This Dirty Game
Leagues above the sanitized picture of organized professional athletics exemplified by 42, This Sporting Life wallows in the mud of non-artificial dirt pitches, the unsportsmanlike dirty play, and the moral dirt that surrounds and runs the whole. The 1963 film shot Richard Harris to nominations, awards and fame in this eighth screen appearance, furthered Rachel Roberts’ later unfulfilled big-screen career, and rubbed the English-speaking world’s nose in Angry Young Men consciousness of the downtrodden working class.
In the Museum of Modern Art’s essential long-term “An Auteurist History of Film” series, this Lindsay Anderson fiction feature début was done from David Storey’s adaptation of his own novel. Notably, it carries the stamp of Free Cinema concepts from the director and Karel Reisz’ (who produced after both he and Joseph Losey declined to direct the film) Oxford days co-editing Sequence magazine. With Tony Richardson, Sight and Sound’s Gavin Lambert and others, the movement condemned critically and commercially reigning postwar British cinema for not reflecting real problems confronting the masses of real people.
Storey and Harris had both played rugby and so imparted a grainy authenticity probably otherwise beyond the solo capabilities of the retiring, unphysical Anderson. In the Garfield and Brando mold but soon derailed by wine, women, song -- he fancied himself a singer and poet -- and cocaine, Harris plays Frank Machin, a gum-chewing miner whose prowess, aggressivity and roughness in amateur rugby are to elevate him to professional level.
Though no one uses the headbands that Rugby Leaguers wear to protect ears from being bitten or ripped off, Denys Coop’s unsparing black-and-white captures the hits, crunches and punches in the misty industrial air of west Yorkshire (Wales in the original) smokestacks towering above workers’ tenements. The unique opening scrum is striking, shown from the bottom looking up, when Frank emerges with a mouthful of blood and broken teeth which he insists a clinic dentist remove.
Oily mill owner magnate Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel) notices the amateur’s talents and, at an exorbitant thousand quid, signs him for the professional City club. Flashing the cheque, Frank cleans up his act as best he knows how, with spiffy clothes and a flashy white car, the better to win the heart and hand of the widowed Mrs. Margaret Hammond (Roberts).
Her husband Eric killed in Weaver’s factory, an accident or a suicide, she received no financial compensation for herself or children Lynda and Ian (Bernadette Benson, Andrew Nolan) and scrapes by skimping on everything and renting a room to Machin. He in turn makes every effort to win over the kids and is open about his feelings for her but though he steers her into his bed cannot articulate well and, worse, grows impatient when she needs time for hers to develop.
Lame club board member Slomer (Arthur Lowe) warns him against immoral Weaver, and newly married teammate friend Maurice (Colin Blakely) counsels him on matters of love. For his part, Weaver is so wrapped up in his own ego that he does not notice, or mind, his wife Anne’s (Vanda Godsell) sexual designs on new players nor, for that matter, those of female groupies who also flock around the hard-drinking athletes. It is not, however, at all necessary to view this picture, as some have, as a metaphor for the rat race of depressing midcentury British life.
Physical Frank’s patience is thin to begin with, and his unintentional or at times deliberate social gaffes become insufferably grating when he flaunts his new money and Margaret in the face of local snob society. Upset at what she knows the neighbors see as his having bought her, she backs off and hysterically orders him out.
“Just a great ape on a football field” like Eugene O’Neill’s stoker Yank, animal-like Frank possesses neither the emotional, mental nor intellectual capital to calm and regain the woman nearly won. Like the postwar proletariat, he is inarticulate and helpless and can only howl. Back to rugger, which requires no polished expression.
(Released by Janus Films; not rated by MPAA.)