Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The prolific writing team of Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais got their start in the mid sixties on such cult British television series as The Likely Lads and The Further Adventures of Lucky Jim. Their first screenwriting credit for a major motion picture came with 1967's The Jokers for director Michael Winner, which garnered them much acclaim. Nowhere near as notable, but still worth a look, is their second feature film together, 1968's Otley.
Otley, a film Clement handles directorial duties on, tells the strange tale of Gerald Arthur Otley, a man perpetually out of work, out of money and, as the movie begins, without a place to live. Otley, played by the always excellent Tom Courtenay, drifts from one friend's pad to another and has no qualms about freeloading his way completely through life. One morning though he wakes up in the grass near an airport runaway and soon finds out that he is being framed for the murder of one of his hospitable friends. Soon after he finds himself caught up in a complex web of espionage, lies, and betrayal.
Otley is a comedy, or at least that is what it mainly attempts to be. It's not all that funny though, and mostly it just succeeds on its strangeness factor. Widely veering between satirical spy thriller, pedestrian romance, and droll character study, Otley attempts to squeeze a lot into its ninety minute running time.
The then novice director Clement is a better writer than filmmaker and Otley is rather flat feeling. Clement handles the material capably but his first film fails to ever really distinguish itself and is short on style throughout its running time. Luckily though the impressive cast keeps it compulsively watchable throughout.
Courtenay, an Oscar nominee and one of the great British actors from the past several decades, handles the material with ease and controls nearly every frame of the film. His witty performance manages to make Otley sympathetic and pathetic often at the same time and watching him is a pleasure.
While she is billed second in the film and before the title, lovely and talented Romy Schneider is virtually not in the first half and then only sporadically pops up in the second. Still, she shares a couple of terrific moments with Courtenay and, as always, is a wonder to watch.
Filling out the cast are a number of instantly familiar faces for fans of British cinema including the unforgettable Freddie Jones and future cult actress Fiona Lewis. Otley as a film never totally gels but the cast is impressive and all are in fine form.
Otley benefits from a nice relatively early score by future Deer Hunter composer Stanley Myers, and former Stanley Donen collaborator Austin Dempster captures the London of 1968 very well, especially with shots inside Notting Hill Gate's Tube Station and even a brief bit in London's Playboy Club.
Clement and le Frenais have continued to work together throughout the years and have delivered a lot of solid work. Their most recent film, The Bank Job, features one of the most enjoyable and tightest scripts of the past few years.
Otley isn't any kind of major lost classic but it's enjoyable and a DVD version would be welcome. Fans of British spy films in the sixties or admirers of Courtenay and Schneider will absolutely want to seek it out. My copy, from which these screenshots were taken, comes from an older British VHS and to my knowledge a DVD has never been released.