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01.16.08

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This Sporting Life

Criterion; $39.95

By Michael S. Gant


Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963) represents the peak of the angry British cinema of the late '50s and early '60s (Room at the Top, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). Richard Harris plays Frank Machin, a profession rugby star in the hard-scrabble industrial town in the north of England. He boards with Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts), a widow who bears her pain like a ton of the coal the local miners toil and sometimes die for. Machin, a inchoate semibrute (he likens himself to a "great ape on a football field") brawls on and off the field but bares a sensitive side in his love for Mrs. Hammond and her children. Anderson focuses relentlessly on Machin and Hammond's courtship-which is really a form of emotional warfare, as Machin pounds away at the rock of Hammond's inconsolable bitterness. They become lovers, but this arrangement only proves to Hammond how stifling a dead end her life has become, and the two escalate their scrum of bruising recriminations to a hysterical pitch. Anderson knows this pitiless milieu well (he made a couple of documentaries about Wakefield coal mines and a newspaper, which are included in the extras), although some of the characters, especially an old man known as Dad and the team owner's predatory wife, look like stagy clichés. Harris gives his greatest performance, raging and strutting like a British Stanley Kowalski. Indeed, this may be the greatest of all Brando imitations; Harris even juts his chin out and rolls his eyes Brando style. A documentary about Anderson reveals that the director went all the way to Tahiti to show the script to Harris, who was on location for Mutiny on the Bounty and no doubt soaking up lessons from the Method master. As always, the Criterion DVD transfer is visually superb. (Michael S. Gant)


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