Karel Reisz Remembered

Karel Reisz must have been a border-crosser all his life. He was born in 1926, in the Czech mill town of Ostrava, an afternoon’s walk from the Polish border. At the age of 12, he was forced to leave, and in every sense he left for good: he was a child of the Kindertransport. He came to England, where he eventually served in the RAF, before studying natural sciences at Cambridge. He later became a teacher and a writer for film journals, one of which, Sequence, he co-founded with Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert. Along with Anderson and Tony Richardson, Reisz aimed to bring a version of auteurism to British film, and they did as much with the documentary movement Free Cinema. In 1959, Reisz directed We Are the Lambeth Boys, and he made his first feature film a year later, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He went on to direct Night Must Fall, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, Isadora, The Gambler, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Who’ll Stop the Rain?, Sweet Dreams and Everybody Wins.

His work has influenced more than one generation of British film-makers, and what he did for the stage – Beckett, Pinter, Tom Murphy, Terence Rattigan – has changed the game for several more to come. You might say the drama in Karel Reisz’s life existed at quite a deep level, but it also existed in his conversation. At tables, in cars, in foyers, on the phone, Karel Reisz and his wife, Betsy Blair, were always at the centre of talk. The London Review decided to orchestrate a tribute to this most elegant and spirited of men, and immediately there was only one way to make it work – by getting the people who knew him talking.

Andrew O’Hagan

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Michael Wood (film critic): Those working-class lads seemed to be everywhere in British films of the 1960s, grunting and sweating their way through the class system, using sex as a narrow and repressed form of guerrilla warfare. We are often told about the new realism of those films – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – but it was English realism: that is to say, a form of fantasy. What attracted us was not the depiction of places and ways of life many of us knew better than the film-makers but the stark and classy direction and the stylised resentment. The antics and the acting up were more important than the anger, and even the earlier documentaries of the Free Cinema movement emphasised personality and poetry. ‘An attitude meant a style,’ the programme for the first Free Cinema event said in 1956. ‘A style meant an attitude.’ Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was the best of all these movies, because it best combined rebellious energy (on the screen) and casual austerity (behind the camera), and because it showed to the full Karel Reisz’s sympathy for people who, in Robert Musil’s words, go out on an adventure and lose their way. This was a key element in all his films, whether they were set in Nottingham, London or Las Vegas. I think especially of the confused and manic Morgan in the film of that name, and of the driven Alex Freed in The Gambler, a wonderfully cool treatment of an overheated theme. No one matters more to British cinema than Karel Reisz, and no one does it more honour.

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Alan Sillitoe (writer): He helped me so much with the script of my novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He showed me the documentaries he’d made, and at last I felt I was on the main line. He was in Nottingham making a documentary for the Central Office of Information on how miners spent their leisure time and he asked me to do the commentary. So next minute we were down the pit for a day, crawling on our bellies a thousand feet below ground and we saw how the poor buggers lived. It took a lot of tea to get the dust out of our throats.

The filming was good. We were all just first-timers doing our thing. He had such an analytical brain – I don’t want to say un-English, but he was persistent. As well as all that he had such a suave ability to get his own way, such humane and acute powers of observation. At one early point he had to abandon England because of the unions fucking things up and making it intolerable. I was a member of a trade union at 14 and knew already how they cut their own jobs from underneath them. Karel was in the tradition of the great black and white movie-makers. He had a script, he believed in it – and he worked to get everything settled that he could.

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Freddie Francis (cinematographer): We met on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his first big film. I’d been making them for a long time, this film and that film, and Harry Salzman, the film’s producer, knew me well enough. So when Karel took on Saturday Night, Harry thought it would be nice to have someone to hold his hand. I kidded Karel about that for years later. But I suppose he was pretty worried on that film at first. Well, he was worried for the first day. But he made up his mind on reading the script how he wanted it, and was then brilliant at planting that in everybody’s mind. He wouldn’t go into anything unless he had it under his good control. I mean people like me directing films, I would do anything. Working with Karel was special. Just so nice.

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Stephen Frears (film director): In 1965, I was working at the Royal Court in London, which was a bit like being on call to the Borgias, a place full of brilliant and terrifying men. Then Karel came to direct a play by the Italian playwright Franco Brusati. His friend Lindsay Anderson, under whose colours I was hiding, had recommended me to be the assistant director on the play. Soon the play collapsed and I was transferred (I’m not sure I was consulted) to work on the film that Karel had decided to make, called Morgan, written by David Mercer, who was at that time heavily influenced by R.D. Laing.

Filming began in a café on the Uxbridge Road. I’d never been on a film set before. Karel would stand, surrounded by large men, and slowly they would work out quite elaborate shots. He seemed authoritative and knowledgeable, both part of the world and yet of a high seriousness, searching for the important thing under the text. I can still hear his voice: ‘Very, very good. Let’s go once more.’ He would patiently explain this world and this form he had introduced me to. It seemed the most interesting and sophisticated and glamorous place I had ever been in my life.

One weekend, as we filmed in an empty gallery in Mayfair, Groucho Marx walked past the window. Once I opened the cutting-room door and there was Truffaut. Karel took me into his life and into his family and he took on the business of turning me into whatever it is I’ve become. It seemed as if I had acquired no values from my own upbringing, as if I had no previous idea how human beings should treat each other, as if I was completely formless when I met him. I think he’d recently arrived at a happy domesticity and he kept his own penetrating intelligence and experience of the wickedness of the world at the service of stability. So, as there was till the end, there was much sitting around the kitchen table, much talk of films and plays and paintings, of cricket and soccer and politics, much gossip, much delight in goose livers and gherkins, endlessly funny stories about Hollywood, which seems not to have been a place of decadence and power in the 1950s but a long Sunday-afternoon party. He made few films because he could only do what interested him and was impatient with any other way of going about things. He could look at a cut of a film and tell you precisely what was wrong with it, show you where the direction went against what you were trying to say. On my first film, Gumshoe, he showed me how completely I’d ballsed it up, how I’d concealed the very bits of information the audience needed to understand the film, and at his instigation we had the film re-edited.

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Vanessa Redgrave (actor): I first met Karel through my husband Tony Richardson when we went to a party at the Royal Court – wine and cheese, all dressed up, looking quite nice actually – and Karel saw me there. Then I got word he would like to see me for Morgan. I was excited when I got the part, but then it was postponed for a while and anyway I was pregnant just then. I remember being struck that he was so incredibly intelligent. He had this patience and he took endless time to explain things. There was a standing joke on the set that when Karel said ‘excellent’ you knew he was going to do a lot more takes. He kept your spirits up, but it was all a sort of tenacity to get the best out of you. People can be meticulous in different ways, but you felt Karel’s sort was Czech. There was a fantastic humanity to the work, though his films insisted they didn’t have a manifesto. Perfection is not the aim, they said, and I thought that was difficult to understand – I’d grown up with classical ballet where perfection was always the aim. For me now, though, Lindsay Anderson and Karel and Tony begin to seem right in their doubting of perfection. Life is not full of perfection. They were holding a mirror up to nature, in that old Shakespeare way, showing the sordid, the joyful, the grey despair and the farcical.

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David Warner (actor): Karel was one of the people who gave me confidence. Being chosen to play Morgan seemed like an overwhelming vote from someone like him, and I needed it so much at the time. There was something Karel had – and we all say this – that affected people emotionally.

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John Lahr (writer): From a week after my arrival in Britain in 1970 until the day he died, I lived in one or another of Karel Reisz’s houses – below him, above him but always with him. Through all the comings and goings of my peripatetic life, he was there to open the door and to welcome me back inside with a ‘Betsy, look who’s here!’ For many of the waifs and strays like me, who had survived troubled childhoods and who found themselves on the Reiszes’ doorstep (it was always ‘KarelandBetsys’, three words spoken as one), Karel’s aura of amused attentiveness was irresistible.

The father of three sons from his first marriage, Karel was also the unappointed head of an extended family, which he commanded, like his subtle and well-observed films, with an informed heart. He did not impose himself on people or seem to judge them. He shared his penetrating observations, but kept his conclusions mostly to himself. Still, he never shirked when it came to saying the hard thing. One heartbroken husband who sobbed about his wife leaving him heard Karel say: ‘There are those of us who think it’s a good thing.’ This severity was never meant or received as unkindness.

Part of the power of Karel’s presence was the palpable sense of being seen and known. On screen and in life, what distinguished him was the focus and intensity of his eye. This was the secret of his particular success both as a director and as a friend. Out of the corners of our eyes, we all watched him: trying to learn from his sly and stoic civility how to be adults in the world, how to live, how to be a parent; finally, even, how to die.

Perhaps because of the initial violent uprooting, Karel was a homebody. The geography of his daily life was bounded by the garden, the study, and the painted circular kitchen table where he sat to survey his plants, his children’s early drawings and his collection of paintings. From this catbird seat, he would hold forth and, on occasion, his eyes would sparkle as he sang: ‘Hey little hen, when, when, when will you lay me an egg for my tea?’

