We open in a courtroom with four 17-22 year olds on trial for the murder of a 70 year old garage attendant named Arthur Baxter. The Shadows, a very popular rock instrumental group that often did lighter fare with England’s “Elvis” a.k.a. Cliff Richard, provide a most somber mood piece to let us know this is a story of doom and gloom without the usual happy ending.
Animated arrows pointing to each name in the cast, reminding me of Saul Bass’ work in Hitchcock films and other classics, suggest that our approach will be very analytical as each name is called to provide details. We will have plenty of flashbacks interrupting our courtroom trial and quite often they will repeat in action and words so that we can view them from the perspectives of different characters involved, a clever device that works surprisingly well even if it may lengthen the running time a bit.
Two big name stars here are battling two sides of the trial– Richard Todd and Robert Morley.
Todd plays the accusing Victor Webster with considerable aloofness. Perhaps he plays his part with too much aloofness? I suspect that this was done on purpose because director Sidney J. Furie doesn’t want us to actually like him but just accept him as part of the “justice must be served” law.
Usually in dramas involving battling lawyers, the one who gets the most to say and has the longest soliloquy in the finale is the one whom director and screenwriters tend to agree more with or at least find more interesting as a character study.
In this case, Morley’s Montgomery gives a rather passionate speech about how young men don’t just become cold blooded killers, but unfortunate circumstances lead them to do it. Being a naturally whimsical actor, I am not entirely sure that Morley himself is particularly well suited to his role, but he does give another great stand-out performance (besides the speech) when he counsels his foursome and, responding to the moody remark of “aren’t you supposed to defend us?” he displays great exasperation: “What have you given me to defend?!! You throw a man’s tail right across a bus! What are you using a knife on the top of a bus? Cleaning your nails?”
Basically the dramatic flux consists of one eyewitness after another taking the stand as we make a trip backward in time, followed by each of the boys involved telling their stories. Not all of the witnesses are particularly memorable, but they all have familiar and memorable faces. Most notably, we get the wonderfully fussy bus conductor played by Roy Kinnera who labels the guys as “teddy boys” even though he only has time to read the Daily Mirror and isn’t sure what a “teddy boy” is. Others like Wilfred Brambell (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT), Allan Cuthbertson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) and Colin Gordon (THE PINK PANTHER) have a few memorable key lines in their recollections, all representing the stuffy “older generation” that has no patience with these young punks.
What I find surprisingly odd is that we learn so little about the victim, unless he was featured and the film I saw had edited cuts. Does he have family who mourn him? No tears displayed by anybody on screen. Did I miss anything here?
I don’t think you missed anything. They did keep the victim’s situation somewhat nebulous. I don’t think we were supposed to focus on the victim, but instead to focus on how the judicial system will handle it. If there had been no conviction at the end, then I think they would have been compelled to show the victim’s story more, through a surviving relative or friend.
Gerald Gibb’s camera is mostly focused on Dudley Sutton’s Stan Coulter here since he has the most at stake…and accepts his fate with little struggle. His sweaty curly hair and round crablike features make him appear quite innocent and “boy”-ish. We see him tender and caring with his mother suffering from lung cancer. I especially like how Gibb often poses him close to windows with bar-like shadows to suggest that he always felt like he was in prison.
There is considerable focus on Stan’s sexual frustrations, which I find most interesting and I suspect that his need to “get off” (pardon my blue language) was a key reason he went into the dark side. In one flashback, an attendant thinks he is looking at the safe, but he is actually eyeing the nude model pin-up and wishing he could have her. As usual, he is looking for love in all the wrong places and tries to hook up with a beehive blonde more interested in dancing with her brunette girlfriend, later being observed by him going up to their shared flat window. (Lesbianism was the newest taboo “thing” in cinema by 1962: THE L-SHAPE ROOM was concurrent to this, as were U.S. imports like THE CHILDREN’S HOUR and WALK ON THE WILD SIDE.)
This is your trademark “kitchen sink” drama with bountiful urban city sinks on display. All of these characters feel trapped by their lives much like they do in other working class gloomies that were popular on Brit screens then. As much as I love the visual aspects, the clever editing tricks and Gibb’s cinéma vérité style, there is a certain shallowness to the story with more milked than necessary with razzle dazzle tricks typical of Brit’s “new wave.”
