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  Karel Reisz (1926–2002), by Callum Bibby, 1985 Karel Reisz (1926–2002), by Callum Bibby, 1985
Reisz, Karel (1926–2002), film and theatre director, was born on 21 July 1926 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, the son of Josef Reisz, a Jewish lawyer, and his wife, Frederika. At the age of twelve he joined his older brother Paul as a boarder at Leighton Park, the Quaker school in Reading. Soon afterwards the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia. Josef and Frederika Reisz were later sent to concentration camps; they died at Auschwitz. When he was old enough Reisz enlisted in one of the RAF's Czech squadrons, though the war ended before he saw active service. He returned to Czechoslovakia, but with most of his family dead he decided to take up the chance of studying natural sciences at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. England remained his home for the rest of his life.

Initiation into film-making

At Leighton Park, Reisz had been encouraged to develop an interest in cinema and photography (as had an earlier pupil, David Lean). After graduating from Cambridge he taught for two years at the St Marylebone grammar school before winning a commission from the newly established British Film Academy to write a book on film editing. The Technique of Film Editing, published in 1953, was an immensely impressive analysis of the theory and practice of editing which (in an updated version co-written with Gavin Millar) was still being widely used at the time of his death. Research for the book, involving meticulous analysis of films stored in what became the National Film Archive, was essentially Reisz's apprenticeship, guiding his own practice in making lucid, sophisticated, and concise films.

A chance encounter with Lindsay Anderson on a Green Line bus bound for the British Film Institute's viewing facilities in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, led to Reisz's involvement with the lively film magazine Sequence, where he also encountered Tony Richardson. While subsequently working as programme planner at the National Film Theatre, he co-directed Momma Don't Allow (1956) with Richardson, a cleverly structured record of Chris Barber's Jazz Band playing at the Fishmongers Arms in Wood Green, north London, made on a tiny budget provided by the British Film Institute's experimental film fund. The film was notable for its infectious gaiety, and for Reisz and Richardson's willingness to display the skilful and enthusiastic young dancers without patronizing comment; in 1956, when teenagers were generally portrayed as delinquent troublemakers, it must have seemed a startling breath of fresh air.

On the recommendation of the British Film Institute, Reisz was appointed films officer at the Ford Motor Company. While labouring on promotional films such as Three Graces (1956), featuring a Ford Consul, a Ford Zephyr, and a Ford Zodiac, he persuaded the management that a series looking at neglected aspects of British society would soften the company's hard-nosed image. Three films were made—Lindsay Anderson's Every Day Except Christmas (1957), Reisz's own We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959), and John Fletcher's The Saturday Men (1963)—before Ford decided that not enough of their motor vehicles were visible to make the venture worthwhile.

Though pathways into the mainstream British film industry appeared blocked, Reisz's friendship with Anderson and Richardson proved extremely fruitful. Under the banner of Free Cinema they organized six programmes of films at the National Film Theatre, showcasing their own documentaries along with the work of like-minded British contemporaries and the exciting new films emerging from France and Poland. Free Cinema aroused considerable press interest, but Reisz's route into the industry came via Richardson, who had moved from cinema to theatre after making Momma Don't Allow. His huge success with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre enabled him to set up a production company, Woodfall, to make adaptations of Osborne's plays. Neither Look Back in Anger (1959) nor The Entertainer (1960) was commercially very successful, and Reisz was asked to make a modest version of Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, without any expensive stars, to keep the company on an even keel.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Reisz had delved into the rituals and mores of working-class youth in We Are the Lambeth Boys, and in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) he presented the work and home life of Sillitoe's hard-drinking factory worker Arthur Seaton with convincing authenticity. This was not just a matter of breaching the middle-class stuffiness of British cinema. Reisz caught a society on the cusp of change. Arthur Seaton is dyed-in-the-wool working class (unlike the university-educated Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger), but he is also something new. His defiant motto—‘What I'm out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda’—tolls the bell for a traditionally deferential society. The vision is Sillitoe's, not Reisz's—the British new wave directors were never auteurs in the sense of their French counterparts—but Reisz, with the help of a well-chosen crew and a brilliant cast, including Albert Finney as Arthur and Rachel Roberts as his married lover, did a marvellous job of realizing it with clarity and vigour. Though distributors were initially unenthusiastic, the film proved a major critical and commercial success.

