D: John Boulting / 105m
Cast: Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, Margaret Rutherford, Dennis Price, Irene Handl, Liz Fraser, Miles Malleson, Marne Maitland, John Le Mesurier, Victor Maddern, Kenneth Griffith, Raymond Huntley, Esma Cannon, Malcolm Muggeridge
When slightly gormless Stanley Windrush (Carmichael) tries finding work in management, he appears to be unemployable. One disastrous job application after another sees his employment agency at a loss as to what to do with him. Enter old army chum Sidney De Vere Cox (Attenborough) alongside Stanley’s uncle Bertram Tracepurcel (Price) to offer him a job at Bertram’s missile factory. The only drawback: he has to start at the bottom, working on the shop floor. Stanley agrees and it isn’t long before he’s causing problems with the union, led by pedantic shop steward Fred Kite (Sellers), and playing into the hands of his uncle and Cox. For unknown to Stanley, they are counting on his actions to cause a strike; with Bertram’s workforce tied up, a contract with Mr. Mohammed (Maitland) can be picked up by Cox’s factory at a higher price.
The joy in I’m All Right Jack – and there’s plenty to be had – comes largely from the pin-sharp script by Frank Harvey, director Boulting and Alan Hackney (from Hackney’s novel Private Life). The pretensions of the upper, middle and working classes are skewered with exquisite accuracy, from Stanley’s Aunt Dolly (Rutherford), horrified at his having to do manual labour, to Stanley’s own aspirations and over-confidence in his abilities, to the entrenched “us against them” attitude of Kite and the workers, I’m All Right Jack paints an only slightly exaggerated portrait of Britain in the late Fifties. Post-war attitudes and adjustments were still very much in effect, and there were remnants of pre-War social concerns present throughout Britain. The movie is successfully grounded thanks to this approach, and even if some of the political manoeuvring that occurs late on may seem far-fetched – or too simplistic even – then it doesn’t matter so much: the whole thing’s a bit of a farce anyway.
But there’s also a great deal of joy to be had from the performances. Carmichael perfects his exploited innocent character and puts in arguably his best performance. As the personnel manager, Major Hitchcock, Terry-Thomas has great fun with the lines he’s given, oozing charm and disrespect with aplomb. Rutherford is as dotty as ever, Price as unctuous and slimy as you’d expect in such a role, while Attenborough channels his inner rogue to admirable effect. In supporting roles, Irene Handl (as Mrs Kite) and Liz Fraser (as Cynthia Kite – and shot side on as much as possible) make a great team, and John Le Mesurier offers an anxious time and motion examiner (as well he might be). But of all these rich and varied performances it’s Peter Sellers who towers over everyone else, as the Marxist shop steward Fred Kite, a vainglorious man clinging to his beliefs and minor fiefdom with all the tenacity of an endangered limpet. He also has one of the best lines ever written: “We do not and cannot accept the principle that incompetence justifies dismissal. That is victimisation.” His terrified egotism and unswerving commitment to his political ideals hides a simple man thrust unwittingly into a position where he has to confront the absurdities of his convictions. The scene where he and Terry-Thomas try to work out a solution to the strike that will be acceptable to both sides is a masterclass in acting, scripting and direction, with Sellers showing a vulnerable side to Kite that is completely credible.
Boulting, fresh from the success of Lucky Jim (1957), here does an incredible job of pointing up the humour in the various situations without forgetting the pathos attendant with them. He has a firm grip on the performances, which although sometimes teetering on the edge of caricature never quite fall over the edge, and in tandem with photographer Mutz Greenbaum (credited here as Max Greene), keeps the movie well-staged and attractively shot in black and white. A mention too for Anthony Harvey’s measured editing, each shot and scene assembled in full service to the needs of the script.
It’s often said, “They don’t make them like that any more”, and it’s true. But movies such as I’m All Right Jack wouldn’t work today because they were so much a product of their times. Better to be grateful that they were made when they were, and when we had a cast of this calibre that directors could call on.
Rating: 9/10 – a classic British comedy that still resonates over fifty years later; excellent performances that support an excellent script that benefits from excellent direction – filmmakers who are as far from being “a complete shower” as you could possibly get.