The director for THE BOYS, Sidney J. Furie, has a very interesting filmography. He would do another kitchen sink drama in 1964 called THE LEATHER BOYS.
There’s an interesting trivia footnote on Wikipedia. A few of the boys– Sutton and two others (Jess Conrad and Tony Garnett) had a cast reunion in 2017. The fourth boy, Ronald Lacey (the one with the pre-Brian Jones light bangs), passed away earlier. What I found strange was that these guys had not seen each other in the intervening decades. Did they not care all that much about their shared experience to want to discuss it after filming completed?
I guess this adds to some of my…well…indifference to this film. I don’t get the sense that the creators genuinely care all that much about their characters since we don’t get enough evil on screen to showcase the “why” of the final verdict but also don’t get a lot of emotion displayed on screen either. Maybe I was spoiled by Pilar Seurat in THE YOUNG SAVAGES and was expecting something similar in the courtroom here? I don’t think typical Brit “chip chip” keep the upper lip fortitude is to blame here.
Sometimes I thought of this as a Basil Dearden drama but lacking the trademark Deardanian focus. For example, SAPPHIRE clearly comments on Britain’s racism and VICTIM pleads for fair treatment of gay men, but it isn’t clear what message is being delivered here apart from a general dissatisfaction for the death penalty. Obviously we are not supposed to agree with the final verdict since we have not seen anybody behave as bloodthirsty villains deserving it.
However you may think this is what makes this film highly innovative. Sometimes movies are done as experiments that sometimes work and sometimes don’t but are still interesting experiments. THE BOYS is interesting in that it dares to be a little different in its approach.
I want to address Morley’s speech at the end. I think it wasn’t to place him above Todd’s character. I think it was to place him below Todd, to show that a liberal impassioned speech is futile since the boys (three of them) are still held responsible and one is going to face death.
I feel the film is ultimately on the side of Todd’s character, because it shows how Morley is duped by him into re-calling the boys to the stand after the testimony had been finished. This enables the prosecution to poke a big hole in the defense, since that final testimony becomes very incriminating. It was as if Todd’s character might have, on some level, expected that to happen. Also, that he was aloof only as some sort of masquerade, since he was quite sly and determined to make sure that justice, the only Justice allowable, would prevail. At least that’s how I looked at it. So Morley ends up a buffoon in court. If this is an accurate interpretation, then Morley’s “light” more jovial persona works here, because he is clearly not to be taken seriously as a “real” brilliant legal talent the way Todd is.
I should point out that the director, Sidney Furie, served as producer. But I am wondering if he was forced to give it the ending he gave it, with Todd winning, because that would have been seen as morally responsible to the establishment of law and order in Britain, in addition to this approach ensuring favorable box office returns. It was probably made for middle to upper middle class parents, not for the lower classes or the younger people whose story it tells.
The film goes out of its way to explain or give plausible reasons that the boys might be innocent and misunderstood. But then it pulls the rug out from under that false assumption of innocence. The part about the knife is most revealing. We are supposed to think that the knife is only used to clean the boy’s fingernails, but a murder did occur. And later on the stand, the murder is confessed. So obviously the weapon was carried around with a possible intent to kill, not a possible need to clean under the nails.
Interestingly, in Great Britain right now, there is an alarmingly high rate of knife crime and youths being killed by knives. So this situation has only increased since 1962.
You mentioned the actors not meeting up again until 2017. I don’t quite believe that, to be honest, since most of them continued to work as actors and would have bumped into each other at various auditions over the years. They probably just didn’t stay close, perhaps due to personality clashes on the set. The fact that they reunited to do commentary when the film was finally being put on DVD indicates to me that it is considered a seminal work in their respective filmographies.
At any rate, I consider THE BOYS a cleverly made “think piece” to subvert liberal politics. Your remarks about Dearden are interesting to me, because I think if he had done it, then yes it would have been more transparently in favor of the defendants. We would have been made to sympathize with the boys. But instead, we’re just supposed to sit back, almost detached, see how they carry on with their pranks, their attention deficit issues, and their general clownishness and inability to fit into society properly. Then watch these boys get hauled into court, and inevitably they are carted off to prison.
THE BOYS may currently be viewed on YouTube.