Director: Robert Day
Screenplay: Ray Galton, Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock
Producers: W.A. Whittaker
Starring: Tony Hancock, George Sanders, Paul Massie, Margit Saad, Irene Handl
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 105 mins
There is a moment early on in The Rebel in which aspiring artist Anthony Hancock, having rejected the drudgery of his office job in Britain and set off on a boat for Paris, tosses his bowler hat and umbrella overboard. Declaring them symbols of his former misery, Hancock addresses the umbrella in particular, announcing that it is no longer needed. The next scene is an immediate cut to Hancock arriving in Paris in a torrential rainstorm, huddled against the freezing conditions with no cover. This is a gag that even the most casual comedy fan could see coming a mile off. What they might not have seen coming is that Hancock’s ticket to gain entry to Paris was in the brim of his bowler hat. But even this second gag isn’t the meat of the bit. The deft screenplay, written by Ray Galton, Alan Simpson and Hancock himself, encourages us to dig deeper. The point is that in rejecting the source of income and the shores he knows so well, Hancock has instantaneously lost his comfort, his means and his identity. There’s no easy message about obtaining liberation through rejection of conformity then but, as we will discover, neither will there be a conservative no-place-like-home message. This is multi-layered writing that satisfies even as it refuses to draw attention to itself.
In retrospect, The Rebel seems like an anomaly among other British comedies to which it has been compared. By the time of its release in 1961, the Carry On series was already five films deep and would continue to be successful right on into the next decade, alongside raunchier developments like the Confessions of… films. But The Rebel is more likely to be mentioned in the same breath as the glut of sitcom spin-off movies of the 70s that cashed in on the popularity of their TV counterparts by stretching them to feature length, often unconvincingly. To be fair to this oft-derided subgenre, some entries are significantly better than others. The Dad’s Army, Porridge and Steptoe and Son films do, if memory serves, at least attempt to create original stories that make the most of the additional runtime and higher budget. By contrast, the Rising Damp film is just a bunch of slightly rewritten incidents from the TV series strung into an episodic travesty, while Are You Being Served?, The Likely Lads and Holiday on the Buses (unbelievably the third big-screen version of that series) all fell back on the hackneyed plot point of sending the entire cast on holiday, a convention still be adhered to decades later by latter-day small-to-big-screen transitions Kevin and Perry Go Large, The Inbetweeners Movie and The Bad Education Movie.
It may be tempting to fold The Rebel into this clutch of hurried productions but while its existence can be attributed to the success of a pre-existing sitcom and while it does open up the big screen possibilities by sending its main character to a foreign country, this is where any such comparisons end. One of the joys of Tony Hancock’s carefully crafted screen persona is its hazy continuity. Unlike, say, Victor Meldrew whose weekly misadventures stacked up as a comedic influence on his grim outlook, Anthony Hancock was able to retain an instantly recognisable set of characteristics without having to labour under the limitations of stringent canonical demands. As with Chaplin’s Tramp, though Hancock’s character continuity provided audiences with an instant foothold, there was not necessarily any reason to believe that what happened to the Hancock of Hancock’s Half Hour in 1956 was part of the backstory of the character in 1961’s follow-up series Hancock. Did the Hancock of ‘The Blood Donor’ or ‘The Radio Ham’ have any memory of living with Sid James in ‘The Missing Page’ or ‘The Poison Pen Letters’? I’ve never thought so, but whether you did or not didn’t really matter. This fluidity allowed Hancock to take his creation to the big screen far less clumsily and as such it feels far more appropriate to compare The Rebel to the graceful comedy of the Ealing classics than with the catastrophically-stretched sitcom castaways of a decade later.
