‘The Rebel’ or — Bad Art Done Brilliantly.
There’s nothing more pathetic than some pompous dickhead with absolutely no talent swanning about the place declaring himself a genius and part of the avant garde. What sort of asshole does that? How tragic. How sad. Fortunately it also makes for great comedy or, in the case of Tony Hancock’s ‘The Rebel’ (1961), absolutely fantastic comedy.
Poor old Hancock is fed up. He’s fed up with his job, fed up with his landlady, fed up with Britain and fed up with having his artistic genius unrecognised. I know how you feel, mate. Throwing away his bowler hat and umbrella he ditches his life in Blighty and heads to Paris, home of art and artists, where he dreams of his talent receiving the acclaim it deserves. And, amazingly, it is! His work is so bad, so childish that he is instantly hailed as the pioneer of the new Infantile School, a primitive school Hancock has invented where every colour has a shape. It’s not long before he is the talk of the Left Bank and then the entire art world itself. Surely nothing can go wrong now. After all, it’s not as though there’s been some terrible mistake or that he’s actually terrible with no talent whatsoever, is it?
‘The Rebel’ is a incredibly funny movie and it’s not just down to Hancock’s comedy timing but also to Galton and Simpson’s script which is not only precisely plotted and paced but also bursting with lines, gags and dialogue that left me delirious at the wit and invention on display. There are so many relentlessly funny scenes ranging from Mrs Crevatte assessing Hancock’s “art” or his chat with the Existentialist or steamy sculpting session (have you ever heard such sexually frustrated chiselling?) and all of them funny as hell. I spat out my drink at the line “I get quite metallic when I’m painting a bridge”. There was only one point when I felt the film briefly threaten to falter and that’s during his “action painting” sequence. It’s not that it’s not funny, although that depends on your tolerance for watching Hancock just being Hancock, but it’s the only scene that doesn’t drive the plot along. After a minute it’s over, George Sanders pops up to get the focus back on track and we’re in a safe pair of comedic hands till the closing credits.
That comedy thrives on two typical Hancockian drives — insecurity and deluded arrogance. It risks turning Hancock into a deeply unlikable character. In fact, you could argue that he already is: entitled, frustrated and throbbing with grandiosity so he’d still fit in well today. Fortunately this frees Hancock from having to behave like a rational human being allowing him, and us, to get caught up in his self-absorbed craziness whilst never having to bother with little things such as other human beings feelings or falling in love. It also allows us to delight in seeing him fail.
Hancock manages to inject just enough sympathy into his performance to keep him endearing. We don’t mind seeing him fail but only at his own pretentions; we never want to see him undeservedly screwed over. Yet great though Hancock is the film is almost stolen by a dazzling performance by Irene Handl as his landlady, Mrs Crevatte. You know Irene Handl — she specialised in playing dowdy, nagging, working-class old ladies and she does that to great effect here. Yet she also gets a line about a piece of cake that is so sexually charged, so dripping with passionate arousal she makes the line reading sound like a wet vagina. It’s stunning (watch it for yourself and then tell me I’m exaggerating).
One last thing about ‘The Rebel’ which is that this might be the most beautiful, vibrant and visually ravishing remastering of a film I’ve seen this year. It is gorgeous! Shot on Technicolor film, and tastefully directed by Robert Day, the image quality is remarkable. It’s not just the shots of Paris but also the way the film manages to capture the environmental light, first really noticeable during the Channel ferry crossing. For a film about the art world this film is, appropriately, one of the most visually delightful colour movies made in 60’s Britain.
‘The Rebel’ is funny, often achingly so. It functions as a satire targeting both conformity and artistic hubris. The plot is tight and fun, perfectly allowing sharp dialogue and ridiculous incident to be hung on like wonderful paintings in a properly constructed art gallery. Combine that with possibly the best blu ray transfer I’ve seen this year and this is an easy film to love. I hadn’t seen ‘The Rebel’ since I was a kid and I was hoping it would be as enjoyable as I remembered. The good news is it is… in every conceivable way.