Reisz in the sixties

Just as Richardson had helped Reisz by producing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Reisz agreed to produce Lindsay Anderson's début feature, the impressively gloomy This Sporting Life (1963). Reisz then spent ten weeks in Australia with Albert Finney, soaking up the atmosphere and seeking out locations for a film about the outlaw Ned Kelly. But the Australian film industry was too underdeveloped to support such an epic, and flying out a British crew was deemed too costly. (Richardson eventually picked up the project in 1969, with Mick Jagger rather than Finney as Kelly.)

Thwarted, Reisz accepted an offer from MGM to remake Night Must Fall, a melodrama written by Emlyn Williams which had been filmed with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in 1937. The film was released in 1964, but audiences disliked seeing Finney as a psychopath who keeps the head of a previous victim in a hatbox—a role he played with great relish—and critics were equally disapproving of the attempt to modernize what they considered an irredeemably dated melodrama. Reisz's first brush with madness and evil never quite found the right pitch—Finney's monstrous creation, sexually disturbed and unsympathetically manipulative, is fascinating but unappealing, and the voice of sanity and reason, Susan Hampshire's bored rich girl, makes an insipid adversary—but if the film was a failure it was an interesting one.

Similar ingredients were played out more creatively and imaginatively in Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), adapted by David Mercer from his television play of 1962 about a working-class writer whose existential crisis leads to mild schizophrenia and a break-up with his upper-middle-class wife. Reisz was accused of stylistic gimmickry but the film resonates with sincerity and conviction. David Warner's shaggy, gangling Morgan may be mad, but he is also endearingly outrageous, his empathy with gorillas and gibbons a likeable reaction to the onset of affluence.

Reisz's sensitivity to the spirit of rebellion which surged in the late 1960s found further expression in Isadora (1968), an ambitious attempt to chart the life of the American dancer Isadora Duncan, who shocked pre-First World War audiences with her artistic but daringly sensual performances. The three-hour film Reisz delivered was deemed unacceptable by the distributors and he was forced to make drastic cuts. The shortened version pleased no one, though Vanessa Redgrave's madly idealistic romantic, by turn infuriating and achingly vulnerable, later received a more positive assessment. If the film as a whole was unsatisfactory, some of the sequences—Duncan's love affair with Gordon Craig, and her excursion to Soviet Russia in 1921—were masterly demonstrations of how to encapsulate complex events into concise episodes.

Reisz's later career

Isadora's failure hit Reisz hard, and matters were made worse by the collapse of his next two projects, adaptations of John le Carré's The Naïve and Sentimental Lover and André Malraux's The Human Condition. He bided his time making commercials for Guinness, Mars Bars, and various cheeses, until redemption came in the form of a Chekhov adaptation (On the High Road, 1973) and two off-beat American films, The Gambler and Dog Soldiers (released in America as Who'll Stop the Rain). The Gambler (1974), written by James Toback, centred on a New York university professor whose gambling obsession draws him down into the violent underbelly of American society. James Caan is utterly convincing as the self-destructive hero, and Reisz's exploration of the seedy side of New York life preceded that of Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver (1976). But he never seemed to quite make up his mind where the film was going. Dog Soldiers (1978), by contrast, was Reisz's most assured and consistent film since Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Like Arthur Seaton, Nick Nolte's former marine Ray Hicks is a self-sufficient tough guy who rejects any form of authority and has worked out his own moral code. But whereas Arthur was confined to the little world of working-class Nottingham, Ray flies in from Vietnam and thinks nothing of driving across a wild and seemingly lawless America. Corrupt policemen, a failed war, and a society steeped in drug abuse and pornography were the wrong ingredients for box-office success in America, but Dog Soldiers was one of the most significant films of the 1970s.

Reisz returned to Britain to fulfil his long-standing ambition to film John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. Fowles's novel, with its post-modern tinkerings, parallel stories, and alternative endings, had been considered impossible to film, but Harold Pinter's script adopted the relatively simple solution of running a love affair between the two lead actors in a late twentieth-century filming of the novel alongside the main story set in the nineteenth century. Though the modern story yielded disappointingly little in terms of depth and complexity, neither did it interfere with the slim but visually rich story of a gentleman scientist who ditches his fiancée and his reputation in a passionate amour fou for a half-mad, disgraced governess. Some critics sneered at what was essentially a romantic melodrama, but Reisz's handling of the unlikely situations was always persuasive and the extraordinary performance he evoked from Meryl Streep made its box-office success and enduring popularity entirely understandable.

