10 great British films of 1973

From Theatre of Blood to The Wicker Man: the British classics celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.

20 April 2023

By Alex Ramon

The Wicker Man (1973)

In general, the 1970s are still sometimes perceived as a less than stellar decade for British film, one dominated by cheapo sitcom spin-offs, Confessions… sex comedies and a general decline of the industry. Yet what Pamela Church Gibson and Andrew Hill once identified as “a consensus that British cinema of the 70s should be bypassed or relegated to footnotes” has also been increasingly subject to challenge. Mark Jenkin’s recent BFI Southbank season The Cinematic DNA of Enys Men, for one, highlighted the idiosyncratic work of the decade that influenced his 70s-set latest, unearthing plenty of rich and strange offerings in the process.

Indeed, a look at the films released exactly 50 years ago, in 1973, reveals a diverse set. Sure, the sitcom spin-offs are there, but so are deeply personal projects (My Ain Folk, the second part of the Bill Douglas trilogy), innovative artist docudramas (Jack Hazan’s Hockney portrait A Bigger Splash), a wide range of Plays for Today – and Roger Moore making his first Bond foray with the (awkwardly but intriguingly) Blaxploitation-influenced Live and Let Die. The Brits even won the Palme d’Or that year.

Included in the following list of films celebrating their half-centuries are several influential, defining works of British cinema – some recognised as such at the time, others which have grown in stature in the intervening years, and a few still ripe for wider rediscovery.

The Offence (January)

Director: Sidney Lumet

The Offence (1973)

While Roger Moore was busy stepping into James Bond’s shoes in Live and Let Die, Sean Connery was venturing into murkier terrain in The Offence. Sidney Lumet’s intense, clammy crime drama – a reunion between the actor and the director following their previous collaborations on The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes (1971) – was adapted by John Hopkins from his 1968 play This Story of Yours.

Connery plays Johnson, a police detective whose beating of a suspected child molester (Ian Bannen) during interrogation results in the suspect’s death. Via a flashback structure, the film explores Johnson’s attempts at rationalising his actions, gradually revealing him as a man both tormented and compelled by the many violent crimes he’s investigated. The relentlessly grim tone meant that the film failed to find much favour with audiences, but it’s a compelling drama to revisit today, and one crowned by one of Connery’s most disturbing performances.

Hard Labour (March)

Director: Mike Leigh

Hard Labour (1973)

Commissioned as a Play for Today after the release of his debut feature Bleak Moments (1971), Mike Leigh’s first BBC TV film has never ranked as one of his most popular pieces, and Leigh himself has also expressed ambivalence about it. Yet Hard Labour boasts many elements of interest, not least its strong connection to Leigh’s own background: it’s set in Salford, with some scenes shot in a house two doors along from where Leigh and his parents had lived.

What resonates most is the film’s unflinching gaze on daily female toil, the punitive qualities of which are evoked by the grimly punning title. Reuniting with Leigh following her supporting role in Bleak Moments, Liz Smith is wonderfully front and centre here as the beleaguered Mrs Thornley, reckoning with domestic drudgery, paid and unpaid. Look out, too, for Alison Steadman, in her debut collaboration with the director, as the first of the upwardly mobile female characters who periodically pop up in Leighland.

Theatre of Blood (March)

Director: Douglas Hickox

Theatre of Blood (1973)

An artist’s fantasies of revenge on those who’ve trashed them are given gleefully nasty fulfilment in Douglas Hickox’s comedy horror, in which Vincent Price’s maligned thespian devises a series of demises for eight critics. Derived from Shakespearean drama, the elaborate executions range from decapitation and drowning to force-feeding, with fragments of Richard III, Julius Caesar and Hamlet declaimed during the murders.

With spoofy echoes of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) in Anthony Greville-Bell’s screenplay, and Price accompanied by a cast including Diana Rigg as his daughter/sidekick, and Coral Browne, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe and Robert Morley among the ill-fated critics, Theatre of Blood remains a deliciously ghoulish delight. Small wonder that the film was adapted for the National Theatre in 2005, with canny casting seeing Jim Broadbent taking over the Price mantle and Rachael Stirling stepping into her mother Rigg’s role.

A Doll’s House (April)

Director: Patrick Garland

A Doll’s House (1973)

The fact that not one but two film adaptations of Ibsen’s masterpiece were produced in 1973 speaks to the renewed interest in the play in the context of second wave feminism. Ibsen’s ‘doll wife’ Nora gradually sees through the gender roles that have made her life and marriage a deceptive charade, leading to a cathartic confrontation and an infamous slamming of the door.

Adapted by David Mercer, Joseph Losey’s version opens the play out with added exterior scenes, and has Jane Fonda’s Nora joined by a cast including David Warner and Delphine Seyrig (the latter shortly to undertake her own feminist domestic journey as Jeanne Dielman). Yet the intensity of the piece is better captured in Patrick Garland’s version. That Garland retains more of a ‘filmed theatre’ approach is not surprising: this version emerged from his 1971 stage production. It boasts a superb Claire Bloom reprising a role that affected her so deeply that she titled her 1996 memoir after the play, and doing so with sterling support from Anthony Hopkins and Anna Massey.

The Day of the Jackal (May)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

A favourite film of Akira Kurosawa, Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 bestseller boasts a faithful screenplay by Kenneth Ross and benefits from Zinnemann’s smooth, controlled craftsmanship. The focus is an underground military organisation’s plan to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle by hiring one of the world’s most fearsome hitmen, one known only as ‘The Jackal’. When a French police investigator, Lebel, learns the name ‘Jackal’ from an informer, he gradually begins piecing together the identity of the killer.

