In the late 1950s and early 1960s Tony Hancock was one of the best known and best loved comedians in Britain. His Hancock Half Hour sitcom was massivly popular and he could do no wrong in the eyes of the public. As for any performer, they always want to push themselves and so it came as no surprise that Hancock became intent on having a career on the big screen as well as small screen. Working with his long time writing team of Galton and Simpson, they produced the first of his two films, The Rebel.
Anthony Hancock is a man who is the very definition of frustrated. By day he works in an office, a profession that bores him to death. The only reason he has for carrying on is the way he spends his free time. He is an artist. It is the passion that drives him. Unfortunately those around him do not see it in quite the same way. His landlady fails to see the beauty in his sculpture and it is this coupled with the fact that the sculpture falls through the floor of his first floor rooms. Anthony decides that he must leave the artistic confines of suburban London and head off to where he can be inspired and eventually discovered. So, off to Paris he goes.
The norm for British sitcoms that get the big screen treatment is to take them on holiday, thus negating most of what got people watching in the first place. With the Hancock program that was less of an issue as they were mostly self contained episodes that didn’t totally rely on where it was based. The tie to his previous work is in the name. He keeps his real name so what we are presented with is a version of the real person just as we were in the TV show.
The film is very much of its time. In the late fifties and early sixties changes were happening in Britain. Post war rationing had ceased and a new prosperity was unfolding. With this peace came the reintroduction of art and culture. Of course it wasn’t like the classics that people were used to. Several movements had been going on for decades and now in this time pop art, surrealism, existentialistism and any number of subsets were confounding the public. It was ripe for a satirical take and that is exactly what The Rebel is.
It takes the elements of some of these art movements and ridicules them. The character of Anthony is someone who can talk a good game and here, time after time he sends up the most pretentious elements. It is not done in a hateful way though. There is a good deal of affection at play in the way he tells people what they want to hear. When questioned that his art is infantile he makes the point that the look was something he was striving for. In fact he names it the infantile movement.
Due to the sharpness of the writing and the strength of the central performance the 100 minute run time doesn’t feel like and extended episode of a sitcom. Full use of Parisian locations give added depth to the overall feel of the film. Without them it would have been a studio bound movie that can seem a bit flat at times.
Hancock is a gifted physical performer which is used to very good effect here. There are a couple of sequences, with the action painting scene in particular, that show off his talents. He is able to take very straightforward situations and bend them into something quite unique. For it to work it has to be funny and not outstay its welcome. Hancock does both with ease.
The Rebel has been re-released this week in a new HD transfer from Network distribution that makes it look superb. It is one of those films that has a distinct and striking colour palette which is fortunate for a film about art. One to seek out.