A long gap followed before Reisz's next film, Sweet Dreams (1985), which explored the life of country singer Patsy Cline, who had been killed in a plane crash in 1963 just as her career was beginning to take off. Fine performances from Jessica Lange as Cline, Ann Wedgeworth as her mother, and Ed Harris as her occasionally violent husband, compensated for the over-predictable story. As with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Reisz showed a surprisingly acute sensitivity to a milieu with which one might expect this urban middle-class intellectual to have had little in common. But it was too belated and too unambitious a project to consolidate Reisz's reputation. Another five years elapsed before Reisz's last feature film, Everybody Wins (1990), a clever thriller about a private eye (Nick Nolte) sucked into a complex web of corruption. It was adapted—with considerable licence—by Arthur Miller from his play Some Kind of Love Story, and made in America for the English producer Jeremy Thomas. It was a cool, sophisticated film, remarkable for its unglamorous depiction of an America of cheap bars and run-down shacks, but its wry despair at the persistence of corruption in American public life left the plot at a loose end. The film's poor reception more or less ended Reisz's career as a film director. Only the short Act Without Words I (2000) followed, as part of an Anglo-Irish attempt to film all of Samuel Beckett's plays.

Reisz had always been very much an actor's director (Redgrave, Streep, and Lange had all been nominated for Oscars for performances in his films) and late in life he launched himself successfully into the theatre. His production of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea in 1993, starring Linus Roache and Penelope Wilton, was much acclaimed; he made a television version, with Colin Firth replacing Roache, the following year. Along with productions of Ibsen's A Doll's House (1993) and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (1998), there were several collaborations with his friend Harold Pinter, including the American première of Moonlight in 1995, and a revival of A Kind of Alaska at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 1998.

Assessment

The contention by some critics that Reisz was an anonymous director without any clearly definable personal vision hardly bears close examination. Though the nine feature films he made over a period of thirty years were varied in subject, tone, and theme, the links are clear enough. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Night Must Fall were both centred upon working-class rebels. Patsy Kline's preening, womanizing, hard-drinking husband who gets more than his fair share of attention in Sweet Dreams was an American cousin to Arthur Seaton. Nick Nolte's hard-bitten former marine falls for a depressive, inadequate woman in Dog Soldiers; older but no wiser, his hard-boiled detective falls under the spell of the still more dubious Angela in Everybody Wins. Angela, so abused by society she drifts in and out of madness, was herself a contemporary American equivalent of the French lieutenant's woman.

Though easily mistaken for a genial, considerate Englishman, Reisz's Czech origins and the tragedy that befell his parents gave him a slight distance from British society and a streak of nonconformity that belied his sedate exterior. In his films his sympathy was consistently with the outsider—even when they were beyond the pale like Danny in Night Must Fall or Angela (and the even madder Jerry) in Everybody Wins. Thus his key film—though by no means his best—was Isadora, where the rebel heroine is wildly romantic, haunted by the untimely death of those she loves best, and trapped by the narrowing choices life offers her.

Reisz himself negotiated the hazards of life more successfully. One might wish that he had made more films, but those he did make were significant and worthwhile. His personal life was certainly more stable than that of the characters in his films. He married Julia Campaspe Coppard (b. 1927/8), daughter of Alfred Edgar Coppard, author, on 14 March 1953; they had three sons but divorced ten years later. He then married, on 5 September 1963, the American actress Betsy Blair [see below]. He died on 25 November 2002 at the Royal Free Hospital, Camden, London, following a stroke; he had been suffering from myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder.

Reisz's second wife, Betsy Blair (1923–2009), actress, was born Elizabeth Winifred Boger in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, on 11 December 1923, the daughter of Willett Kidd Boger, insurance broker, and his wife, Frederica, née Ammon, schoolteacher. As a child she tap-danced, and performed for Eleanor Roosevelt. She left school at the age of fifteen to work as a dancer in a New York nightclub, and met the aspiring, and soon very successful, dancer, choreographer, singer, and actor Eugene Curran (Gene) Kelly (1912–1996); they married on 16 October 1941 and had one daughter, Kerry. Meanwhile Betsy Blair made her Broadway début in 1940 in the Cole Porter musical Panama Hattie. In 1941 she won critical acclaim for her portrayal of Agnes Webster in William Saroyan's The Beautiful People. She made her film début in The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947), and appeared in Another Part of the Forest and The Snake Pit (both 1948), but she was active in left-wing politics (on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Independent Progressive Party, among other organizations) and found her film career cut short by the blacklist. It was only through her husband threatening to withdraw from his own contracts that she was given the role of Clara Snyder in Marty (1955), a low-budget drama which achieved unexpected commercial and critical success. Blair was nominated for an Academy Award (Oscar), won a BAFTA award for best actress, and was fêted at Cannes. Offers of films followed, though from Europe rather than the United States.

