are wearing her clothes and her jewellery! Now Melina really has disappeared and a series of ‘lying’ flashbacks give us different versions of the events as we’re told what apparently happened during the party by various people who were in attendance, including Nina! But when a younger member of the group called Philip (Jonathan Burn) commits suicide, Carson begins to suspect that something terrible has happened to the missing girl and that the group are covering it up for Moise.
The fate of Melina during the party and afterwards made up most of the content of the dispute with the British censor. Most of these sequences seem to have survived in this early pre-release cut, though evidently not enough for director Guy Hamilton and producer Anthony Perry to agree to have their names reinstated on its title credits after they were removed from all theatrical release prints. It’s actually pretty strong stuff even today, as it depicts what turns out to the corpse of Melina being stripped and molested, given a mock funeral cortege through deserted night- time Chelsea streets, and then left semi-naked in the debris of a London bomb site. The drunk and wild revelers who take part in all this believe Melina to be passed out stoned at the time, but they all take part in the cover-up later. Except Philip (the one who, it is suggested, had sex with her while she was “stoned” unaware that she was already dead), who commits suicide from self-disgust and despair! Though the sequences showing Melina being stripped and Philip molesting the body are artfully arranged and choreographed so that no naked flesh is ever shown on screen, the footage is powerful nonetheless and filled with a similar nihilistic intensity to the Wes Craven film, which also depicts a group of young people driven to ever greater excess by each other, under the influence of a charismatic leader. “The Party’s Over” comes to a somber yet subtle conclusion with Moise breaking away from the gang after being unable to confront Melina’s father Ben (Eddie Albert) with the truth.
The newly discovered pre-release version (a cut of the film from early on in its censorship battle) and the theatrical version are both present on the Blu-ray disc and are presented using seamless branching technology. The theatrical version looks fabulous in high definition, with nice deep blacks and a crisp detailed image throughout. When the 18 minutes of footage from the pre-release version segues into this material, the quality of image inevitably goes down a few notches though, as there is a lot of print damage to this print. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with a clear crisp mono audio track. The standard DVD version that is also included in the package will feature the alternative scenes shot for the theatrical version assembled as an extra bonus feature.
“The Party’s Over” beautifully captures a very specific period in pre-swinging sixties London and, with this in mind, the BFI have also included an amusing little ‘time-capsule’ short called “The Party” (16 mins) as an extra. Shot in 1962 and produced for the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund , this returns us to the world of fuggy, crowded student parties where wholly sweaters, unfeasible facial hair and jazz 45s playing on the dancette record player form the background to a feckless young man’s doomed attempts to seduce a flighty sixties strumpet at a house party, in this grainy black & white short! Also included on the Blu-ray disc is a lovely little colour short called “Emma”, which was directed and produced by Anthony Perry. This was shot in an overgrown Highgate Cemetery on what looks to have been a gorgous summer day back in 1964. It shows a small girl playing among the tomb stones, who gradually realises the signifigance of her surroundings after she glimpses a funeral in the distance. The photography looks stunning in high definition, with the gorgous sixties colours popping off the screen most evocatively. There is a groovy little jazz score arranged with electric piano and flute on the soundtrack as well, adding flavour to a fabulous sixties treat.
Rounding off the package, the BFI give us another packed glossy booklet crammed with relevant material: essays on the film, a piece by the director, a biography of the director and a short essay on the Beatnik movement are just a few of the engrossing writings to be found in this exemplary BFI presentation, released as part of the laudable BFI Flipside catalogue. Highly recommended.