Paralleling the Jackal’s preparations for the assassination with Lebel’s efforts to stop the crime, the film features fine performances from Edward Fox as the icily dispassionate killer-for-hire and Michel Lonsdale as the detective. The political context doesn’t add up to anything particularly substantial, but as a thriller The Day of the Jackal delivers plenty of gripping suspense.

The Hireling (May)

Director: Alan Bridges

The Hireling (1973)

Fresh from playing Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), Sarah Miles stepped into the shoes of another aristo in Alan Bridges’ lower-keyed drama, which followed The Go-Between (1971) as a second distinctive L.P. Hartley adaptation of this period. Set after the First World War, The Hireling finds Miles’ war widow coaxed out of depression by chauffeur Ledbetter (a compelling Robert Shaw), a relationship that begins to mean more to him than class structures will sanction.

Deemed “a masterly work of art” by Stanley Kauffmann, and acclaimed at Cannes, where Miles was awarded and the film shared the Palme d’Or with Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, The Hireling has subsequently fallen into neglect. But it remains one of the best literary adaptations of its era, and one that’s exceptionally convincing in its social details. Though a shrill climax strikes a false note, Bridges mainly directs with the same kind of sensitivity that he’d bring to his later adaptations, The Return of the Soldier (1982) and The Shooting Party (1984).

O Lucky Man! (May)

Director: Lindsay Anderson

O Lucky Man! (1973)

Often viewed as an over-ambitious folly, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! is the second of the director’s David Sherwin-scripted ‘Mick Travis’ films, with Malcolm McDowell reprising the name, if not the character, of his If…. (1968) antihero. (The third film in the sequence, Britannia Hospital, would arrive in 1982.)

It’s a postmodern picaresque satirising British power structures, in which McDowell’s driven innocent starts out as a trainee coffee salesman and undergoes misadventures in the worlds of finance, medical research, and, finally, film. At three hours, O Lucky Man! is excessive and undisciplined, but, vibrantly photographed by Miroslav Ondříček, it remains an exciting experiment. Anderson merges elements of theatre and cabaret into the film, aided by the efforts of a multi-roling ensemble that includes Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts and Helen Mirren – plus Alan Price whose wry, Randy Newman-esque songs are threaded, Chorus-like, through the action.

Don’t Look Now (October)

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Don’t Look Now (1973)

The gothic qualities of Venice have been exploited to great effect in many works of art, but seldom more unnervingly than in Nicolas Roeg’s supreme chiller. Adapting Daphne du Maurier’s 1971 short story, Roeg and screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant craft a grown-up exploration of psychic ability, grief and (dis)belief that seduces and disturbs in equal measure.

The Baxters, as played by a perfectly paired Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, head to the floating city in an attempt to escape their pain over their young daughter Christine’s accidental death. There an encounter with two sisters, one apparently clairvoyant, reveals that Christine is trying to make contact. The off-season city becomes a character itself, as Roeg makes images of water, shattering glass and the colour red into haunting, portentous motifs. With its fractured, associative editing, explicit scene of marital eroticism, melancholy undercurrents and uniquely chilling vibes, Don’t Look Now rewrote the rule-book of the supernatural in cinema. Despite many parodies, it remains a hypnotic experience today.

The Homecoming (October)

Director: Peter Hall

The Homecoming (1973)

Harold Pinter’s reputation in cinema has tended to rest more on his adaptations of others’ work – particularly his scripts for Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) – than on filmed versions of his own plays. An exception should be made for The Homecoming, which Peter Hall brilliantly brought to the screen between staging two major productions of the drama.

The focus is on the return of an academic son, Teddy (Michael Jayston), to his London family fold. This is promptly revealed as a battleground of toxic masculinity, involving bullying butcher patriarch Max (Paul Rogers), Max’s other sons Lenny (Ian Holm) and Joey (Terence Rigby), and his brother Sam (Cyril Cusack). Aided by cinematographer David Watkin’s eloquent compositions, Hall succeeds in keeping the play’s theatrical charge and giving some cinematic life to its often shockingly funny battle of wills – one in which Vivien Merchant’s coolly enigmatic wife Ruth finally emerges as the victor of sorts.

The Wicker Man (December)

Director: Robin Hardy

The Wicker Man (1973)

Given its iconic status today, it’s startling to recall that The Wicker Man was initially treated as something of an embarrassment, deemed “undistributable” before being shorn of 10 minutes and screened as the ‘B’ film following Don’t Look Now. But the reputation of The Wicker Man has grown wildly over the years, and Robin Hardy’s film now stands for many as the quintessence of British folk horror.

At the heart of Anthony Shaffer’s sly screenplay is a clash between paganism and Christianity. Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie arrives at a Scottish island to investigate a girl’s disappearance. There Howie is shocked to find the islanders, led by Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle, up to all kinds of pagan mischief – including, Howie comes to believe, human sacrifice. Building to an unforgettable, rug-pulling climax, The Wicker Man’s mix of detective mystery and delirious pagan pastoral offers a ‘wyrd Britain’ vision with a primal pull. Its line of influence encompasses Neil LaBute’s risible remake (2006), TV’s The League of Gentleman (1999 to 2002), and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019).

  • The Wicker Man is back in cinemas from 21 June and playing an extended run at BFI Southbank, from 30 June.
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