In 1956 Blair left her husband (without rancour; they divorced amicably the following year) and moved to Europe. ‘To sit out the McCarthy era in a house on Rodeo Drive as Mrs Gene Kelly is not so bad’, she later said. ‘But the atmosphere that prevailed eventually destroyed my marriage’ (The Times, 28 March 2009). She settled initially in France, where she was romantically involved with the actor Roger Pigaut. She appeared in Rencontre à Paris (1956), a comedy co-starring Robert Lamoureux, Juan Antonio Bardem's acclaimed Calle Mayor (1956), Michelangelo Antonioni's neo-realist drama Il Grido (1957), and Mauro Bolignini's Senilità (1961), in which she gave one of the performances of her life as a woman succumbing to madness. After moving to London she played Emily in Basil Dearden's All Night Long (1962), an Othello set among the London jazz scene, and acted in the West End. It was while appearing in The Trial of Mary Dugan at the Savoy that she met Karel Reisz. After their marriage she gave primacy to her role as wife and mother, but she also continued to appear on stage, film, and television. Among her successes were The Spoon River Anthology (1964) at the Royal Court, an evening of music and poetry; a leading role in the BBC's production of Death of a Salesman (1966), co-starring Rod Steiger; and film parts in Tony Richardson's version of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (1973), alongside Katharine Hepburn, and in Costa-Gavras's political thriller, Betrayed (1988), as Tom Berenger's mother. She also trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and practised as a speech therapist. She remained firmly left-wing, and was a generous and kind-hearted friend to many. She died at the King Edward VII Hospital for Officers, Westminster, on 13 March 2009, of lung cancer, and was survived by her daughter and three stepsons.

Robert Murphy

Sources  

K. Reisz, The technique of film editing (1953) · R. Hoggart, ‘We are the Lambeth boys’, Sight and Sound (autumn 1959), 164–5 · M. Ciment, ‘Bio-biblio filmographie de Karel Reisz et nouvel entretien avec Karel Reisz’, Positif, 212 (Nov 1978), 12–21 · J. Török, ‘Entretien avec Karel Reisz’, Positif, 212 (Nov 1978), 6–11 · J. Török, ‘To stand outside and to risk’, Positif, 212 (Nov 1978), 2–3 · G. Gow, ‘Outsiders: Karel Reisz in an interview with Gordon Gow’, Films and Filming (Jan 1979), 13–17 · G. Gaston, Karel Reisz (1980) · G. Millar and K. Reisz, ‘Karel Reisz: NFT’, The Guardian (7 Sept 1978) [interview] · D. Malcolm and K. Reisz, ‘Karel Reisz: NFT’, The Guardian (1 May 1991) [interview] · BFI, BECTU oral history project, 1991, , tape 193 · The Times (28 Nov 2002) · Daily Telegraph (28 Nov 2002) · The Guardian (28 Nov 2002); (30 Nov 2002) · The Independent (28 Nov 2002); (6 Dec 2002) · The Observer (1 Dec 2002) · WW (2002) · m. certs. · d. cert. · B. Blair, The memory of all that: love and politics in New York, Hollywood and Paris (2003) · The Guardian (17 March 2009) · New York Times (19 March 2009) · The Independent (25 March 2009) · The Times (28 March 2009) · d. cert. [B. Blair/E. W. Reisz]

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage

 

SOUND

 

BFI, BECTU oral history project, tape 193 · BFI, interviews with The Guardian and National Film Theatre, 7 Sept 1978 and 1 May 1991 · BL NSA, documentary recordings


Likenesses  

R. Gough, photograph, 1960, priv. coll. · double portrait, photograph, 1963 (with his wife, Betsy Blair), Empics, London · M. Seymour, double portrait, resin print from original negative, 1968 (with Vanessa Redgrave on the set of Isadora), NPG · D. Bachardy, pen-and-ink wash drawing, 1978, repro. in D. Bachardy, 100 drawings (1983), no. 76 · C. Bibby, Agfa record rapid print, 1985, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, 1990, Ronald Grant Archive, London · obituary photographs · obituary photographs (Betsy Blair)

Wealth at death  

£1,325,260: probate, 29 July 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £3,451,963—Betsy Blair: probate, 19 Aug 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales