I recorded both of these some time ago, and by "some time ago" I mean at least a couple of years. Probably they were on Turner Classic Movies. They were two of many that I recorded out of a slight sense of duty--"Oh, I've heard of that, the critics talk about it, I should see it." That was why I recorded them, and that was why it was a long time before I watched them.
It's been several months now since I watched the first one, which was followed closely by the second, because the first was much better than I expected. Both star Tom Courtenay as an alienated young man, both were made in the early 1960s, and both cast an interesting light on the culture of the times, apart from their considerable artistic merit. But they are very different, and different in interesting and significant ways.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
I've never read the equally well-known Alan Sillitoe short story of which this is a dramatization, so I can't say how well the film treats the story. But it's excellent in its own right. Courtenay plays Colin Smith, a working-class youth serving time in a reform school (as we would call it in the U.S., or used to), or borstal (as it's apparently called in Britain, or used to be). In flashbacks we see how he came to be there. With his father recently deceased and his mother having taken up with a creep and spent the meager insurance money on a TV and other indulgences, and life generally looking very bleak, he takes to petty crime, and is arrested for burglary and convicted.
The governor (or warden as we would call him in the U.S.) of the prison wants to rehabilitate the boys by the usual remedies of sports and work. It is discovered that Colin is a gifted runner, and the governor hopes to have his efforts justified by Colin's success in a track meet against a nearby public (or private as we would say in the U.S.) school. Colin's reaction to this constitutes the film's present-day story.
Alan Sillitoe was counted as one of the Angry Young Men of 1950s Britain, and this is an angry movie. But there are poignant moments of sweetness. I guess I'd say it's of interest at least as much as a document of its time as for its art; it's the sort of work that is pretty clearly a commentary on Social Conditions. But the same could be said of some of Dickens's work. At any rate this struck me as something anyone interested in cinema and/or the cultural history of the past century or so would want to see.
Here, with compliments to TCM, is the trailer; it will certainly tell you whether you want to see it or not.
In this one Courtenay plays a young man of about the same age as Colin, but vastly different in personality and circumstance. His life is fairly comfortable, if humdrum, and his disaffection takes the form of escapism rather than open and angry rebellion. He's called Billy Liar because he can't accept the limits and challenges of the real world. The scenes where his fantasies become cinematically real make it a funny movie, but in the end it's much sadder than Runner.
Again, I find this film difficult to discuss without touching on the times in which it was made. One fascinating aspect of the juxtaposition of these two is that in Billy Liar you can see the beginning of what was soon to become the swinging '60s, the British variant of the great youth upheaval of those times. The mood is alienated and cynical, in fact contemptuous of its world, but an element of zaniness is emerging, a suggestion that a sense of comic absurdity is an understandable and perhaps necessary response to a society seen as inhuman.
Billy Liar is also notable as the first big film success of that classic '60s woman, Julie Christie. Here's the trailer. It's interesting that the trailers for both these films give away so much--again, this will definitely tell you whether you want to see it.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was directed by Tony Richardson, Billy Liar by John Schlesinger. Both had fairly big careers following these films--here is Richardson's filmography, and here is Schlesinger's.