If Karel’s voice didn’t give away his origins, his taste in food did. He liked sausages, sauerkraut, tongue, pickles, cucumber salad, and goose liver, which became, on festive occasions, an almost holy object that only Karel could slice and distribute to his congregation of gourmets. He would taste it, pause, then in the Mitteleuropean accent reserved for comedy, he would announce: ‘I like.’ Conversely, anything displeasing earned an arched eyebrow, clenched teeth and a high-falutin’ ‘Unappetitlich!’

Karel’s second wife of forty years, the American actress Betsy Blair, sometimes suggested to him that he could perhaps be more vocal in his expressions of love. Karel would answer: ‘Betsy, I’m living it.’ This was the point of Karel. His being was his meaning. Despite his pathfinding work in the New Wave of British cinema, he wanted no memorials, no biographies, and was shy of interviews. In his time, Karel took some hard artistic knocks, but it was part of his particular grace that the pain of disappointment and the joy of victory were reserved more or less for the privacy of his own study. He once complained to me that someone he knew ‘didn’t make his life interesting enough’. Karel certainly did.

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James Toback (writer and director): I include myself among a fairly extensive group of film-makers I’ve known during a three-decade career, none of whom even on his best day should want to be judged next to Karel on the merits of character. The self-absorption, the petty rivalries, the absurd, childish, overweening demands, the ravenous greed which characterise in varying degrees the behaviour of the rest of us never appeared to engage Karel sufficiently to make any claim on him.

My experience with him on The Gambler, my original screenplay which served as the basis for his movie, was, in essence, my entire education in film. Under the subtle guise of preparing and making a movie, Karel functioned as a one-man school. Everything I have learned about construction, organisation and complication of script; relation to actors (‘case by case, no different from dealing with people in the rest of one’s life’); handling of studio executives (‘make yourself clear. Decide what you want and what you need. Articulate it and then stick to it as best you can’); management of crew (‘clarity and intelligent apportionment of time’); visual composition (‘make your intentions clear with fluidity and elegance but without calling undue attention to the shot’); and editing (‘be spare and sharp and, when called for, abrupt’): everything – the seed of whatever I try – comes from Karel.

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Roger Spottiswoode (film editor and director): Some thirty years ago I found myself locked in a London cutting-room with him for several months as we edited The Gambler. One day, he took a phone call from Los Angeles. It was unusually long and when he finally hung up he had a bewildered expression on his face. ‘They want me to remake Woman of the Dunes,’ he said. He went on: ‘I told them there had been a rather exquisite film of that title quite recently. Just a few months ago, in fact. “Yes,” they told me, “but now so-and-so wants to do the part.”’ He mentioned a well known LA actress. Karel went on: ‘So I asked them, What about the existing film, won’t that be a problem? And they said: “Certainly not, so-and-so is going to buy all the prints and burn them. End of problem.”’ There was a moment’s pause, then the smile returned to his face, and he laughed. ‘Amazing, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Nice to be reminded why it’s so much simpler to live here and not there.’

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Meryl Streep (actor): ‘You must tell us everything!’ Karel leaned forward to listen to life with a compassionate mind and a mischievous heart. Intolerant of pomposity, his favourite alter ego was a puffed-up blowhard with the plummy voice he used in stories he told on himself. Many of us have curiosity about the world, its art, people, plays and ideas, but who will now have wit and generosity of spirit equal to Karel’s in dissecting, debunking, forgiving them all?

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John Bloom (film editor): Karel could drive you completely mad. He had a way of looking at the possibilities of a scene like no one I’ve ever met. I mean in the cutting-room. He got every essence out of the material. He could go down blind alleys as well and end up doing the most wonderful things. His habit was to take a scene that had been quite well edited, and take it apart, feeling there was something else there, something more and something better. Between us, on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, we felt there were no guidelines, about where to go into the past and where to come into the present. It was that kind of story, and we dwelled on how to do it. It was Jeremy Irons going off to do Brideshead Revisited that gave us the extra time and we worked out what to get from him when he came back.

Karel had a way of leaning forward and bringing you into his confidence before delivering a funny line, and the articulacy was something else. He was talking about Klaus Kinski one day and he leaned forward and said to me: ‘You know, Klaus Kinski really is a daft actor.’ No one ever used the word ‘daft’ so compellingly.