It is almost certainly Hancock’s association with sitcom that has led to The Rebel being undervalued, and yet Hancock was always a very different kind of sitcom star. He largely rejected overt gags, working with sitcom legends Galton and Simpson to create tight half-hours which still feel comparatively modern due to their emphasis on character and situation over one-liners or pratfalls. Hancock’s was an elegant, eloquent form of comedy devoid of the sort of lascivious lechery that was becoming ubiquitous in that era and which dates so many comedies in one fell swoop. It didn’t rely on big iconic moments like Del Boy falling through the bar or Basil Fawlty goose-stepping into reception. So intricate was the construction that to remove just one piece of it would be to cause the whole thing to fall apart, hence when Hancock is iconic, like in ‘The Blood Donor’, the viewer has to watch the entire episode to understand why. These intricacies carry over into The Rebel, which takes its time setting up Hancock’s dissatisfaction with his lot in some tremendously effective opening scenes in which a sea of bowler-hatted businessmen commute to work and perform their daily tasks in unison, disrupted only by Hancock’s eroding patience with the routine. The higher budget for The Rebel is immediately noticeable in its glorious colour photography, made even crisper by Network’s new High Definition transfer. The significance of this visual prestige is not lost in a film that is all about aesthetic appreciation.
The Rebel places Hancock in the role of an aspiring artist who has high levels of confidence, passion and commitment but little actual talent to justify them. Having spent three years on his masterwork, a hysterically grotesque sculpture called Aphrodite at the Water Hole, only to find it condemned by his philistine landlady, Hancock decides to set sail for Paris where his talents might be appreciated. With very little money and no idea how to proceed, Hancock stumbles across a group of young artists and befriends the talented Paul. Unfortunately, his attempts to fake his way through conversations on artistic appreciation only serve to discourage Paul’s talents, as does the sudden popularity of Hancock’s own childish daubs among the trendy Parisian art crowd. Soon Hancock is dubbed a genius of New Infantilism, while a disillusioned Paul heads back to England leaving his paintings with Hancock. When the buzz around Hancock attracts the attentions of an art critic however, it is Paul’s paintings that catch his eye, though he believes them to be Hancock’s work.
The plot of The Rebel is fairly predictable and, in fact, it is when it kicks in in earnest that the film begins to lose its way a little. Thankfully, as has always been the case, Hancock and his writers are well aware that the plot is not where the comedy gold lies and it is in the film’s leisurely-paced first hour that most of the magic is to be found. As Hancock makes connections, attends parties, impresses the beatniks and creates more horrendous artworks, The Rebel remains consistently hilarious. One key factor in the script’s success is its refusal to resort to meanness in its satire. Depictions of pretentiousness and pseudo-intellectualism can often be one-dimensional and depressingly conservative but The Rebel remains sympathetic to its targets, aligning their desperation for acceptance and validation with Hancock’s own and crucially not writing off all modern art as hokum even as it exposes its unique vulnerability to charlatanism. Unfortunately, The Rebel can’t quite sustain this relaxed pace for its comparatively lengthy runtime and as Hancock is elevated to a revered society figure the film devolves into an overlong aside in which he is forced to fend of the amorous attentions of a wealthy client’s wife as he works through a commissioned sculpture of her. Fortunately, there are no “phwoar, cor blimey” moments in this section of the film, with Hancock instead trying desperately to avoid any romantic entanglements, but it is the one moment when an underwritten supporting character becomes a problem. It’s true to say that, even in a film featuring mainstays of British comedy such as John le Mesurier, Liz Frazer, Dennis Price and the Oscar-winning George Sanders, Hancock is practically the only character who gets any laughs but this is entirely by design, the other actors used as effective straight foils (the one exception being the wonderful Irene Handl, whose turn as landlady Mrs. Crevatte even manages to steal a couple of scenes). But, as the attractive, flirtatious wife Margit Saad is the only player who feels like deliberate window-dressing, which clashes with the film’s measured, unlascivious tone.
This one hiccup aside, The Rebel gets back on track again for its finale with a clever plot twist, a satisfying moment of emotional closure in which Hancock puts right his mistakes without ever relinquishing his delusions, and a final comic capper which combines a broad visual gag the like of which Hancock loathed with a subtle, beautifully constructed line the like of which he thrived on. Having been forced to recreate his masterwork sculpture once already during the film, the final scene sees a still determined Hancock setting about recreating it again. As he chisels away at his huge lump of stone, he announces “Right, Aphrodite at the Waterhole, coming up for the third time.” Now that’s good comedy writing!
The Rebel is released by Network as part of The British Film collection, on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video on 30 September 2019. Though extra features are limited to a trailer and image gallery, the opportunity to discover this underrated gem in an eye-popping new High Definition transfer is reason enough to get hold of a copy.