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Bernard Jacobson (gallery-owner): Karel wasn’t a collector like you hear about. I always felt the whole thing melded into one: his love of ancient art; ceramics, modern and contemporary art; pickled herring and bagels and smoked salmon and cream cheese with pickled cucumber; Japanese scrolls; vintage toys; people, from Hollywood or the Royal Court, from high to low literature, misfits, winners but just as much losers; his garden; books old and right up to the moment; art-world gossip and movie gossip and also just gossip; drawings by the grandchildren – the whole damn thing. When he bought a work of art he really got to know all about it before he committed himself. Often it would take several visits and also he could stare at it for what seemed an eternity. Then the picture would become part of him and his private world. It wasn’t any kind of trophy for the wall.

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Tom Murphy (playwright): He presented himself as a worrier. He laughed at himself with a worried face. The last time I saw him was in the lobby of a theatre, I think, where a play he had directed was about to be performed. He said: ‘Please, when you have seen it, will you tell me what it is all about?’ The politeness, the final upward cadence, the best-spoken Oliver Twist, ever, asking a favour. Then the nervous laughter. For all that, he ruled the rehearsal room (and I’m sure the film set): a no-nonsense director, unless, of course, the nonsense could be put to use.

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Penelope Wilton (actor): He said to me one day not long ago: ‘This is a young man’s job. You have to stand for ten hours, and I’m not sure I’ve got the right shoes on.’

When we did Deep Blue Sea at the Almeida, it was strikingly obvious that Karel wasn’t caught up in the Englishness of it all, but saw the Rattigan play as a play about sexual obsessiveness. He cut through the seeming dryness of the piece, the old-fashionedness, and made it totally available to a new audience. He had that power. You found out about the play with him, though of course he changed his mind all the time. He wasn’t holier than holy about the text, but he was quite deliberate in the way he went about making a world out of what the playwrights had opened up. With a lot of film directors, the technical side takes over and it becomes frighteningly obvious how much film isn’t an actor’s medium. But Karel never left you alone, never left you by youself, and that is the most you could ever say about a director. He was a taskmaster of the most benevolent kind.

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Rosaleen Linehan (actor): We worked on Beckett’s Happy Days and what I hadn’t imagined was the incredible sense of humour Karel had – it made the play into something special. For the first time in my life he made me beautiful, which is what every actress secretly hopes for. We were once dealing with a producer and the producer was driving him mad and I said but his wife’s lovely, and Karel looked at me with a smile and said: ‘Maybe I should do business with his wife.’

For me, in Happy Days, the big direction was always about keeping calm. We were in the Barbican and there was a discussion after the play: one of those talks where we all sit on the stage and people get clever. Before going on to sit down I suddenly realised that when I’d been doing the play that night I’d missed the dirty postcard lines – about eight or nine lines, good lines – and I asked the actor Barry McGovern if I should confess to Karel or not. All the Beckett fans were there, very deep, very solemn, and this boy from the audience looked up and said: ‘I was very interested, Mr Reisz, in why you cut the postcard scene.’ Karel just threw me one of his Jack Benny looks: ‘Really?’ he said.

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John Guare (playwright): When I first met Karel, 37 years ago, I knew that he was the first adult I’d met who made the fact of being an adult more interesting. He showed me it could be so much more hilarious than the post-adolescent daze I had been stumbling around in. You always faced the truth with Karel: not in some horrifying way, but when he said ‘how are you?’ you knew the answer had to mean something.

Sometimes, the interest Karel showed in you was more than you had in yourself. Once in the early 1970s I came to visit and when I went to make a phone call and saw my name was one of the ones in the phone’s memory, I was amazed to think of myself as part of their world. Once he was in New York and we were working on a play and he got appendicitis and was rushed to hospital. He said: ‘Don’t tell anyone.’ He didn’t want to worry anyone. ‘Humility’ is a weak word for a strong man. He had been through things most people wouldn’t understand.

The world was always coming to see Karel. I remember the doorbell rang and I opened it and standing there was Alain Resnais. He was carrying a very high, very narrow suitcase, and he wheeled it into the kitchen and we all sat down and had coffee. Eventually, I had to ask him what was in the suitcase, and he opened it and there it was: tin after tin of baked beans to take back to Paris. When he was a child baked beans became a key taste in his life. Karel understood him immediately.

Karel was asked once to do one of the Star Wars pictures, which technically he could’ve done with his left hand. But he didn’t want to go there. The idea of doing something emotionally inert just for the technical exercise wasn’t for Karel. Whether it was Alex Freed in The Gambler or Meryl Streep’s character in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Karel wouldn’t allow those characters to let him down. I always think his view of things was essentially about freedom: the Albert Finney character at the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or the gambler being paralysed by his obsession. How do you find your freedom in the middle of paralysis? The day Karel’s life changed, from one universe to the other, when he was 12 years old, was all about that: how do you survive when all the rules change suddenly?